The Donovan Collection at St. Michael's College (Odette Hall, 50 St. Joseph, U of T) on permanent display during school hours, 9 am-5:30 pm Monday to Friday. To arrange a group tour, contact Father Daniel Donovan at 416-926-7253. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
An angel peers down from atop a rock. The Virgin Mary looks out from behind broken glass. A monk plants a dead tree. Father Dan Donovan always begins tours of his magnificent collection with the same three works. John McEwen 's angel is a grand bronze and steel work, elegant yet retaining its roughness. The mass both fully occupies its large alcove in Odette Hall and yet remains light and airy. Luis Mallo 's photograph is abstract at first glance, but upon closer inspection the image of the Virgin Mary in stained glass appears from behind fencing and a broken piece of protective glass.
"I tell people that this work is the key to how one should approach the whole collection," says Donovan. "You have to really look to see."
But for me, the key to the collection is the next piece, by Reinhard Reitzenstein . It's a digitally manipulated still from the Andrei Tarkovsky movie The Sacrifice, a hazy, remote image of a monk burying the roots of a dead tree.
In the film, the monk waters the tree every day, and after three years it comes back to life. Reitzenstein's work is a deeply moving meditation on faith, hope and struggle. It reveals what's at the heart of every piece in the collection: the human spirit.
Father Donovan began collecting contemporary art in earnest in 1980. As a priest and professor (now emeritus) at St. Michael's College, he put the money he made toward purchasing art. He still spends his Saturday afternoons touring art galleries. All the work he buys is donated to the school, and since 1996 it's been housed in the renovated Odette Hall, the oldest building at the university.
Much of the work is outwardly religious. John Hartman 's thick smears of paint come together to reveal the Redeemer and child. Sorel Cohen 's appropriated image of Christ is entombed beneath the weight of the Brooklyn Bridge. The first two pieces Father Donovan collected were dramatic woodcuts by a German Jew named Jakob Steinhardt , the starker of which depicts Job staring up at the parting clouds to see the light even as all around him lies in wreckage.
It's a pan-theological collection - there are Christian pieces, Celtic-inspired works, art that draws on Eastern religion. Among the Jewish works are a couple of unforgettable photo-based images about the Holocaust.
"A rabbi once told me that I had the best collection of Jewish art he'd ever seen," says Donovan, wearing his seemingly ever-present quiet smile.
But to label this a religious collection wouldn't be accurate. Pieces like John Brown 's attempt to draw the inside of his own body aren't religious per se. They're spiritual. They search for meaning. Reveal emotion. They're works that require contemplation. The more than 100 pieces housed in Odette Hall are serious artworks. They are not light or frivolous.
Donovan has hung them as a conversation. Each work plays off the next and harkens back to the one before, asking further questions or throwing previous answers into doubt.
The collection, diligently gathered by a very passionate priest, is truly unique and one of the most thoughtful and inspiring I have ever seen.