MONTREAL cartoonist Robert La Palme looks at life through a glitteringly observant pair of eyes which are just less than five feet from the ground, a vantage point which inclines him to a satiric and ludicrous view of most things which are big and powerful, like politicians, wars and government agencies. Yet he enjoys life from where he sees it.
“I am exactly five feet and I like it,” he declares quite happily. “I would like to be a big man, yes—say six-foot. But I am glad I am not a little-big man—say five-foot two!”
Mr. La Palme, who is 38, draws a political cartoon a day for the Montreal French-language newspaper Le Canada. Actually, he finds he can draw enough in one day to keep Le Canada’s readers happy for a week The rest of the week he likes to discard his pen for a brush and a palette of violently brilliant tempera colors, and paint such varied technicolor satires as his “Wartime Information” (previous page), and the three paintings (reproduced in black and white) on this page. These are part of a series of mural-panels originally cqmmissioned by the O. C. of the Army’s Valcartier training centre to decorate a drill hall.
“My aim was to entertain the boys with something gay,” says La Palme, “but I set out to tell them a little of history as well. I chose the story of war since the beginning of time.” And so he busied himself demonstrating, with a mixture of historical fact and La Palme fancy, that Genghis Khan’s Mongolian warriors were learned in the ways of “mechanized” warfare, Hannibal’s elephants were in fact the first tanks, and Leonardo da Vinci’s blueprints for many then unheardof “secret weapons” were a 15th century counterpart of our National Research Council’s labors on such devices as radar and the atomic bomb.
The job was no more than nicely started, however, than the Valcartier O.C. was posted overseas, and the new commander would have nothing to do with such poppycock. “He was an ex-insurance broker,” explains La P^lme, with an extra flash of the glittering eyes. But the La Palme enthusiasm was fully unleashed by this time, so he went ahead and finished his sketches without a sponsor.
' Some of the pictures satirized war’s historical aspects (elephantine tanks, etc ), while others depicted modem warfare in styles parodied on those of various modem artists—such as the surrealist portrayal of war reporting and propaganda services after the manner of Salvador Dali, in “Wartime Information.” Here he had the dual purpose of familiarizing his intended Army audience with modem painting while amusing them. “Amusing the soldiers,” he makes it clear, “was the prime purpose.”
FIRST showing of the panel series in New York’s Bonestell Gallery brought enthusiastic reviews from The Times and other papers; 10,000 Montrealers flocked to see it at a subsequent exhibition there, and a visiting Buenos Aires publisher commissioned La Palme to illustrate a limited edition of Rabelais-a lavish color assignment right down the La Palme alley. Staid Torontonians were equally intrigued when the show was repeated recently for their benefit at Eaton’s-College Street, although the gallery director explained to the artist that not all the works could be shown. “I like them, you understand,” he said, “but many Toronto people might be shocked.”
“I ask you, why is that?” demands a puzzled La Palme. “Always you English Canadians will say, ‘1 like it, but other people will be shocked !’ Why are you so afraid of these ‘other’ people? In Montreal it was the same—many, many English people came to see my work and enjoyed it. But would they buy one of my pictures to hang in their homes? No—they would like to, but their friends might be shocked!”
Bom in Montreal, Robert La Palme lived in the Peace River country from the time he was 10 until he was 17, going to school, riding horses, helping his father with hia butcher shop and drawing caricatures. On the family’s return to Montreal the caricaturing won out over all other activities. Soon he had given a show, had his work published with a rave review by a Paris newspaper, was married, and spent two years in New York. For five years he was an art instructor in Quebec City, where he Continued, on page 26
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began the history of warfare series, before returning to Montreal in 1943.
La Palme considers himself very lucky to have had those seven youthful years out West, and thinks the war did great things for Canada by sending its young people traipsing all over the nine provinces and abroad, thus giving them a greater understanding of each other.
“For instance, there are so many things the English Canadians don’t understand about us,” he grins. “You think Camilien Houde is a reactionary, and you think we must all he the same because we keep on electing him. But it is not that—we love him, just for the way he bustles down the street in his pearl-grey hat, his long black coat and his striped trousers. He puts on always such a show! A good, dull man runs for mayor, and we vote for Houde.”
Color is one of the two essential elements La Palme looks for and finds in life, and he puts great gobs of it in his paintings. The other is humor, for, working with pen and ink or brush and paint, his medium is satire. And whether other people look at life from lesser or greater heights than his even five feet he feels that these are the things almost everyone is seeking for in this postwar age.
“I think today people want more than anything to be amused, to enjoy life. Before the war,” he recalls, “modern American painters like Grant Wood painted the sad faces and
sombre scenes that came out of the depression. They said what they had to say well, but I think they have said it and it is done. Now people are glad the war is over and a little afraid of what the atomic bomb may bring; they don’t understand it and they feel a certain, lonely fatalism in the face of the future. They like being nice to people so others will be nice to them, and they want to be happy. So I think that painting today should offer them the color and enjoyment which they need.”
In appearance this color seeker *s himself a drab, grey little man as he sits chatting with you in Montreal’s Café Martin, a warmhearted subsidewalk haven to which he likes to retire after an industrious day in his studio. Reaching across the table to shake hands, he says good-by ruefully.
“Do not think me impolite,” he says. “I am standing up now but, you see, I am no taller than ^hen I am sitting!
“There are only two reasons I should like to be taller—so I could wear a suit with a nice loud check; and so sometimes I could kick some fellow in the face!”
HLs wife, he confesses, is taller than he, and his two sons are already sprouting ambitiously. On one occasion Mrs. La Palme suggested he buy a pair of shoes with special lifts, designed to give a short man added height, but the artist demurred.
“If I were someone who must be dignified, like a banker or an editor, to be so small would be tragic,” he admits. “But, I tell my wife, I am a cartoonist —and everyone expects a cartoonist to be a funny little fellow!”
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