To the Land of Myth
"Journeys with the Shaman, grandson and bear entity to the Land of Myth"
57" x 34", acrylic on canvas, 1990
Norval Morrisseau found a Paris salon
in the boreal forest
Remembering the Ojibway painter's early start in the mining town of Cochenour, Ont.
One of the most unlikely and fruitful encounters in Canadian art history took place just up the hill from the street I grew up on in Cochenour, a lakeside mining town in northwestern Ontario. It happened in 1957 or 1958, before my time, in the doctor’s house, just across from the post office. The town doctor at that time was Joseph Weinstein, who, along with his wife, Esther, had only a few years earlier been living in Paris, where they hung out with leading avant-garde artists, writers, and intellectuals. Joseph painted abstracts and Esther had studied languages at the Sorbonne.
But it was in Cochenour, a long way from Montparnasse, that the couple made a lasting contribution to art. There they met a young Ojibway man named Norval Morrisseau who was struggling to become a painter. Esther saw something arresting in his early efforts. They helped him. As art historian Ruth Phillips recounts in her catalogue essay for last year’s National Gallery of Canada exhibition Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist, the Weinsteins gave Morrisseau high-quality artist’s paper and paints, and some pointers on technique. Perhaps more importantly, they invited him to pore over the collection of art books they had brought with them to the little doctor’s house, exposing his hungry eye to ancient and modern paintings, and, intriguingly, to other indigenous art.
What an intersection: Morrisseau steeped in his grandfather’s tales from Ojibway legend, the Weinsteins in the European art tradition. There were to be many other chapters, of course, in the Morrisseau saga, which ended this week with the grand old painter’s death at 76. But I’ve been thinking about his good fortune in that initial real exposure to the world of art that he was desperate to conquer. Far too often, to my mind, discussion of First Nations art concentrates on themes of racism and paternalism. It’s worth remembering, as we consider Morrisseau’s remarkable career and substantial legacy, that his first important and formative experience with white people who cared deeply about art was apparently entirely sympathetic without being, by the accounts I’ve heard and read, at all condescending.
Lucky Morrisseau. Lucky Weinsteins. The greatest nascent artistic talent on the Canadian Shield finds his way into the only Paris-influenced salon in the entire boreal forest—what were the odds? But unique as their relationship was, the pattern it represents is not so unusual. The repeated cross-pollination of Aboriginal and Western art traditions was one of the most important elements in 20th-century cultural history in Canada. And it was not a matter of exploitation, at least not in the case of Morrisseau or the other First Nations art success stories that rank with his, notably the way Inuit and West Coast styles worked their way into our popular conception of a Canadian visual art heritage.
Consider the way Inuit sculpture and then prints became ubiquitous. James Houston shows up in Inukjuak with his sketch books in 1948, not long away from painting live models in art classes in London and Paris. Within days, a small carving of a caribou is pressed into his hand. And that leads to him becoming a sort impresario for Inuit art, encouraging the carvers to make bigger sculptures and getting the finished product to big-city galleries down south. Later he brings Japanese print-making technique to Cape Dorset. We’re so used to them now that it’s hard to recapture the proper sense of amazement at the way it all worked out: a white guy shows Inuit artists how to use Asian methods, and the outcome seems perfectly natural—and eminently marketable.
Then there’s Bill Reid. He didn’t know anything about his First Nations heritage until he was a teenager(his mother was Haida). He trained in the very European tradition of jewellery-making and engraving. Yet his personal discovery and exploration of his Aboriginal side led directly to a Haida art renaissance and our national recovery of that incomparably rich patrimony. Robert Bringhurst, an American-born poet and translator, has brought us great literature to go with Reid’s memorable sculpture, through his acclaimed translations of Haida mythic poetry.
These stories all have their own texture and details, but they share something crucial, and somewhat controversial among those who believe majorities can only oppress minorities. In all these cases, the dominant stream of Western art, through the agency of inspired individuals who live by its values, found ways to see Aboriginal art, revere it, absorb it, and help transmit its essence to a very wide and receptive audience. We love the sinewy black lines and flat fields of colour in Morrisseau’s Woodlands school, the accessible Arctic images of Inuit prints and sculpture, the elegant form lines of Haida image-making. We also, it must be admitted, snap up Eskimo kitsch, third-rate Morrisseau rip-offs, and plastic Made-in-China totem poles.
But on Morrisseau’s death, I’m resolved to leave the evident shortcomings in the way First Nations art has been turned into our national art for another day’s reflection. And I’m going to try not to dwell unduly on the stories about curators who belittled his paintings or relegated them to museums of anthropology, rather than their proper place in galleries of fine art. Instead,
I’m imagining him as a tall young man in the home of the Weinsteins, with all those art books around him, and all his own great art still to come.
Dec 5, 2007
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