When Katerina Atanassova first came to Canada from Sofia, Bulgaria in 1990, some Toronto locals took her to the Eaton Centre. “I didn’t spend a lot of time in the shops, but I was drawn to the collection of paintings in The Bay,” Atanassova says. “I still remember the painting by [F.H.] Varley, The Immigrants, with a woman and her children coming off a ship into a new country. What was she thinking, what did she have to do to make a new home?”
This was the beginning of an unlikely love affair between Atanassova (MA 1994), an expert in medieval icon-painting, and Canadian art – one that has led her, after a few zigs and zags, to become the chief curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario. Her initial attraction only deepened during her U of T studies. “As a graduate student, I worked with U of T’s Malcove Collection which included early medieval and Byzantine art. That was what I knew, but I found myself drawn also to the University College Art Collection, with its alumni donations from the Group of Seven and their contemporaries.”
And so, in 1999 she applied to direct the education programs at the Varley Art Gallery in Unionville, Ontario, going at it with her customary passion – she dances flamenco, she commits. Where there had been five art classes, suddenly there were 25 – “oil, acrylic, medieval bookbinding, manuscript illumination, ceramics, you name it.” Soon enough, she began curating, jazzing up a show on the early itinerant portrait artist William Berczy with mannequins in period garb, and quotes from the artist in big vinyl letters on the wall. “The voice of the artist is key,” she says.
And an exhibition she curated helped show, convincingly, that her beloved Varley was less a landscape artist, and more a portraitist: “He wrote to his sisters, ‘I am so moved by nature, but I am eager to portray the human figure.’ We followed that further. I’d love to show him some day with Augustus John and William Orpen, who also painted portraits.”
Raising Canada’s profile internationally has been a top priority for Atanassova at the McMichael, and a 2012 exhibit she co-curated with various European museum heads, Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven,was a hit: 100,000 came to London’s Dulwich Gallery, more than 50,000 to the Netherlands show. “While hanging it, I had this shiver, of anxiety, of responsibility: imagine coming to France and being asked to hang the van Goghs, the Monets.”
This fall and winter, she’s featured two working artists who challenge and complement the McMichael’s landscape heavy collection. Edward Burtynsky’s photographs show some of the liberties we have taken with the land, and canvases by Kim Dorland, painted in response to Tom Thomson, are hung among some of the McMichael’s Thomson holdings. “We recreated their studios. I like to try to make them vivid, these artists who gave us, who give us a vision. Where they work, what tools they use, who they are.”
Watch Katerina Atanassova explain Tom Thomson’s impact on the art world: