Lot # 042
Jean Paul Lemieux
CC QMG RCA 1904 - 1990 Canadian
Femme en noir
oil on canvas
signed and dated 1980 and on verso titled
44 1/2 x 24 1/4 in 113 x 61.6cm
Kaspar Gallery, Toronto
Private Collection, Montreal
What happened to Jean Paul Lemieux's painting in the 1980s? Femme en noir is from 1980 - which is why I ask the question. At first, we recognize a typical Lemieux from 20 years previously: a lady standing in front of an empty snowy landscape, facing the spectator, under a grey sky...but then we become aware of some differences. This "Femme" is much closer to us than in the previous paintings. She is no longer lost in an immense empty space, or pushed aside to show her "domain". On the contrary, here her elbows extend beyond the edge of the painting, as does her hat. She fills the painting, and the landscape behind her is reduced to two areas of uniform color: silver-white and a taupe-grey. And then we are struck by one major innovation: the face and the clutching gesture of the hands are suddenly...expressive. We are not in front of a neutral figure anymore, one that is just there without specific expression one way or the other, which was so noticeable in the previous paintings. On the contrary, the face of this woman is now unmistakably expressing some worry, if not fear or anguish. She is not looking at us - she is looking at something in front of her in the distance that we do not see. By looking at her expression we sense that this could be something dangerous, if not ominous.
It is a fact that the last period of Lemieux's painting expressed ecological, even political preoccupations about the fate of our planet, of our civilization and of our culture. Nuclear activities, atomic wars, destruction of entire cities, armies clashing one against the other with civilians being the victims of their senseless power - at the scale not only of Quebec or Canada but of the whole world - were clearly on his mind. What we could describe as the detached, philosophical stand of his earlier people - what I am tempted to describe as simply "being-there", as Dasein, borrowing the term from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger - is gone. Now the woman loses her impassibility, her aloofness, and shows concern. This is no longer the time of the Quiet Revolution. Nothing is quiet in what Lemieux sees in the future of humanity. Some critics may have regretted this invasion of politics in Lemieux's later paintings, or rather the passage from an almost abstract painting to a definitely expressionistic one. I think they are wrong. Lemieux was simply being honest in expressing his own anxious perception of the future. What our painting reveals specifically is that the abstract scheme of the composition - the woman in front of a snowy landscape - elaborated previously in his work, could easily, at least by his master touch, be given a new meaning by almost imperceptible changes in the gaze, the mouth and the bare hand. The look of the woman is especially eloquent here. Lemieux stayed faithful to himself.
This invasion of feelings seen in Lemieux's later figures does not mean that he took a new interest in the individual as such. Note that the title of the painting, Femme en noir, is kept at a great level of generality - no name is given to the woman. If we had only the title, we would not even know if she is old or young. Lemieux maintains the universal character of his people. They now share less of their physical presence with the land than a community of anguish in facing the future.
We thank François-Marc Gagnon of the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute of Studies in Canadian Art, Concordia University, for contributing the above essay.
Exposé à: Heffel Gallery Montreal