What Quebec's "primitives" don't know about art is making them rich

Dorothy Eber April 3 1965

What Quebec's "primitives" don't know about art is making them rich

Dorothy Eber April 3 1965

What Quebec's "primitives" don't know about art is making them rich

Dorothy Eber

SEVENTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD Héliodore Bissonnette, of Quebec City, has just created a minor sensation. Ten years ago, after retiring as a salesman of house paints, he bought gouaches and watercolors and began to paint and do collages — lately just from memory as he doesn’t get about much. During the past winter his pictures, chiefly in the ten-dollar to twenty-doliar price range, were exhibited in Montreal. Not even the most established and sophisticated abstractionist could have asked for more: art critics, television and enthusiastic purchasers all acclaimed him as Quebec’s newest primitive.

The exhibit was arranged by Paul Gouin, president of the JacquesViger Commission for the preservation of Old Montreal, and of the Historic Monuments Commission for Quebec. Gouin has been interested in the work of the province’s contemporary primitives for some years and defines this sort of artist as a painter who paints his life, his environment and its legends with naïve viewpoint and disregard of all established “rules.” At the moment Gouin knows of seven such painters. They are: Bissonnette, the three Bouchard sisters — Mary, Marie-Cécile and Edith — Robert Cauchon, Arthur Villeneuve and Georges Edouard Tremblay. He believes there are

probably more, for one of the exciting things about primitives is that they flourish best in remote corners, far from artistic crowds.

Bissonnette paints farms the way Grandma Moses painted them: green grass, blue sky, red barns and nice clean animals. He also paints in appealing disproportion the Quebec he knew and loved — the small villages full of cheerful bad taste, the lakes with their mountains rising sharply from the water, and their noisy summer hotels, smelt fishing on the pier and horse racing on the river, an event as momentous for Québécois in Bissonnette’s youth as a trip to Blue Bonnets today.

Even with crazy perspective he can catch the elegance of Quebec’s fine old buildings — as in his painting of Maison Montmorency, formerly known as Kent House, where Queen Victoria’s father lived with Julie, his mistress. And since he doesn’t leave the house much these days, he paints quite a bit from imagination. His picture of Boom Boom Geoffrion’s motel, which he / continued overleaf

continued / has never seen, is a fine tribute to his favorite hockey player. The motel is big, vivid, with rows of cars in front and a fine mountain behind — just the kind of motel Boom Boom deserves.

Bissonnette’s Montreal show (his only previous exhibit was arranged in Quebec City last summer by Mme L. A. Richard, Gouin's sister-in-law) was hung at Le Pigeonnier, a boutique for early-Quebec furniture run by Lorecn Martin. Miss Martin pinned up a hundred and four paintings; she sold more than eighty of them.

The paintings of the Bouchard sisters originally cost as little as Bissonnette’s; today it's a different story. These talented sisters were born and lived in Baie St-Paul in Charlevoix County, an area known for two centuries for its folk art. Mary, the eldest of the trio, died at thirty-two from tuberculosis in 1945, and her sisters, Marie-Cécile and Edith, have disappeared into a convent.

The sisters painted their world: their village, their countryside and their home, an eighteenth-century mill called Moulin St-Césaire. They show us with wonderful detail its sunny kitchen, tables covered with farm produce, and hooked rugs and holy pictures. All the sisters painted the same subjects, but at her best Mary (who always signed her pictures “S. Mary”) painted with a lyrical quality that puts her work in a class by itself. Some of her most beautiful paintings show horses at pasture. “She’s Quebec’s greatest primitive,” says admirer and artist Alfred Pellan.

Today the Bouchard sisters’ interiors are in demand by institutions

such as McGill’s McCord Museum as records of a way of life and Mary, with stallions in the National Gallery, has made it on merit as an artist of distinction. Dr. Max Stern, owner of the Dominion Galleries in Montreal, and once the Bouchard’s agent (“Grandma Moses’ agent wanted them but of course I refused him”) no longer sells his Bouchards except occasionally to art galleries and museums. “Mary's paintings today cost more than a thousand dollars,” he says.

It was a Bostonian, Patrick Morgan, summering at Murray Bay on the St. Lawrence, who originally discovered the sisters. The summer colony caught his enthusiasm and bought their happy, bright paintings for the walls of country houses. Mrs. A. F. Culver, of Montreal, who has many of their pictures remembers them vividly: “They lived in their beautiful mill and the boys did wood carving and all the girls painted. They made you think of the Brontes: they had waxlike skin and smooth black hair that turned into numerous corkscrew curls — it must have taken them hours.”

M. and Mme Luc Choquette, friends of the late artist, Paul-Emile Borduas, recall that the sisters were unusually obliging painters. Mme Choquette once called at the mill and found Marie-Cécile at work depicting a tabic already laden with bread, fruit and good things from the farm. “That’s a beautiful painting — we'd love to have it,” said Mme Choquette. “Well, then, what else would you like on the table?” asked Marie-Cécile.

Robert Cauchon, of Clermont, also in Charlevoix County, is a

primitive of a different temperament. He lives in a spectacular clutter, his walls are plastered with pictures of Paganini and he plays the violin to his cats. His pictures show square dances, cupids on the beach, country scenes and horses. He often embellishes them with musical notes and hard-to-read comments.

Chicoutimi residents are suspicious of their primitive: fifty-fivevear-old barber-painter Arthur Villeneuve, who picked up the brushes just eight years ago. “He’s been a barber all his life and now he says he’s a painter,” they remark. Nevertheless, the National Film Board, impressed with his talent, has made a film about Villeneuve.

A barber at the Chicoutimi hospital, he started by painting every inch of his house, windows included, with Chicoutimi scenes. “The Saguenay runs through my front room, through my kitchen and up the stairs,” says Mme Villeneuve, who isn't sure she likes it. Her husband has since progressed to canvases given to him by the local paper company, but he continues to use ordinary housepaint.

Villeneuve shows a more vigorous Quebec than the other primitives. He depicts a raw but vital Chicoutimi, and peoples the tough landscape with rather ugly little men. Like the other primitives, he acts as a historian, putting down with paint the district’s life: he shows the laden blueberry wagon passing the berry pickers, the visit of the curé, stone cutters at work under rickety shelters. In some of his paintings he illustrates the area’s little-known myths and legends, and he has painted a historical series depicting the battles for Quebec

— his warriors go for each other with machine guns while the navy, under sail, waits in the background.

“1 like to work as a barber and 1 like to work as a painter,” Villeneuve told Marcel Carrière, who made the National Film Board documentary on Villeneuve’s work, “when 1 work as a painter the day is shorter.”

Georges Edouard Tremblay, who also comes from Charlevoix County, is one of the province’s most successful makers of hooked rugs and runs a school to teach this craft. Gouin considers him a primitive painter on the basis of a group of pictures he made depicting his life from his birth to his marriage. “These paintings are very funny and delightful,” says Paul Gouin. “As far as 1 know, they arc all in the possession of the artist and very few people have seen them.”

Her work now hanging in the National Gallery, Mary Bouchard is recognized as a greatly talented artist — some say one of our finest. However, she is an exception to the rule. Art gallery directors tend to be suspicious of the primitive. “Only an occasional one survives,” says David Carter, director of the Montreal museum of Fine Arts. But when we look at the colorful lively world the primitives show us, who cares? To describe their talents Patrick Morgan, the Bostonian who discovered the Bouchards, once quoted Sir Francis Bacon: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” ★