Patti Smith performs onstage at The Wiltern on Oct. 12, 2012, in Los Angeles. —Photo by The Associated Press
Pope Benedict XV’s slippers, a stone from the river where English writer Virginia Woolf drowned herself, and a photograph of French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s fork and spoon aren’t possessions many would link to a punk rock pioneer.
But as the “Patti Smith: Camera Solo” exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) explains, they represent some of the individuals from whom the legendary singer/songwriter/poet/artist drew inspiration.
Opening Saturday, the show highlights Smith’s interest in poetry and literature.
Featured are more than 75 works of photography, objects and film from the personal collection of the musician who had a profound influence on the New York City punk scene of the late 1970s and ’80s.
It also displays her drawings and handwritten notes, and offers a cellphone tour narrated by Smith.
“It’s sort of walking into Patti’s world,” Sophie Hackett, AGO assistant curator of photography, said Wednesday at a media preview.
“So we’re seeing through her eyes, we’re getting a sense of who she sees, what she looks at, what’s important to her and how those things have been really consistent over her whole career.”
The exhibition was organized by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., and is in Toronto after a stop in Detroit, Mich.
It’s billed as “a rare opportunity to experience a different side of this rock icon” and marks the first showing of her visual art in Canada.
Included are black-and-white photographs Smith first shot on her vintage Polaroid Land 250 camera (which is also in the exhibit) and then issued as gelatin silver prints. She kept the scale of the prints the same as that of a Polaroid image — about 10 by eight centimetres — to preserve their intimacy.
While there are a few images of Smith, most of the photos depict her friends, family, artists and objects she reveres and has encountered on her many travels. Among them are her children, her father’s tea cup, Rudolf Nureyev’s slippers, Woolf’s bed and cane, Victor Hugo’s bed, and Frida Kahlo’s crutches, dress and bed.
There are also several images of Smith and her American photographer friend Robert Mapplethorpe, one of her biggest influences.
Another of Smith’s greatest muses was Rimbaud and she pays homage to him through a whole section of objects, drawings and photographs.
Smith even recreated the litter Rimbaud was transported on when he injured a knee on mountain in Africa and included it in the show as a symbol of his last voyage before he died.
“He’s someone who’s been a hero for her for her whole life, since she was a teenager,” said Hackett.
“The very first trip she took to France as a young woman, she went directly to the town where he grew up and the museum there.”
Hackett said Smith got Pope Benedict XV’s slippers in a sale at a monastery. She wanted them because he was often referred to as “the pope of peace” going into the First World War.
“So that pacifist message is something that very much speaks to her,” said Hackett.
“But mostly (why) she wanted them was he canonized Joan of Arc and as a young woman she was very captivated by Joan’s story, by her own visions, by her own sort of sense of mission in her life, and I think there was something very inspiring there.”
To further create a sense of intimacy in the stark white gallery — and bring to life the photographs’ sense of domestic interiors and artistic workspaces — the show also has a few pieces of furniture from the AGO’s original 19th century home, the Grange.
The exhibition also has benches for viewers to sit on while they watch a video projection in which Smith narrates about the life of French poet Rene Daumal.
Smith will give two live performances in Toronto on March 7.