Even the most routine event can sometimes turn into a significant occasion. As though motivated by some intuition of this tendency, a crowd gathered outside Toronto’s leading art book emporium one Sunday afternoon in October with cameras drawn, anxious for a glimpse of Quebec’s painter extraordinaire, Jean Paul Lemieux. For most it was the first—and perhaps only—chance to offer thanks to the man who has given the Canadian landscape as distinctive a face as his onetime contemporaries, the Group of Seven. Shy of publicity, self-deprecating and resolutely his own man, Lemieux rarely ventures from la belle province. He hadn’t set foot in Toronto since 1940 when he finally undertook the pilgrimage to
meet one of his idols, A.Y. Jackson. Now, almost 40 years later, he was in town to lend dignified support to Montreal art historian Guy Robert whose book, Lemieux, had just been released in an English translation.
Click went the assembled shutters by way of applause as Lemieux finally came into view, a trim, white-haired man with terrier eyebrows bristling over the thick black rims of his glasses. His quiet suit and tie are the outward signs of his refusal to fall for the trappings of bohemianism. Only the Order of Canada pin twinkling on his lapel pointed to great accomplishments.
Lemieux’s career has been a sleeper;
critics have compared its gradual development outside the mainstream to Quebec’s quiet revolution. Until 1956, when he turned 52, he was known chiefly as a teacher, writer, and painter of anecdotal and satirical pastiches of Quebec country life. While Alfred Pelian and Paul-Emile Borduas were tilting against the conservative art academies in Montreal during the ’40s under the banner of abstract expressionism, Lemieux marched to the sound of a different drummer. He supported Pellan but manifestos weren’t his style. “I don’t think politics and art go together at all,” he still states, emphatically.
But Lemieux’s insularity hasn’t prevented his career from typifying the progress of Canadian art between the wars. It was a time for opening windows so that something fresh could grow. “In the ’20s,” Lemieux recalls, “painting was not for boys but only for girls, along with embroidery, ballet, piano. Painting was suspicious looking. Then the art schools were founded. They changed the mentality.” The struggle was especially difficult in Quebec, where the church was so strong. “It took a long time,” he says. “The art school was considered cursed, even though it was nothing—so boring. We could only paint oranges since no nudes were allowed. Then the director had a good idea. He invited the cardinal to visit. The cardinal blessed the art school and that was the end of that.”
After attending Montreal’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Lemieux travelled to Europe where he fell under the spell of the Impressionists and Postimpressionists. Other influences followed—the American Ashcan School of the ’30s, Edwin Holgate, with whom he studied, the Group of Seven. But it wasn’t until the ’50s that Lemieux came into his own, when he began to simplify his work. He took as subjects those anxiety-provoking states that stab at the heart of modernity: isolation, confinement, solitude, the inability to comprehend the whole. And he adopted a new way of seeing based on that quintessential feature of the Canadian landscape, the horizon. On this rim of experience he planted his paintbrush like an explorer staking claim to uncharted land. “After 1956,” he once said, “and a year in France, I no longer saw things the same way. A totally different vision had developed, a horizontal vision above all.”
The horizon for Lemieux is not just a line. It is the dispassionate continuum onto which he projects his deepest concern: the passage of time. He has said: “What haunts me most is the dimension of time. Time and space. Time slipping by and man confronted by this.” Much of Lemieux’s work is autobiographical; in painting, he recollects the past and pieces it back together on canvas. In
contrast to the Group of Seven, who valued nature over humankind, Lemieux peoples his landscapes with haunting figures, often children or adolescents set adrift on the remorseless horizon — portraits of the artist as a young man.
Critics have attempted to interpret Lemieux’s disturbing vision as an expression of Quebec’s isolation from the rest of Canada and the willing passivity of its population, but Lemieux will have none of the victim theory. When questioned about the political implications of his painting he responds heatedly: “I ask questions rather than make statements. We don’t know where we are, where we are going and where we came from. We don’t know anything.” For a moment, the twinkle in his eyes goes out
and he relapses into a silence as ungiving as that inhabited by his figures.
Others attack Lemieux on the grounds of general pessimism as though it were a particularly offensive stigma, like bad breath. What Lemieux really is, however, is an ironist whose painting, like Chekhov’s plays, explores the plight of people divided from their parents, environment, cities, and especially themselves. His great achievement is communicating the pathos of incommunicability. Furthermore, this paradox lies close to the core of his identity. “The pleasure in painting is the thing,” he confides. “After a painting is done, I hide it in a closet, but I keep them as a reminder of where I am and what I did.”
Given his seniority (he turned 74 last week), there is something very moving about Lemieux’s autobiographical project. Recently operated on for throat cancer, he still paints and draws in the isolation of Ile-aux-Coudres, where he spends May to November surrounded by period furniture and an impressive collection of angels. He is affronted at the suggestion that he might renounce painting. Mortal ignorance aside, there is one thing that he knows absolutely: “Painters always paint until they drop.” Adele Freedman
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