Leonard Cohen at the AGO: A First View

I was just at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s exhibit Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows. It’s not quite a retrospective, a standard gallery exhibition format for visual artists. It is rather a primarily visual biography with a great deal of written memorabilia.

To begin with visual impressions. The AGO’s visiting exhibit gallery is a large space. Cohen’s memorabilia and sketches are necessarily small and pull the visitor up to the walls. There are multicolour ceiling-mounted spotlights shining on the floor between the walls, reminding us that for much of his life, particularly his later years, Cohen was an on-stage performer. The morning crowd a few days before Christmas was not huge, but I was impressed by the presence of so many young people. Cohen’s life-long artistic output appeals to generations from boomers to millennials.

If I am not for Myself, who will be for me?

I was struck by how self-centred, even self-obsessed Cohen was. He realized at an early age that he had a golden voice – eloquence and a gift for rhetoric. Convinced he would be famous, he saved everything. His fellow Montrealer Pierre Trudeau, also believing he was a man of destiny, did likewise. Cohen’s life work became his archive. The archive would preserve his memory, but also become a source of income during his lifetime. Cohen made self-portraits daily, in one medium or another. And Cohen admitted that having children demanded a level of self-sacrifice he found difficult, and that he wasn’t a great parent.

If I am for Myself Alone, What am I?

But I didn’t conclude that Cohen was an egotistical jerk. The exhibit reports that at the Isle of Wight festival in August 1970, Cohen faced a hostile crowd of 600,000 who were lighting fires and throwing bottles. When he went onstage at 4 a.m., he asked everyone to light a match and then began talking calmly to them. Any instructor who has tried to hold the attention of a class of 60 would recognize Cohen’s charismatic presence.

The exhibit also reports that at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war, Cohen rushed to Israel, and he gave concerts for the Israeli troops at the front lines. At a time when Israel was at its greatest peril, this was a real mitzvah.

The exhibit is roughly chronological but doesn’t pay attention to artistic development over time in the way that a retrospective for a visual artist would. In Cohen’s case, the most important artistic transition was when, in the mid-sixties, he went from being a writer who was world-famous in Canada to a world-famous singer-songwriter. The exhibit would have benefited from more exploration of this key moment.

If not now, When?

In addition to the static material, there are moving-image retrospectives by Kara Blake and George Fok borrowed from the Musee d’Art Contemporain de Montreal that include interviews, speeches, and – most importantly – performances. I watched a few minutes and found them fascinating. Before the exhibit closes in early April, I will make sure to watch them in their entirety.

The last screen in the exhibit is of Cohen concluding a 2009 concert in Tel Aviv with the three-fold priestly benediction, very appropriate coming from a cohen. And as Cohen included the three-fold blessing in his concert, so I include Hillel’s three-part maxim in my post.

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