Photo by GRANT KERNAN
Perhaps it was appropriate that voices: Joni Mitchell, the first retrospective of thirty-five years of the artist's work, should open at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. It was at the home of Frederick S. Mendel, who founded the gallery in 1964, that Mitchell first saw paintings of such artists as Picasso and Matisse.
Mendel, born in Germany, lived in various European cities and in New York, then moved to Saskatoon's first university city in 1940 and began what became a successful meat processing business. He amassed a large collection of paintings including works by Canada's Group of Seven and Emily Carr, and by American and European giants.
"I felt most touched by van Gogh", Mitchell revealed to New York Times interviewer James Brooke, "Van Gogh was impulsive. For him, art was like sex on the kitchen table."
There was another (unrelated) artistic Mitchell at the formal opening: actress Camille, Mendel's granddaughter (daughter of Joanna Mendel and Cameron Mitchell, the actor best remembered as 'Happy' in the original stage and film production of Death of a Salesman). It was Camille's oldest brother, Robert, who had taken Joni to his grandfather's house to see the collection of paintings.
Camille Mitchell served as mistress of ceremonies at the opening and, with her family, provided support for the exhibition. (Investors Group as the primary sponsor; the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan and SaskTel were other supporters.)
The Mendel presented more than 85 works, matching them with illuminated enlargements of the artist's lyrics and poems, and the gallery was flooded with the sound of Mitchell's voice, in song.
All worked together, as Mitchell calls her songs "audio paintings". In one of the most famous, 'A Case of You', she wrote "I am a lonely painter, living in a box of paints". Gilles Herbert, director of the Mendel and curator of voices: Joni Mitchell, told Brooke "She will talk about colour chiming or tension built up because of discord……She talks about harmony, she talks about resonance. These are the terms she uses to describe her art."
Some of Mitchell's paintings have a direct reference to music and musicians: Mingus Down in Mexico, Round About Midnight, Black Orpheus. Others - Homage to Matisse, Georgia O'Keefe's Rainbarrel - salute painters. And then there are pictures that carry the titles of Mitchell's songs and albums: Both Sides 1 and 2, Taming the Tiger.
Curator Herbert said Mitchell's songs had a "considerable influence on me in my late teens and when in university". And, her music's impact proved so pervasive, "it has always been with me".
But Herbert truly became a fan after meeting her, finding her "incredibly witty, really bright, a pleasure to be around". He won't soon forget being with her as she edited Both Sides Now while "bombing down Sunset Boulevard".
There have been invitations from galleries in Canada, the US and Europe, but Mitchell's primary interest was having the show in Saskatoon in a gallery only a mile from her parents' home.