Dossier, Volume 14 #6
A Great Religious Artist Revisited
In the spring of 1996, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts mounted an exhibition devoted to the work of the Quebec painter Ozias Leduc (1864-1955). In the fall the exhibition moved to Toronto, where it will be shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario until January 15, 1997. An important artist in his time but neglected in recent years, Leduc was famous for both his symbolist still lifes and his seminal church decorations in Quebec and elsewhere. Paul-Émile Borduas (1905-1960), one of the leading Quebec artists of the generation after Leduc and signatory of the influential 1948 manifesto Le Refus Global, hailed him as "the sweetest European fruit to ripen in Canada." In September, Compass arts editor Wanda Romer Taylor interviewed Laurier Lacroix, professor of art history at the Université du Québec à Montréal and guest curator of the exhibition, about Leduc and his contribution to sacred art in Quebec. The following is a translation by the interviewer of part of their conversation.TO SEE SOME OF LEDUC'S WORK, CLICK HERE
OR ON THE THUMBNAILS IN THE ARTICLE.
Wanda Romer Taylor: Perhaps we can begin with the man himself. Who was Ozias Leduc?
Laurier Lacroix: He was the son of an apple grower and artisan, born in Saint-Hilaire [near Montreal] in 1864. He seems to have discovered art early in life thanks to one of his schoolteachers who noticed Leduc's talent for drawing and encouraged him. So although he also ran his father's orchard, he was a painter all his life.
He worked for an Italian artist, Luigi Capello [1843-1902, who was married to Leduc's cousin], as well as for another artist from Bécancour, Adolphe Rho [1839-1905]. In a sense, he had two apprenticeships. On the one hand, the Italian artist-academician Capello, who had studied at the Turin Academy, introduced him to the great European works. On the other, Rho, an inventor, an artist for whom there were never problems, only solutions, helped him develop his technical and manual skills, his skills as a craftsman. And this dual tradition gave Leduc a kind of confidence in his work.
Leduc received many church commissions, about thirty over the course of his very long career. And throughout, he also painted still lifes, portraits, some landscapes and book illustrations.
He was a man whom we know to have been intellectually curious. He read many art journals, American, British, French, as well as Canadian and Quebec ones. He had a large library and in a way brought the world to himself through his reading. And he tried to surround himself with people who could feed him intellectually.
Wanda Romer Taylor: Did he see any conflict between his interest in the craft of art and his interest in religious painting?
Laurier Lacroix: Not only did he not see any conflict, but I think that his so-called secular works are filled with a deep spirituality. In a sense, initially it was the other way around. In his religious work, say before 1910, he drew on a relatively traditional iconography, in which the spirituality was expressed in the most conventional of forms, whereas he could render a much more personal expression of his spirituality in his landscapes and still lifes. It was in the 1910s, when he was doing the Church of Saint-Enfant-Jésus in Montreal's Mile End, the chapel in Sherbrooke, the baptistry in Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal and then the church in Shawinigan South, that I would say there was less of a gap between his secular and his religious painting.
Wanda Romer Taylor: I think it was in Shawinigan South that he did this extraordinary series of paintings of workers and artisans.
Laurier Lacroix: That's right. He appropriated and made personal the traditional iconography. This started as early as the Enfant-Jésus in Mile End, where he placed workers from both the country and the city around the Christ. Many Montrealers then had recently arrived from the countryside, so he depicted workers from the mines and from the quarries of Mile End as well as farmers. In a sense, he was recalling their traditional life as well as their new one. And he continued to develop this theme throughout his work.
Sometimes, as for the private chapel in Sherbrooke, his choice of symbols was more scholarly, since the chapel was destined for a bishop. It was as if he was conversing with the bishop--perhaps even challenging him a bit. Leduc had, I think, developed a kind of Oriental philosophy in which good and evil coexisted. Here the sacrifice of the crucifixion didn't finally redeem humanity and evil was not vanquished. The serpent is still at the foot of the cross; the serpent triumphs as well. This had already appeared in his writings, but here he depicted it in the painting.
And it's interesting to note that the two bishops who commissioned the work let it pass. Like the theme of Mary as coredeemer--perhaps somewhat heretical, the notion that Mary is Christ's peer in the redemption. He has Mary facing Christ: Christ on the tree of the cross, and Mary in the apple tree next to it. They are in dialogue. This says a lot about the religious context in Quebec at the time, which was very focused on the Virgin, and perhaps also about the importance of women and mothers in French Canadian culture.
Wanda Romer Taylor: Can you speak about Leduc's vision as an artist?
Laurier Lacroix: It was vast. For him, art is one of the ways we have to reach God. It offers a kind of ideal of beauty, of truth. Intellectual and scientific knowledge are means of getting to know the much larger universe that surrounds us. And the ultimate goal is to understand and reach this God of beauty and truth. He believed that the experience of the senses and of the spirit would enable human beings to transcend, to move towards these values and this ideal.
That's why he gave such importance to the hard sciences, to botany, geology, all the sciences that help us better understand nature. Borduas said that Leduc had a very personal God. I think that a large part of his God was taken from the Christian one, but perhaps he also understood God in somewhat pantheistic terms, which is what made Leduc love the nature that surrounded him so much.
The need for transcendence, to make the most of all the resources we each have, our individual gifts--this idea appears in his writings and his paintings. We see it in Shawinigan South: how daily work contributes to the mystery of salvation, going beyond human action to become part of the much greater, much deeper, mystery.
Wanda Romer Taylor: And how is Leduc seen today?
Laurier Lacroix: Very few people go to see religious art. It's not easy, of course. You have to go to the churches. They're often closed, so you have to go during the services. But there's also a mental block about the subject matter, about the site. If Leduc's painting is of an annunciation, they're not interested, whereas we all accept his spiritual contribution to his landscapes and still lifes, even sometimes his portraits.
Wanda Romer Taylor: What exactly did you hope to do with the exhibition?
Laurier Lacroix: Since the values he articulated were no longer the values we identified with during the 1960s and 1970s, Leduc holds a historic interest for me, a way to remember collectively this episode in our cultural life. And also perhaps a way to understand a little of what it was we were reacting against. I believe we went a great distance when we reacted, but without necessarily understanding what we were reacting against. So I hoped to provide this information and at the same time allow us to question whether the reaction was founded on anything.
I don't really believe that cultures grow by breaking with the past. Although the exhibition doesn't show this, the movement from Leduc to Borduas and to the Quiet Revolution, which we have tended to see as involving a break with the past, in my opinion has a lot more continuity to it. If we talk in terms of a break with the past, we don't allow ourselves to see what came before. I hoped to be able to put forward certain elements that might help us see the evolution, the bridges between these periods. We refuse to look at a painting because it portrays an annunciation. We can't get beyond the surface message to see what this annunciation speaks of, how it's made.
So I hoped to give a second chance to the work. I notice that perhaps it's the baby boomers who are the least receptive. It's the generation of people who grew up with this ideology based on a break with the past, with the Quiet Revolution, with modernism, who seem to resist, whereas the younger generation is more open in a way.
Wanda Romer Taylor: So where does that leave the notion of sacred art in Quebec today?
Laurier Lacroix: There is a renewal, a new interest in our heritage, in what is left of art from the early twentieth century. But I would say that this is mostly among believers. If you think of the general public, people will go out of their way to see a "work of art" but not necessarily be aware of its spiritual or religious meaning. So people go to see abstract works that leave a lot of the interpretation up to the viewer, but not necessarily works that are obviously spiritual or sacred.
What we call postmodernism in art, a return to figurative art, is also more concerned with the image and not only abstract form. It belongs to a new and younger sensibility, and I think that this generation will be less blocked when it comes to this type of art. But at the same time, they don't have the keys to unlock it. People will see the work without being able to interpret it. We have to provide the means.
Wanda Romer Taylor: Is Leduc too much of an idealist for a postmodern generation that sees the world ironically?
Laurier Lacroix: We can see another current as well, of people who seek meaning in their lives. I think this ironic vision coexists with an ideology that does not accept the idea of living a life of derision, of irony, of doubt. So they are also seeking a message, vehicles that can direct us, and Leduc might provide a path.
I was very moved during the exhibition when I saw teenagers sitting on the ground in front of his paintings and drawings. I thought the exhibition would hold a greater appeal for an older age group, over fifty. But surprisingly, there were many teenagers who connected with it. They obviously don't understand his work in the same way that contemporaries did. But perhaps they can find some sort of nourishment there, things that might help them transcend. They will probably interpret his work from a completely different spiritual standpoint. It will be less his iconographic subjects as such than perhaps the substance of his message that will be retained.
The fact that the government now recognizes an interest in renovating churches, for instance, after letting these buildings disintegrate over the past fifty years, is important. They are obviously motivated by tourism and economic concerns. But the choice of focusing our efforts on this kind of art bears witness to a movement within society, a larger social view, to which the government is responding. No one is protesting againt it. No one is saying, "What about hospitals, children, the homeless?" Socially, we accept that we must also concern ourselves with works that evince the values and symbols that are present in our society.
TO SEE SOME OF LEDUC'S WORK, CLICK HERE
OR ON THE THUMBNAILS IN THE ARTICLE.
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© 1997 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld