The Annunciation: Eatons Christmas Window, Toronto

Alkyd on Canvas,
214 cm 153 cm (7' x 5')

Price: Inquire

At around the time it declared bankruptcy in 1999, Toronto’s historic Eatons department store mounted a Christmas window display that captured Ken Tolmie’s artistic eye. At this time, Tolmie’s Window Series was focusing increasingly closely on mannequins as a logical consequence of the series’s exploration of urban life through its commodities on display. Mannequins are the ultimate commodity, constituted and defined purely by their material attributes. Moreover, they are human figures intended specifically to be objects of the viewer’s gaze and to engage the viewer’s desire, without the psychological stress and interpersonal politics entailed by gazing at actual people. The Eatons window display furnished the artist with especially rich material for his statement about mannequins. Purely through gesture, clothing, and juxtaposed objects, these mannequins are clearly identifiable to the viewer as women of a particular social class: the seemingly human qualities of gender, class, and social situations can be expressed purely through material arbitrary attributes. Juxtaposed with this human information is the eerily alien, metallic texture of the mannequins’ features and limbs, creating a surreal effect.

The expansive oil-on-canvas Annunciation is the flagship work of the Eatons window group. Others paintings in this group are Store-Window Madonna, The Conversation, and the watercolour study The Singing Angel. A fifth painting is still in progress. The Annunciation allows the artist to draw on a range of techniques to achieve a complex overall effect: the realistic figurative work on the mannequins in the foreground combines with the more painterly, etherial quality of the reflected figures in the background. The geometric shapes and reflective surfaces reveal the artist’s interest in modernist techniques, especially Cubism. The painting’s title highlights another statement that the artist is making: visual displays such as department-store windows draw on a conventional language taken from centuries of art history, a language that is often religious in origin. The Annunciation has served as a subject for countless artists since the Middle Ages, and the influence of this atristic tradition still makes itself felt in modern urban life through such media as this window.

Taken as a shop window, the Eatons display was a failure: it was too bizarre, its juxtapositions were too surreal. It was an intellectually bold but commercially unsuccessful statement made by a bankrupt company to a clientele that no longer shopped at Eatons. However, what fails as commerce succeeds as art because the artist makes explicit what the retailer wants to leave in the subconscious: human identity is constituted by commodities and desire. The retailer presents us with what it hopes is a desirable identity to sell us the commodities connected to that identity. The Annunciation leaves the viewer with a question: when we use the same vocabulary of gesture, commodity, possibly artistic tropes to construct our public identities, what are we selling?

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