Social Commentary in the Work of Joseph Légaré and Armand Vaillancourt

Ray Punter

This essay is the result of several influences currently effecting this author’s life, some personal, some more broadly political, the locus of which stems from my recent relocation to the city of Montreal from Vancouver, where I lived for eight years. Having grown up in Ontario, my familiarity with Québecois culture has really only just begun, but living in this city, and presently studying the language, history and art of the region has deepened my awareness of the links tying the country together in linguistic, political and narrative terms, to take only a few themes for the purpose of analyzing the complex subjects in the work of the Québecois artists I have chosen for research under the broad theme of social commentary bridging the pre-modern and modern eras.

Joseph Légaré (b.1795-1855) and Armand Vaillancourt (b.1932) share a surface similarity in that both used their art to express and agitate for their political and social beliefs in complex aesthetic ways. The (then) current phase of imperial and colonial relations between the British, the French (and to some extent the United States), as well as the Catholic church, will be the broad scope of social forces I will examine in relation to Légaré and the times in which he was producing his art, from his vantage point as one of the “small French elite living in Québec City, in the [then] current capital of British North America,” at the time of his coming-of-age as both an artist and an activist [1]. His work will serve as a broad representation of Québec’s pre-modern life and art, given his predominance in cultural life (opening the first art gallery in Canada in 1833) in a period when Québec culture was under serious threat from English Canada. Problems related to the Act of Union in 1840 exacerbated Québec’s grievances under the imperial system in place at the time, most notably the stated attempt to assimilate the French by Lord Durham in the 1939 Report on the Affairs of British North America, in which he stated that the French were a people without a history or a literature. Vaillancourt, a distant inheritor of still unresolved struggles in Québec, came of age in his own respectively turbulent times, and makes for an apt comparison in several respects. Pertinently, through his work it will be possible to distinguish the differences in political dynamic and attitude of those still committed to sovereignty after major shifts in the political and cultural landscape which had come about as a result of the Quiet Revolution, and, his use of and approach to his materials will be a focus of this essay. Advocating for ethnic French values through art embodying the formal aesthetic changes their respective histories and cultures represent, the comparison will allow for a look at several styles presented in Légaré’s early realist painting, and in the modernist monumental sculpture of Vaillancourt. Additionally, the political activities of both men provide room for a deeper level of analysis of the contribution each made in the social sphere they worked on behalf of.

Vaillancourt might have been talking about Légaré with the words “what was once called populism is now called radical behavior and has a social stigma, so estranged from a collectivity have our social norms become” [2]. Rural values, which could be one subtext of this statement in terms of the ‘social norms’ of Vaillancourt’s own upbringing, ‘La Terre,’ and Légaré’s connection to it, found for example in his early religious works and landscapes, connect these values pictorially. Infusing elements of the picturesque tradition and French romanticism into his work, Vaillancourt, through work such as Cascades de la Riviere Saint-Charles a Lorette (ca. 1840), embodied the changing notion of the landscape in several respects. Three building structures occupy the top righthand side of the piece, along a horizon line over which the river that divides the canvas itself, in a diagonal from that corner to the bottom left, off which the river continues unseen. The representation of the inhabitants of the place, through their architectural structures, within a landscape tinged with an almost sublime suggestion—from the exact texture of the natural environment—weathered but hearty bushes lining the river, slightly gnarled and bare tree limbs almost sporadically placed, the endurance of the flora in the often hostile environment speaks on behalf of those inhabitants and testifies to the harsh realities of their existence there. As “the father of Canadian landscape,” Légaré, perhaps the first to regard the land as a subject in its own right rather than as military or topographical study, began a thread of the pictorial narrative which would come to be expounded upon explicitly by generations of Canadian artists. Vaillancourt’s early sculpture, The Tree of Durocher St, while being a vastly different work in material and context, will provide interesting points of comparison between the personalities of the two artists, and serve to elucidate some of the vast changes which had inevitably taken place in Canadian art over the century that separates them. The Tree of Durocher St, which John Grande links to the earlier monumental sculpture of Louis Jobin (1845-1928) of “populist, rural and agricultural traditions,” (religious subject matter and ice sculpture are offered as loose parallels) [3] while being in an entirely different modality in that its critique of museum structures is implicit in the public and performative elements of its construction, still engages a tradition of working with nature: “I wanted to keep the beautiful form of that tree. But I also wanted to put my mark on it” [4]. A dead tree, thus transformed into a human form in an upward reaching gesture from within the limbs of its natural shape and accented in the hallowed forms, multiplying the perspectives from which the modernist piece can be viewed, does, similarly, shift the way the public sculpture of Vaillancourt’s day would be viewed in a manner similar to Légaré’s transformation of the landscape. Both artists renegotiate the subject in their respective medium—Légaré in bringing about a transformation in the perception of the landscape and its inherent rural values, and Vaillancourt “initiating a phase of environmental sculpture, which could be called art for the public” [5].

Grounded in the traditions of their forbears, each artist was, interestingly, also directly active in the political currents of their times, and both at least made attempts to run for public offices, reflecting the depth of their beliefs. In the case of Légaré, for example, “ever faithful to his principles and convictions, he displayed a lifelong concern for the welfare of his fellow citizens and for the moral and material improvement of his native lands” [6]. His many recorded activities as a municipal administrator, as a city councilor and Board of Health member in Québec City, and as an advocate for numerous causes—from prisoners’ rights to fire and famine relief both at home and abroad—extend innumerable possible discussions of his painting itself. The series of works relating to the fires in Québec City in 1845 will serve as fruitful examples to elucidate this point. The Fire in the Sainte-Rock Quarter Seen from Cote-a-Coton Looking Westward (1845), along with its counterpart, looking eastward, survey the damage done to a majority French-Canadian neighborhood wiped out literally overnight, killing 20 and rendering homeless, and in many cases jobless, more than 12 000 people. The aftermath of the devastation, while the rubble still smolders, pictures the remnants of the 1500 homes and businesses destroyed, the chimneys and stone foundations of structures completely gutted by the fire. The moody darkness of the piece, lit from within by a few still-smoldering embers from which trails of smoke rise into the darkened sky, as well as the eerie quiet of the desolation, make this piece a festival of sensual invocations—indeed, the sobering quiet of an empty neighborhood still emits the odors of the fire, while the light spectrally invokes lost lives, in addition to the obvious comparison to graveyard monuments of the chimneys. The viewer’s sympathy can still be invoked for the plight of the neighborhood’s former inhabitants, but, as Légaré’s involvement with relief committees attests, that is likely their primary aim—putting his skills in the service of the cause at hand and aiding his fellow compatriots in their darkest of times, the proceeds from the sale of these works being donated to the relief effort. That the same scene was repeated in the Sainte-Jean quarter only a month later (rendered by Légaré in that version in the full spectacle of the raging inferno) demonstrates the precariousness of life in technologically-limited times. As historical memories of the people are embodied in these works, based, as they are, on such monumental events in the lives of his fellow citizens, Légaré’s civic sympathies are amply demonstrated. Perhaps in the same fashion, Vaillancourt’sAsbestos (1963), an anti-nuclear-themed work commissioned for the École Technique in Asbestos, demonstrates a similar concern for citizens living under threat of disaster, in this case a human-made one still present since the world witnessed the destructive force of atomic energy during World War II. Completed “using Vaillancourt’s styrofoam casting technique, the metal included pieces of bronze within it that created an unusual conglomerate of material within the forms” [7]. A mass of organic and architectural forms, there is something industrial and yet animal about the piece, resting as it does on several wobbly ‘legs’ on the plinth on which it rests. Vaillancourt describes the piece himself as “clouds of death after a nuclear winter, a work that suggests strength, madness and desolation” [8]. Indeed, its haunting shape easily calls to mind the burned-out and fragmented structures we have all witnessed through photographs of Hiroshima, Dresden, New York City, or any other urban centre ravaged by violence.

Social justice issues are prominent in both artists’ work, but with differing focuses. Légaré’s Cholera Plague, Québec (ca. 1837) captures several critiques and insights worth exploring. A desperate scene is portrayed at the height of the epidemic in Québec City in 1832; the gathering and burying of the dead is the main activity represented. Again Légaré uses eerie lighting to amplify the horrific nature of the desperation of measures used to resist the epidemic. The full moonlight, peering through the dark clouds over the town square, casts equally cloudy shadows of the figures on the ground. Additionally, burning pots of sulphur give off a glow in a vain attempt to arrest the transmission of what was believed to be an airborne disease [9]. Barry Lord retrieves from this scene several levels of explanation relating the disease to British Imperial policy of the times. First, the origin of the disease traveled via Europe to North America from India, another British colonial outpost. Secondly, the situation in Ireland of large numbers of impoverished people, it was thought, could be solved by moving them to the colonies in mass migration efforts (additionally ‘diluting’ the French Canadian population). Overcrowded conditions on the ships, he claims, exacerbated the epidemic and made its arrival in the ‘New World’ a foregone conclusion. Thirdly, he indicts the callousness of wealthy British administrators who could afford to leave the city for the safety of the countryside, leaving the poor to fend for themselves against the epidemic with ineffectual means, such as the sulphur. Légaré’s concern for the poor extends here additionally to the Irish, whose burial customs of mourners following the dead behind the hearse is here depicted specifically, and claimed by Lord to be a sign of solidarity with the Irish [10].

In an interesting parallel, Vaillancourt makes a gesture that reaches out to all people in his work Drapeau Blanc (1987), installed at Laval University. Literally, the extended hands of solidarity are imprinted onto the various large white boulders he transported from the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region and installed at various sights around the campus. Additionally, quotes from historical figures are carved into the stones from Hindu poets to Gaston Miron (Québec nationalist poet), Félix Leclerc (‘the father of the Québec chanson’), and no less than Martin Luther King, whose “we must learn to live together like brothers or we will die together like idiots” requires little further comment, but the pieces, masses carved with text and covered with handprints, describe a continuum of humanity, history and nature; the solidity of the material suggests, by sheer force of mass, a communal project in which all are involved, as transportation of so much stone to Laval University was not done alone.

Unfortunately, there is an aspect of Légaré’s work not in concordance with Vaillancourt’s more enlightened view in this respect. I would like to be able to rescue his view of North American aboriginal peoples from this taint, but the problematic and stereotyped representation of them as alternatively ‘noble’ or ‘barbarous’ savages is too much in evidence to ignore. As outlined by Gillian Poulter, his was “a history of the French Canadian nation and the heroic struggle of the missionaries and settlers against the treachery and barbarity of the Iroquois” [11].The Martyrdom of a Jesuit Father (1843) exemplifies this attitude plainly. A Jesuit priest, likely Father Isaac Jogues (1607-1646), killed at Osserman, NY, by an Iroquois, is depicted pale and spectral in his robe while looking skyward and clutching a crucifix while one native holds him and another, half clothed, face concealed behind a raised arm holding a tomahawk, prepares to deliver the death blow. A half dozen other tribesmen look on from the forest just behind the central group. There is no doubt about where the sympathies of the viewer are being directed. The fearful but staid posture and gaze of the Jesuit, accepting of his fate, is delivered to him by the Iroquois, collectively represented as unperturbed. The fire in the middle-ground, against which the foregrounded figures stand out, interestingly, could not possibly fall on the Jesuit father’s face in the depicted bodily position. A divine light, it is suggested, falls on the Christian. In other works of similar theme, Poulter makes reference to the possible use of an allegorical reading, aligning Légaré’s nationalism with the plight of the Huron, New France’s early ally, in such works as The Massacre of the Huron by the Iroquois(1828) and Indian Scalping His Prisoner (date unknown). Regardless of this possibility, which would require further research than this essay permits, the effect of the works on the classes of people who would have seen them originally would likely have served to reinforce the colonial attitude of civilizing superiors over the ‘childlike’ savages.

Vaillancourt, oppositely, was quite successful in overcoming the distance between colonizer and colonized expressed in Légaré’s works, and further, has actively sought to escape the traditional use of materials:

which he perceived as something to be conquered and transformed. If nature, his tough rural upbringing played a role in this perception, his conception of the world in physical terms likewise links him to the long standing populist traditions in Québec society. These always carried with them a certain cachet of freedom, but the restraining forces of church and state were likewise present. Abstraction became a kind of escape from these traditions. [12]

His work Hommage aux Amerindiens, (1991), a series of (loosely) teepee-shaped constructions of plywood of various colours engraved with Innu and Amerindian iconography, were installed in Montreal, Québec City, and Saint Saveur respectively in 1991. Their portability, interestingly, lends weight to their acting as a reminder of aboriginal claims to the land, wherever they stand. It is in Guy Sioui Durand’s discussion of Vaillancourt’s work in terms of an integrated action that I find these works most interesting. Their roughly slapped together construction, along with the impermanent temporal duration when they were erected, makes them more interesting as a comment on art as an agent of social change. Vaillancourt’s reaching out to first nation’s peoples, the work suggests, is a connection made through symbols and material, joined in space and time, and has a specific purpose of advancing the state of the relationship through the work and discussion it raises. Significantly to these works, the point I think they raise is the shift that took place between Légaré’s time and Vaillancourt’s, who had since lived through the modernization process engendered in the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. Language, culture, religion and politics all went through major resulting changes, but the ongoing struggle in this period, represented by Vaillancourt, demonstrates Québec as multiethnic, cosmopolitan, and able to embrace the complex needs of the movement’s ultimate aim.

Finally, I will make brief notes on one further work by each artist to explain their position in relationship to their views explicitly to do with the notion of sovereignty, which, while each of the ones I have discussed previously could be made an argument for this respect of both artists’ thinking, there is more to each in their work, as I hope I have made clear in my discussion. Légaré’s The Battle of Sainte Foy (1854), an historical tableaux done in the last year of his life, and for which he won first prize at Agricultural and Cultural Exhibition of Lower Canada that year, depicts a sunset, with the Laurentiens and the St. Charles River in the background of the battle scene; the British, under General Murray, are surrounded by French troops, Canadien militiamen, and a contingent of aboriginals in a grove of trees to the left of the canvas, on the land of a farmer and miller named Dumont, where the bones from the battle were discovered much later. The French General Levis is perched atop his white horse in the central foreground directing the battle. The Canadiennes, swords drawn and donning red toques, march into the fray. The maneuver used by Levis leaves Murray no choice but to retreat. The patriote supporting newspaper ’ Le Canadien’ had been publishing various important moments in the history of French-Canada during February of 1837, to ‘merely’ give readers a sense of their own culture’s involvement in the past. It was the historian Françoise Xavier Garneau from whom Légaré took the depiction of the battle. As an active member of the St. Jean Baptiste Society, who carried out the formal burial of the remains of the soldiers from the battle with much pomp and ceremony, Légaré cannot be doubted as to his intention with this painting to be similarly inflammatory to patriotesentiments.

Vaillancourt’s 1996 work Song of the Nations seems a similar sort of reminder, to both French-Canadians and other nationalist groups working for self-determination, that their identity must be proclaimed and struggled for or risk being diminished in relation to its surrounding cultures. For his installation at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum in 1996, numerous tree branches were collected from a clear-cut site on P.E.I. and transported to the gallery after being stripped of their bark and painted in various bright colors before being suspended from the ceiling with the quote from the UN Charter of Rights and Freedoms “Pour le Droit Inalienable de Peuples a L’autodetermination” inscribed on the wall below. Aptly outlined by Jeremy Webber, “the sovereigntist leadership has rejected the definition of the nation in solely cultural or linguistic terms. The emphasis has changed from the building of a wholly French polity in Québec toward the affirmation of a political identity defined in territorial terms, to include all citizens resident within Québec. This is reflected in something as simple as sovereignists use of ‘Québecois’ to include Québec residents of every linguistic or ethnic background” [13]. In the work, a large purple branch obscures the representation of Québec, painted blue and ornamented with several fleurs-de-lis—a fairly obvious comment on Vaillancourt’s perception of the relationship Québec shares with the rest of the country. Terry Graff astutely points out that his work “gives form to a concept of nationalism as an international ideology where a nation can only be deemed a nation in a world of nations, and where nationhood is considered the supreme bond” [14]. While I do not agree with Vaillancourt’s vision for the country (and his work has been critiqued extensively on this matter elsewhere), I am impressed with his convictions. Again, labor, the land, and the past traditions of the people are recalled in his direct actions on the elements of the work, and in the name of self-determination for the Québecois, the battle is not yet over.

1. John Porter. Joseph Légaré 1795-1855 (Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, 1978) p. 10.
2. John Grande, Playing With Fire (Montreal, Zeit&Geist, 1999) p. 34.
3. Ibid., p. 16.
4. Ibid., p. 40.
5. Ibid., p. 22.
6. John Porter, Joseph Légaré 1795-1855 (Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, 1978) p. 15.
7. Grande, p. 16.
8. Ibid., p. 32.
9. Barry Lord, The History of Painting in Canada (Toronto, NC Press. 1974), p. 50.
10. Ibid., p. 50.
11. Gillian Poulter, “Representation as Colonial Rhetoric.” The Canadian Journal of Art History, vol.16, no.1, (1994), pp. 10-29.
12. John Grande, Mass Sculpture (St. Foy, Les Publications du Québec, 2004), p. 24.
13. Jeremy Webber, Reimagining Canada: Language, Culture, Community, and the Canadian Constitution(Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994), p. 18
14. Terry Graff in Armand Vaillancourt Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum, Charlottown, 1998, p. 40