A New Exhibit Explores the Leonard Cohen We Thought We Knew – But Didn’t

Leonard Cohen. Self Portrait, 1960s. black and white instant print [Polaroid Type 107], Overall: 10.8 × 8.3 cm. Photo: © Leonard Cohen Family Trust.

The archive of Canadian troubadour Leonard Cohen (who died in 2016 at the age of 82) contains drafts of his legendary lyrics, reams of fan mail and early work gathered in the recently published posthumous collection, A Ballet of Lepers. Canny selections from the nearly 100 boxes are also on view in Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows, the first-ever exhibition of material from the Leonard Cohen Family Trust, on at the Art Gallery of Ontario until April 10.

Cohen’s early instinct to document his life and carefully preserve his output proved prescient, and it’s a treat to see material dating back to the 1940s. Excerpts from home movies (mostly filmed by his father, Nathan), for example, convey Cohen’s carefree early childhood in the affluent Montreal neighbourhood of Westmount, and letters home from Camp Wabikon on Lake Temagami, Ont., enthuse about the simple pleasure of catching a fish. That’s in contrast to previously unseen footage (digitized from 16mm film) of Cohen’s 1972 world tour, and both offer glimpses that underscore his public and private personas. 

An adjacent gallery plays an immersive work by artist George Fok, a large-scale multimedia installation on loan from the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. The incredible piece is best described as a multi-channel video collage, and compiles five decades of performances that culminated in Cohen reaching global icon status in his 70s, through a critically acclaimed world tour that began in 2008 and spanned nearly five years.

Photo booth and Polaroid self-portraits, snapshots of (and letters to) lover and muse Marianne Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra, where Cohen lived among the expat writers throughout the 1960s, sit alongside correspondence (from k.d. lang and Joan Baez, for example), a pair of 1970 telegrams from Joni Mitchell, as well as doodles and drawings. His Gibson guitar has a place of reverence, as does his signature black felt trilby he was known to chivalrously doff on stage (a replica of which is for sale in the gift shop).

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen, Self-Portrait [Photobooth], c. 1975. Gelatin silver print. Overall: 20.5 x 5 cm. Photo: © Leonard Cohen Family Trust.


The exhibition’s eponymous song features in an early notebook draft written in his distinctive cursive, but the ephemera are just as revelatory. His quest for perfection sometimes meant revising a single poem over years, but Cohen wasn’t precious about capturing inspiration – lyrics, inscriptions or elliptical musings – on whatever was at hand, like scraps of cardboard or the back of a menu from Max’s Kansas City nightclub. 

His favourite poet, Federico García Lorca, is represented with Cohen’s copy of the collected works; juxtaposing it with Cohen’s well-thumbed Capricorn Rhyming Dictionary channels something of the artist’s self-deprecating wit: playfully puncturing the mystique of writing poetry with an acknowledgment of the mechanics involved. 

As guests move through the galleries, Cohen’s iconic silhouette, in trademark dapper suit or famous blue raincoat, greets them on walls. But his presence is felt throughout by the glimpses of his artistic process and personality, like a whispering shadow.  

A version this article appeared in the Feb/Mar 2023 issue with the headline ‘I’m Your Fan’, p. 16.


Sharon Robinson Shares Memories of Leonard Cohen Ahead of New AGO Exhibit, ‘Everybody Knows’