Marc-Aurèle Fortin (1888-1970) is perhaps one of the most widely known artists to the general public and among the most sought-after by collectors. The themes he explores as well as the vitality and freedom of his technique explain why his paintings have such appeal. A private museum is devoted solely to his work and more publications exist on him than on the majority of artists of his generation in Quebec.
His "bohemian" temperament and the dramatic events that occurred toward the end of his life have given rise to the myth of an "artiste maudit" who painted in isolation and was essentially marginalized by society. Although such circumstances foster the shaping of a romantic vision of Fortin’s life, they hamper an accurate understanding of his career. In fact, to truly do justice to his work—which is in itself plagued with issues of authenticity—a thorough analysis is in order, as is a close examination of his ties to the artistic milieu of the time. This will be a considerable undertaking. The Walter Klinkhoff Gallery deserves praise for its initiatives in presenting a retrospective exhibition of Canadian artists every fall. However it must be recognized that a private gallery cannot serve as a substitute for museological institutions, for they alone possess the financial and material resources to successfully carry out projects of such magnitude.
All these factors influenced my decision to refrain from accompanying this exhibition with a text based on Fortin’s exhaustive and largely incomplete biography. Instead, I will address the manner in which he was perceived by his contemporaries, particularly by art critics of his time. Their accounts remain the most important evidence of the assessment his work has received.
Using works that comprise this exhibition as cases in point, I will also occasionally take the liberty of discussing various statements made by critics. The overall aim of my essay is to demonstrate that Marc-Aurèle Fortin was anything but obscure or unknown as some legends purport. Not only did he exhibit frequently during his lifetime, but his work consistently captured the attention of art critics of the period.
Research to date has succeeded in identifying nearly 150 texts and articles written between 1915 and 1969, the year preceding his death, that provide more or less detailed commentary on his participation in numerous exhibitions. Given the status of the arts in Quebec, especially before World War II, the number is considerable. Studying critiques spanning several decades is likewise interesting because it allows us to see how perceptions of an artist can change as a result of social, political, and cultural shifts, which in this instance changed the views that successive generations had of Marc-Aurèle Fortin’s work.Fortin as a Representative of Modern Art between the Two World Wars
Fortin began exhibiting in Montreal as early as 1911 at the annual Spring Exhibition held by the Art Association of Montreal (now the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts). He continued to participate in the Spring Exhibition nearly every year until 1954. In 1919, he had the privilege of holding a solo exhibition at the Saint-Sulpice Library. During the 1920s, his work could also be seen at the Galerie Morency and the exhibition rooms at Eaton’s department store (Eaton’s Fine Art Galleries).
In 1915, a painting by Fortin displayed in an exhibition at the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts was briefly commented upon in La Presse and Le Devoir. At the time, the quality of journalistic criticism varied greatly and essentially amounted to listing the names of artists who were showing their works at various exhibitions. The authors frequently remained anonymous. Whenever they accompanied their lists with brief commentaries, particularly positive ones, it was an indication that the work of the artist in question had achieved a certain notoriety. Consequently, mentioning that "a lovely study by Mr. Fortin of snowy undergrowth with beautiful colour effects..." was part of the exhibit should be interpreted as the first signs that Fortin’s work was gaining recognition (Henri Fabien, "L’exposition de l’Académie Royale- II -Paysages, Marines" ["The Royal Canadian Academy Exhibit - II - Landscapes, Seascapes"], Le Devoir, November 27, 1915).
In 1919, Fortin was given his first solo exhibition in Montreal. It was held at the Saint-Sulpice Library. The occasion was marked by a more substantial article that appeared in Le Devoir. The author details the subjects of Fortin’s paintings (an old Canadian house, snowy landscapes, the port of Montreal, etc.) before elaborating on the artist’s style, which he describes as "decorative," "personal," and "strong," but "without going too far" (anonymous, "À Saint-Sulpice: Un jeune peintre" ["A Young Artist at Saint-Sulpice"], Le Devoir, October 31, 1919). These same qualifiers were subsequently used by almost everyone commenting on Fortin’s work. They demonstrate that, while there was general agreement that he was "original" and very "personal," his style most certainly did not meet with rejection.
Fortin exhibited less during the first half of the 1920s. Might he have been in Europe? The information we have on the subject is contradictory. In any case, a "Parisian journalist" noticed one of his landscapes at the Galerie Morency and found that it displayed "visual freshness" and "undeniable originality" (anonymous, "Les Beaux-Arts dans notre Province. Une entrevue de M. Louis Thomas, journaliste parisien" ["Fine Art in our Province. An Interview with Mr. Louis Thomas, Parisian Journalist"], La Patrie, October 20, 1923).
By the end of the 1920s, Fortin was well on his way to becoming one of the artists instrumental in setting the markers of modernism in the arts as it was taking shape in Quebec. The modernism at issue was a form of expression that remained figurative yet sought to disassociate itself from academic rigidity and even occasionally from an overly repressive nationalism. It found the support of several advocates among Montreal journalists.
Writer Albert Laberge was one of the first to present Marc-Aurèle Fortin as a modern figure on the Quebec art scene. A sports journalist for La Presse from 1896 to 1932, Laberge also periodically served as the newspaper’s art and literary critic, beginning in 1907. When writing about Fortin, he uses an abundance of terms denoting an approach devoid of academicism. He emphasizes Fortin’s "fertile temperament," stating that he is an artist "in search of a new and genuine kind of art". Fortin’s work, he adds, is "bold, personal, original, and suggests a determined effort to break away from trite, conventional styles". As do practically all the other critics, Laberge underscores the robust nature of Fortin’s approach, his vigorous manner of execution, the decorative quality of his work, and his "violent" and "raw" palette.
Critics in the 1920s may have been aware of the innovative quality of Fortin’s art but they rarely addressed its formal aspects. The first to consider them with any precision was the musician Leo-Pol Morin. In a piece that appeared in the March 28, 1928 edition of La Patrie, Morin remarks that Fortin’s painting "is compositionally disconcerting and chaotic" and that while Fortin is "a skilful manipulator of colours..., neither atmosphere, nor perspective, nor proportion are observed ..."
Although it is difficult to ascertain whether Morin’s observations concerning Fortin are favourable or not, it is obvious that they clearly identify—for the first time—what was unusual about Fortin’s work within the context of the period. I would like to examine this subject as it relates to some of the works comprising the current exhibit.
A painting such as Bouleau au bord d’un lac au matin, Piedmont, 1928 (Birch Tree on the Edge of a Lake in the Morning, Piedmont, no 2) displays a compositional layout that was becoming more familiar to the Canadian public in the 1920s. In fact, it is fairly similar to one that was used by some of the Group of Seven artists: a foreground of decorative trees and foliage, a middleground composed of an expanse of water, and a background fusing sky, mountains, and clouds. Contrary to traditional atmospheric perspective, the composition is rendered by means of bright colours and the textured application of pigment. This "style", which objectively speaking is more akin to post-impressionism than to the impressionism of artists such as Cullen or Suzor-Coté, among others, was becoming better known to the general Canadian public toward the end of the decade. Indeed, Jean Chauvin highlights the similarity between Fortin’s work and "some of the artists in the Group of Seven" in his book, Ateliers: Études sur vingt-deux peintres et sculpteurs canadiens (Studios: Studies on Twenty-Two Canadian Painters and Sculptors), published in 1928 (Les Éditions du Mercure, p. 149).
Nonetheless, Bouleau au bord d’un lac au matin, Piedmont, is not among the paintings that are most characteristic of Fortin’s approach. Many of his works take a number of liberties compared with traditional renderings of perspective. As a result, they appeared undeniably modern to the public, who, contrary to Europeans, were not familiar with highly avant-garde works. Inarguably, several of his landscapes, village scenes, and views of Hochelaga respect the spatial separation of foreground, middleground, and background, as well as the gradual reduction of forms associated with three-dimensional representation. Yet this illusion of depth, a classic element of academic painting, is often contradicted by the pictorial subject matter. At times, clouds are given the same density as are the shapes that make up the landscape and are occasionally twice the size of other motifs in the painting. Le grand orme (The Great Elm, no 20) is one example among many. It depicts a rural landscape in which one of the large pink clouds heavily outlined in grey at the composition’s centre creates a shape similar to the hay cart in the lower right corner of the canvas. It is also similar, albeit less obviously so, to the large tree on the left. Other paintings display elements that confound the rules of classical representation requiring that objects be represented as having volume within a given space containing depth: colours representing fields and hills are applied flatly (as in the watercolour entitled Paysage laurentien (Laurentian Countryside, no 9); wide strokes or bands of colour form the fronts of houses; dabs of colour are scattered over the surface of the canvas. In yet other instances, the techniques used demonstrate the obvious pre-eminence of experimentation over the desire for realism, as, for example, the "holed" surface effect of certain watercolours. Mention should also be made of works where the space comprising the fields, hills, or mountains is constructed in the manner of a patchwork quilt or child’s puzzle, with areas of bright colours placed alongside each other. This technique was frequently used in France in the late 1880s when synthetism and cloisonism were being developed, especially by Gauguin and the Pont-Aven School. We can easily imagine how Montreal critics at the time might have been surprised that "neither atmosphere, nor perspective, nor proportions are observed ..."
It was in the 1920s that Fortin began to exhibit canvases in which gigantic trees encircle and almost blend into tiny houses and minuscule human forms, often simplified to an extreme. These imposing trees, so characteristic of Fortin, Les grands ormes, Sainte-Rose (The Great Elms) (no 32 and no 36) included in this exhibition for instance, are among the works that the public and critics have always preferred most.Fortin: A Modern Artist and/or a National Artist?
At the end of the 1920s, Fortin had most certainly become one of the noteworthy artists of his generation. This fact is confirmed in the chapter devoted to him in Ateliers: Études sur vingt-deux peintres et sculpteurs canadiens (Les Éditions Mercure, 1928) by Jean Chauvin, an art critic for La Revue populaire, and its director beginning in 1926.
Chauvin’s study was seminal in that several authors after him adopted the terms he used to describe Fortin. As does practically everyone, Chauvin stresses the decorative quality of Fortin’s works. However, he carries this one step further by associating them with the freshness and naivety of popular art. Chauvin also compares Fortin to Merlin the Magician, who had the power to conjure up giant trees and an enchanted world of nature. Associations such as this proliferated over the decades that followed. Several generations of critics continued to link Fortin’s work to popular art and the imagery found in children’s stories and fairy tales, as well as to identify Fortin with Merlin the Magician.
That being said, Jean Chauvin’s text is especially significant because of his thoughts on modern art, a subject that was gaining importance on the art scene in Quebec. Chauvin elaborates on the famous phrase that Émile Zola used in defence of the "moderns" of his day (i.e. the impressionists): art is "nature seen through a temperament". The idea, which had become an incontestable prerequisite for understanding modern art, met with the approval of French-speaking critics in Quebec, who used it frequently during the period between the two World Wars. "Temperament" forms the basis of their reasoning that an artist’s personal interpretation should take precedence over illusory representations. Moreover, everyone acknowledged that Fortin was a painter with a strong "temperament". There was absolutely no doubt in Chauvin’s mind that Fortin was a modern. He was therefore surprised that the artist refused to be considered as such. Chauvin notes that Fortin denies that:
"...he treats nature like an artist in love with decoration, accommodating it according to his imagination, adjusting it to the free and whimsical behaviour of his brush. He claims to do quite the opposite. And that was what surprised me during our interview. I thought I was going to find an artist who was awkward and consistent with his work, full of disdain for the old schools and time-honoured aesthetics. Instead, I interviewed an artist with set opinions who claimed to be a follower only of impressionism and who was very critical of the moderns". (Ateliers, p. 148-149)
In the course of the interviews he granted throughout his career, Fortin maintained his position against modernism and objected whenever his name was associated with fauvism, Van Gogh, or, worse still, when he was seen as a precursor to non-figurative art, especially since he claimed to adhere to a tradition that stopped with impressionism.
However, regardless of the artist’s repeated claims, one is more inclined to suggest that his works are closer to post-impressionism than to impressionism per se. Fortin’s paintings are not comprised of short, fragmented brush strokes applied to the entire surface of the canvas—the technique that artists such as Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro began using in the 1870s to render light’s effects on the perception of colour and its reflections. Fortin was certainly interested in the changes in lighting that accompany the seasons and different times of day, and he used bright colours to show them. But his work displays no traces of attempts to decompose the optical perception of colour in light and shadow through brushwork. When he does use short brushstrokes to enliven the surface of his canvases, they are applied with an intent that is more decorative than analytical. Even in instances where large trees are present in his paintings, the short strokes that give the foliage the appearance of rustling are not dealt with impressionistically. Their primary function is to impart vibrancy to the painted surface. The technique had been used by several other artists before the impressionists. Landscapes by the British painter John Constable come to mind, as do works executed after 1855 by the French artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, among others.
Moreover, from a strictly formal point of view, a number of elements link the works of Marc-Aurèle Fortin to post-impressionism, despite the artist’s assertions to the contrary: the frequent juxtaposition of areas of solid colour often encased within a black contoured outline (a cloisonné technique that goes contrary to the impressionist approach); the decorative aspect (observed by critics) that is evident in the choice of often sharply contrasting colours as well as the treatment of shapes in a manner reminiscent of synthetism, with cross strokes, dabs, and material effects that are not intended to duplicate reality or convey the analysis of optical perception espoused by the impressionists. Equally revealing are paintings such as Paysage près de Sainte-Rose, circa 1937, (Countryside near Sainte Rose, no 18) and others where the distorted shapes of buildings seem to follow the curves of the sky and earth, resulting in a pictorial space imbued with an undeniable emotional charge. Van Gogh comes to mind, to name but one example, despite the fact that Fortin consistently denied any association with his work.
Coming back to Jean Chauvin, I think we can now understand why he was so perplexed: he was confronted with the contradiction between the assertions and intentions of the artist on the one hand and what his art really looked like on the other!
Chauvin’s text raises another issue linked to the period, namely national art. Fortin admitted to Chauvin that his dream was to see Canadian artists "work toward a deeply nationalistic art that reflects the temperament of the race by becoming disciples of the sun and light, and finding inspiration in the rustic scenes of their country". Moreover, according to Fortin, this school of painting should look to the United States, where artists were "on the brink of a sensational artistic awakening. That is where the greatest art schools are and it is from there, not from France, that enlightenment will come to us". (Ateliers, p. 157-159). As we can see, Fortin’s remarks only added to the complexity of the issues confronting those contemporary critics who were open to modernism at that point. To what extent can nationalism hinder the development of a modern art form? Should modern art be national or universal? Should Canadian art draw its inspiration from European models or attempt to create a distinctly "Canadian" model? Questions such as these were frequent topics of discussion.
Fortin exhibited on a regular basis in Montreal in the years following the publication of Ateliers. In 1932, he had a solo exhibit at the Art Association of Montreal and participated in several collective exhibitions, so frequently in fact that Jean-Marie Gélinas wrote in the September 19, 1933 edition of La Patrie:
"It may be true that an exhibition of Marc-Aurèle Fortin’s work is nothing new to Montrealers. Of all the city’s artists, this impressionist is perhaps the one who exhibits most often and in the most varied locations. However, it is also true that each viewing of his paintings brings with it new enchantment. His work is supremely uncommon in this country where art is in so many ways in its infancy."
Many critics discussed Fortin’s work. Among them was Henri Girard who, toward the end of the 1920s, was the art columnist for the Revue moderne before becoming the official art critic for the newspaper Le Canada in the early 1930s. Girard was by far one of the staunchest defenders of a more "universal" form of modernism, one that would be distinct from both academism and nationalism, and that would place heavy emphasis on the creative artist’s subjective expression. He, too, voiced surprise that Fortin refused to be labelled a modern, especially since the term suited his work so well. Girard included Fortin in the circle of artists who sought "new equations for the values inherent to the plastic arts." Interestingly, Girard was the first critic to warn Fortin of the danger of falling into a rut. The "Manière Noire" ["Black Style"]
On April 5, 1934, the Montreal Star ran an article on the funeral services held for the Honourable Thomas Fortin. Upon his death, his son Marc-Aurèle inherited what at the time was considered a large sum of money (between $40,000 and $50,000, according to various sources) which enabled him to travel in Europe for several months. After he returned, Fortin exhibited a new series of paintings done on black backgrounds. The works generated renewed discussion among critics.
The practice of applying colour to a canvas primed in white beforehand is generally considered an impressionist procedure, although there were exceptions (renowned predecessors such as the British artist William Turner, for example). The technique produces a luminosity that more convincingly conveys the immediate sensation of natural light. It went counter to the academic tradition of first covering the canvas with a brownish layer of paint (a tone often referred to as "pipe juice") and then applying colour beginning with the darkest shades and ending with the lightest. With his so-called "black style", Fortin adopted a procedure that was radically contrary to the impressionists’ technique, since he layered bright colours over an opaque black surface.
When asked about this technique, Fortin described the steps involved:
"To create what is called a Black Period painting, I applied a layer of black enamel—stove or stovepipe enamel—to a piece of heavy cardboard and allowed it to dry for five days. Then, I bought linseed oil, mixed it with thick turpentine, and applied a layer to the cardboard. I let it dry for about three days. After that, I’d use chalk to draw the landscape because chalk adheres well to cardboard primed this way. Next, I applied the pigments." (Fortin, quoted by J.-P. Bonneville, "Les 80 ans de Marc-Aurèle Fortin" ["Marc-Aurèle Fortin at 80"], La Frontière (Rouyn), March 13, 1968)
Truly spectacular night scenes can be achieved with this technique, especially when the white representing the snow makes a vivid transition between the black background and areas coloured in blues, reds, or ochres, as is the case with Village canadien en hiver (Canadian Village in Winter, no 11) and Vue d’Hochelaga (View of Hochelaga, no 14). Naturally, the process likewise lends itself to creating spectacular twilight scenes, as in Vieilles maisons (Old Houses, no 22). The effects are equally stunning in the "grey style" (where the surface is primed in grey), as can be seen in Paysage près de Sainte-Rose (Countryside near Sainte-Rose, no 18).
Future studies of Marc-Aurèle Fortin’s body of work should include a more in-depth analysis of the paintings from this period in order to sort the best from the lesser pieces and at the same time take a close look at everything that has been said about this notorious "black style." According to a comment made by Fortin himself, it was inspired by a carpet he saw a rug dealer carrying in Paris. Some sources claim it stemmed from a Japanese influence while others liken the brilliance of these works to diamonds that a jeweller has placed on a square of black velvet. Whatever the case may be, when the artist exhibited these new experimental works upon his return from Europe, they were the subject of a great deal of commentary on the part of critics.
Obviously, references to impressionism ceased almost entirely after that, since it was so clear that Fortin’s new approach was a radical departure from it. Fortin was still considered one of Canada’s most original artists. "One of the most original of Canadian painters," writes an anonymous critic in The Gazette, who also expresses a certain degree of scepticism: "pictures have a sort of strength that could almost hit one in the eye; they could probably be very decorative, if the right places could be found in which to hang them". ("Exhibition by Two Men", The Gazette, November 5, 1936).
The whole notion concerning the "decorative" aspect of Fortin’s works, which is most apparent in his paintings executed on surfaces primed in black or grey, began to crystallize. Increasingly, parallels were being drawn between his work and various forms of decorative art. Accordingly, the Gazette critic we just quoted compares the effect produced by Fortin’s technique to mosaics. Others mention tapestries made of fine wool. It should be noted that such observations are fairly well-founded, especially in light of such works as Vieilles maisons à Sainte-Rose, Québec (Old Houses in Sainte-Rose, Quebec, no 8) and Old Laurentian Houses (no 3). The dabs of bright colour that stand out against the black surfaces of the hillocks, hills, and background could in fact make one think of a mosaic, while the overall texture of the painted surface, the tactile quality of the material, makes it easy to understand why some critics also liken Fortin’s work to tapestry weaving.
Let’s take a moment to go back to the end of the 1930s, when Fortin was exhibiting works in the "black style" and paintings done on the type of greyish surfaces he felt so aptly rendered Quebec’s unique light. Wonderful examples of such works are on exhibition here. Art critic Reginald-Ephrem Bertrand, who wrote under the pseudonym "Reynald", declared in the newspaper La Presse that "the painter has died", seeing as how "he has become an illustrator." Reynald considered the paintings executed in this new style to be landscapes of "childlike introspection" as if inspired by "German fairytales." He added that Fortin was like an "unrestrained Merlin", transporting us to an enchanted storybook world (Reynald, La Presse, November 14, 1936). Correlations such as these linking Fortin’s art to popular imagery and Merlin the Magician were no doubt inspired by Jean Chauvin’s Ateliers.
Other articles comment briefly on Fortin’s participation in various exhibitions. However, it was a work published in 1940 by Maurice Gagnon (another major defender of modern art) that bestowed the most interesting praise upon Fortin. In Peinture moderne (Montreal, Éditions Bernard), Maurice Gagnon writes: "The phenomenal Marc-Aurèle Fortin shares with the fauvists a captivating brutality that the public considers to be one of the school’s oddities. Fortin has something to say and he imparts it with the most illustrious of innovations..." After describing a view of Montreal seen from Saint Helen’s Island that belonged to Jean-Marie Gauvreau, his colleague at the École de Meuble, Gagnon states that Fortin possesses "the candour of the most genuine of primitive artists" and "a sense of colour that results in surprising associations that burst forth with superbly chosen harmonies sung by a robust and hearty voice". Gagnon concludes with the observation that "Marc-Aurèle Fortin will be remembered as one of the few true artists of our era in Canada". (p. 126-127)
Maurice Gagnon associates Fortin with fauvism, as does Jean Chauvin. Although Fortin always denied any link with the fauvist movement, Gagnon’s assertion is not entirely groundless in that Fortin does in fact use bright colours that have little to do with reality in some of his paintings. Village à Sainte-Rose/Village sous la neige (Village in Sainte-Rose/Village in the Snow, no 7) is a winter scene with grey lighting, yet the groves are purple, the tree trunks green, the houses pink, the church violet-coloured, and the shadows and surface flecked with bright blue. Some of his landscapes contain brilliantly coloured fields, while the dreary façades of working-class houses in Montreal take on yellow, pink, orange, and violet tones as in the pastel entitled Hochelaga (no 16). I could give several other examples in support of the hypothesis that Gagnon was partially correct in identifying elements of fauvism in Fortin’s work.
A Painter’s View of the City
I made reference a moment ago to a work from the Hochelaga series. If, in addition, one considers Fortin’s numerous port scenes, it becomes apparent that he was also an urban painter, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, despite the fact that his cityscapes have often been eclipsed in the eyes of the public by his landscapes and village scenes. The current exhibition gives us the opportunity to admire some of these city paintings and it is worth taking the time to comment on them.
As a general rule, Fortin always dealt with urban scenes in the same way. He would position himself at a distance from the modern city in order to paint it from afar, viewing it from the low-lying hills of Hochelaga, Saint Helen’s Island, or atop Mount Royal. He set up his easel in a rural or natural area in such a way that the pictorial elements inherent to the modern city—buildings, working-class housing, industrial and port constructions, railways—are usually situated midway between the foreground and the background and framed or enveloped by elements belonging to a natural or rural environment (trees, water, mountains, clouds, farm fields, etc.). More often than not, the tiny human figures that appear at the city’s edge are associated with traditional rural occupations: farm workers standing next to hay wagons, long-skirted women usually accompanied by a child, and so forth. In other instances, figures strolling or fishing fill the painting’s bucolic space on the island across from the port of Montreal. This unique composition creates a visual dichotomy between the city and the countryside while conveying a sense of nostalgia over the gradual encroachment of the latter by the former. Unlike his friend Adrien Hébert, who is known for the scenes he painted within the confines of the modern city, Fortin always places himself outside of it, and more or less at a distance, like an observer determined to marginalize himself from the accelerated urban modernization that Quebec was undergoing between the two World Wars.
Fortin rarely strays from this compositional layout, as evidenced by the works presented in this exhibition. In this respect, a few engravings (no 27 and no 28) bear mentioning because of the way his dynamic use of line enhances the struggle between the natural elements (sky, clouds, water) and the more industrial components of the port and railway, which at times tend to take over the entire surface. The watercolour entitled View of Montreal and Lachine Canal, 1930, (no 24) is the exception that proves the rule. Indeed, the composition of this work differs from what can be found in Fortin’s other urban scenes in that the industrial area, with its chimney towering over the church spires relegated to the background, takes up the bulk of the painting’s foreground and middleground.
During the period between World Wars I and II, Fortin exhibited his cityscapes on a regular basis, including at the Art Association of Montreal’s annual Spring Exhibitions. Yet critics were more interested in his landscapes. Some, however, did, on occasion, make reference to his original approach to painting urban views. Albert Laberge, for example, comments on the Hochelaga and port scenes, which he finds to be "strong" and executed in "a bold palette" ("Exposition de tableaux et de sculptures à la maison Eaton" ["Painting and Sculpture Exhibition at the Eaton Store Gallery"], La Presse, May 8, 1929). Laberge revisited this topic in greater detail in the section devoted to Fortin in his book, published at his own expense in 1945, entitled Journalistes, écrivains et artistes (Journalists, Writers, and Artists). However, in my opinion, Laberge is actually projecting his own personal concept of the city onto Fortin’s paintings when he states that he sees in them "the powerful and admirable vision of the crowded city, the workers’ city where entire families have little more that a few narrow rooms for lodging, and where they live out their poor, humble lives". (p. 176)
Urbanization in Quebec was in full swing and metropolitan areas accounted for 60% of the population in the early 1930s, yet not a single critic seems to have noticed that Fortin’s approach displays a tension between the city and the neighbouring countryside that was slowly being overtaken by urban spread. Only one critic makes mention of the contrast between the clouds and smoke on the one hand and the solidity of the rectangular masses that formed the buildings on the other (anonymous, "Fortin Exhibition in Eaton Gallery", The Gazette, September 19, 1933). Years later, English-language critic Robert Ayre used a delightful domino metaphor to describe the urban residential constructions that stand out against the Hochelaga sky (Ayre, "The Sophisticated and the Homespun", Montreal Star, May 30, 1964).
It was in the 1960s that a new generation of critics discovered in Fortin’s work the vision of a village-like Montreal that no longer existed. "When he turns his eye to the city, Mr. Fortin sees rows of quaint Old World dwellings in Quebec, or broad views of Montreal in the days before the urban sprawl scrambled much of the beauty into an untidy blur of smoke and concrete," observes Raymond Heard in the Montreal Star, December 21, 1963. "Montreal, as interpreted by Fortin, is a sort of rustic paradise. Dwellings and factories are usually seen from a distance, in a softening haze", writes Gerald Taaffe in the July 1964 Montrealer. "His Montreal", Taaffe continues, "blends into countryside imperceptibly, as certain towns of the south of France, and totally unlike the Montreal most of us see from day to day".
One thing is certain, however: If Fortin’s name is associated with modernism, it is not because he painted cityscapes but rather because of the innovative aspect of his pictorial approach in the context of pre-war Quebec. Nonetheless, Fortin lost his standing as a "modern artist" in the 1940s.
A Representative of "Tradition" during the Rise of the Avant-Garde
In 1945, a few years after the publication of his study Peinture moderne in which he praised Fortin, Maurice Gagnon published Sur un état actuel de la peinture canadienne (On the Current State of Canadian Painting), published by Société des éditions Pascal in which he penned a less favourable judgement of the artist:
"Fortin’s beginnings were marked by marvellous inventiveness, by the pleasure of someone cutting up enchanted images and putting the pieces back together with limitless imagination. (Then) ... he became so obsessed with a single idea that his art has suffered for it. His painting was once lively but it is now academic. And by the way, hasn’t he become a member of the academy recently?" (pp. 88-89)
Although it is true that Fortin was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in the fall of 1942, the art scene had evolved considerably since the beginning of the decade. The Contemporary Arts Society of Montreal was founded in 1939 thanks to the efforts of John Lyman. But that was not all. Modern art, which to that point had remained for the most part figurative, became increasingly associated with abstraction during the 1940s. The configuration of modern art changed radically once Alfred Pellan returned from Europe in 1940 and Paul-Émile Borduas moved toward abstraction. Borduas exhibited his first non-figurative gouaches in 1942 and began attracting young artists to his circle who would ultimately form the core of the automatist group. Arguments that frequently became quite heated led to the disbanding of the Contemporary Arts Society in 1948. Soon after, the automatist manifesto Refus Global appeared. Gagnon’s publication on Canadian painting fits squarely into the general climate of these changes. From that point on, Marc-Aurèle Fortin was no longer considered a representative of modernism by certain critics in Montreal who had an eye on developments leading to more avant-garde forms of contemporary art.
The gallery L’Art Français in Montreal undertook the promotion of Fortin’s works. The owner of the gallery, Louis Lange, wrote various articles and catalogue entries portraying Fortin as a "local, traditional artist," including his piece entitled "Un peintre du terroir: Marc-Aurèle Fortin" ("A Local, Traditional Painter: Marc-Aurèle Fortin") which appeared in Le Courrier de Saint- Hyacinthe in April, 1943. Collectors showed growing interest in Fortin, but written commentary from this period characterizes him increasingly as a "traditional" artist. It goes without saying that critics in Montreal, especially Anglophone critics, continued to cover his exhibitions. The most noticeable change came from French-language critics, since from that point on those most responsive to Fortin’s work were chiefly opponents of the avant-garde.
Fortin’s art became more widely known outside of Montreal after 1945, most notably due to René Bergeron, who opened a gallery, L’Art Canadien, in Chicoutimi in 1947. Bergeron also organized exhibits in other regions, including Kénogami in 1948, Arvida in 1950, and Rimouski in 1951, where Fortin’s compositions appeared alongside those of such artists as René Richard, Rodolphe Duguay, Léo Ayotte, and Albert Rousseau.
Before turning his interests to the art world, Bergeron had been a "propagandist" for the École sociale populaire, a Catholic organization whose mission was to promote the Church’s social doctrine and the formation of Catholic workers’ unions. René Bergeron had attracted attention as a result of his writings denouncing socialism. It was in the same vein that he wrote Art et Bolchevisme, published by Fides in 1946. In it, Bergeron staunchly condemns modern art, associating it with communism because of its so-called detrimental effects. He endorses a Manichean vision of good and evil and comes to the defence of "true" art, which shares with beauty the function of revealing the Absolute, and which obeys eternal laws established by Reason (p. 20). Following a long tirade castigating modern art, Bergeron devotes a few chapters to Canadian artists who, in his opinion, exemplify this tradition of genuine art. Fortin is among them and although Bergeron expresses certain reservations about him, he nonetheless sees in Fortin "a fierce eagle, a tragic and impassioned poet who, by virtue of his lyric imagination and rich ingenuity, rises far above the commonplace despite frequent formalistic transgressions". (p. 109)
Opponents of contemporary art subsequently made Fortin a symbol of their cause. He was dubbed a "local, traditional painter," and designated as the herald of a moderate form of art in opposition to what was being created by the avant-gardists. The publications in which texts dealing with his work appeared, such as L’Action catholique, Passe temps, Progrès du Golfe (Rimouski), and the Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe, are quite different from those of the preceding decades and from the newspapers and periodicals where contemporary art issues were being debated.
The second half of the 1950s was an extremely difficult period for Fortin. His works were rarely exhibited and he was forced to stop painting altogether due to illness. But the hiatus proved to be temporary.
After 1961: Marc-Aurèle Fortin Regains Popularity
It would be too time-consuming to thoroughly analyze all the whys and wherefores of the enthusiastic critical reception Fortin’s work received during the last period of his life. Among the factors that might explain this phenomenon are the interest shown in his work by museological institutions and the initiatives taken by private collectors. But the rise of a new nationalist spirit in Quebec most certainly played a role as well. In this regard, one of the most surprising articles published on Fortin in the early 1960s was penned by Pierre Bourgault and appeared in La Presse on November 25, 1961. The article, entitled "Marc-Aurèle Fortin: le peintre de son pays" ("Marc-Aurèle Fortin: The Painter of his Country"), was probably written soon after the exhibition at the L’Art Français gallery. As we know, Bourgault was a leader of the separatist party Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale (RIN), founded in 1960. In 1968, the group joined forces with the Ralliement National and René Lévesque’s Mouvement Souveraineté-Association to form the Parti Québécois. The time was ripe for proclaiming a new Francophone nationalism that aspired to greater control of governmental institutions as well as to securing more economic and cultural leverage. More urban in character, more open to modernism, this form of nationalism nonetheless sought to reclaim its past, as evidenced by an infatuation with folklore, crafts, regional antiques, traditional architecture, and other products of a heritage whose history was being "revisited". And indeed, these products were no longer being judged in relation to Catholicism and traditional rural values. Instead, they were seen as concrete examples of the ingenuity and creativity of French Canadian ancestors who had for so long resisted assimilation and acculturation.
Fortin is presented in Bourgault’s article as an emblematic figure of the Québécois man: disregarded by his contemporaries, his painting is described as at once "violent and serene" imbued with a "far-reaching, majestic, and powerful spirit." Bourgault projected onto Fortin’s approach what he himself considered the French Canadian quest for identity: "The fact is, he loves his country above all else. In his eyes, painting must be nationalistic. In his view, to reach a universal level, painting must first take shape within a context, a milieu". Bourgault goes on to say: "the need that French Canada is increasingly experiencing today to identify with a milieu is something Fortin expressed throughout his work without anyone ever having to tell him that he would be less of an artist if he separated himself from it". Because he was "deeply rooted in the people who made him and the land that nurtured him", he could never be "brought down". In a word, Bourgault turned Fortin into a symbol of French Canadian resistance. Bourgault claims that Fortin was for many years disregarded (which, as we have seen, is false) and concludes by saying: "Fortin has been labelled a revolutionary and a dabbler. In giving him the recognition he deserves today, despite what some might criticize about him, it can be seen that, with respect to the French Canadian reality, he is perhaps the most genuine painter Canada has ever produced".
Thus Fortin was drafted into the ranks of a new nationalist struggle. It is worth remembering, however, that the 1960s were not simply marked by a Québécois nationalism that would symbolically open up to the world with Expo 67. The period was also marked by Canadian nationalism which celebrated its centennial that same year. In the arts, Canadian museological institutions took an active role in creating a national art and art history. In Fortin’s case, it was the National Gallery of Canada that opened the door to his "entrance into history".
Pierre Bourgault’s article was preceded by one that Jean-René Ostiguy of the National Gallery of Canada published in the summer 1961 issue of Vie des arts. Like Bourgault’s article, Ostiguy’s was abundantly illustrated. He reminds readers that Fortin teaches us something about our past and concludes by stating that "the score sheet for the best and worst, what is good or bad, will be tallied later, perhaps with a retrospective exhibition..."
It was Jean-René Ostiguy himself who organized the Fortin retrospective for the National Gallery in Ottawa. The exhibition was held from April 16 to May 17, 1964 and subsequently presented at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from May 22 to June 14, and the Museum of the Province of Quebec from June 25 to July 19 before touring elsewhere in Canada. The impact of the exhibition was such that it generated nearly twenty articles in both the English and French press across Quebec between April and July. Even Claude Jasmin, a critic whose support for avant-garde contemporary art was well known, wrote a highly favourable piece appearing in La Presse on May 30, 1964—a piece many found surprising. "It is important to appreciate good painting regardless of schools of thought and put aside arguments about figurative vs. non-figurative art", wrote Jasmin. This was after lavishing praise on Fortin and before concluding with the resounding statement: "Down with false barriers!"
Fortin had now risen to the status of an "influential figure in our art history". It is important to note that his "return to grace" was also due to promotional efforts by two important collectors of his works, René Buisson and Jean-Pierre Bonneville, who exhibited their collections. In addition, Bonneville wrote a number of articles on Fortin during that decade.
Fortin thus took his place in history, but the process that brought him there was accompanied by the unique phenomenon of myth-making. He was cast as an "artiste maudit", a victim of fate and lack of understanding on the part of his contemporaries. More than one article published in the 1960s in fact fosters the legend that Fortin went completely unnoticed, which is entirely untrue, particularly as far as the period up to the mid 1940s is concerned. Writers often attribute his alleged rejection to his "gruff" antisocial nature and his unconventional "bohemian" behaviour. Consequently, the image of Fortin as an outsider emerged during the 1960s—an image whose romantic quality was only magnified by the fact that the artist had been struck by a "fateful destiny". The press paid increasing attention to Fortin’s illness, which resulted in the amputation of his legs and near total blindness. They likewise focused on the exploitation to which he had fallen victim at the hands of Albert Archambault, as well as the plundering of his works and sale of forged Fortins, again by Archambault. And finally, the articles recount the ups and downs that led to truth’s ultimate victory in a court of justice and the artist’s rescue by Mr. Buisson, who took him to the Sanatorium Saint-Jean in Macamic, Abitibi, where he spent the last years of his life.
The dramatic final phase of Fortin’s life was often the subject of commentary in mass-circulation dailies, giving him a somewhat mythical aura which probably accounts in large part for his success with the public. Unfortunately, it also may have at times hindered any real appreciation of his work and true understanding of his career.
After the Artist’s Death
As early as March 22, 1970—just 20 days after his death—an exhibition was organized in tribute to Fortin at the Maison des Arts in Chicoutimi. A number of Fortin exhibitions were subsequently held at private galleries such as L’Art Français, Moos, Walter Klinkhoff, Waddington & Shiell, and Michel Bigué. A few ostensibly retrospective exhibitions were presented at Place des Arts, the École Curé Antoine-Labelle in Sainte-Rose, and the Musée d’Art Contemporain des Laurentides (in the Vieux-Palais exhibition centre). Mention should also be made of the exhibition of works by Alfred Pellan, Marc-Aurèle Fortin, and Clarence Gagnon at the Maison des Arts in Laval, and of course the various exhibitions at the Marc-Aurèle Fortin Museum, which opened in 1984. Works by Fortin are exhibited in the permanent collections of museums and are often included in temporary exhibitions focusing on different aspects of art in Quebec and Canada.
However, despite the numerous publications that have appeared on Fortin, too many grey areas still exist, too much contradictory and/or incorrect data still remains. The time has come to undertake exhaustive research on his work and career. Only then will the public be in a position to adequately appreciate Fortin’s art and, above all, better understand why his work was also admired by his contemporaries.
(Footnotes available upon request.)
Professor, Department of Art History
University of Quebec, Montreal
© Copyright Esther Trépanier et Galerie Walter Klinkhoff Inc.