Article published in “Vie des Arts”, Vol. XXXI, # 24, September 86 – Fall Issue
Written by Lise Bissonnette, Associate Editor, Le Devoir.
As we are welcomed in his perfectly organized workshop in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, the light is both discrete and straightforward, like the artist himself. Maurice Raymond comes and goes among his works as if he were strolling in someone else’s workshop, and only hands over the keys in bits and pieces, that are yet concentrated and clear. For anyone willing to add them up, and to forego the usual time honored clichés, what suddenly emerges is a new look at the birth of contemporary art in Quebec. There have been periods of transition and transgressions without drama, without flash, and yet works that are rich after all, he says. His work stands among these.
The painter and professor had to be convinced to take on this retrospective exhibition, the Survol 1935-1985(1). Could he really see any point to this other history, his own history, outside of the mid-century squabbles between various Quebec schools of painting, when he decided to catch up with the times?
Maurice Raymond is among those who approached modernness with natural poise, because it had to be and because a creative artist cannot rest without risk. As a graduate of Montreal’s École des Beaux-Arts, and then a teacher at the same institution before the major re-evaluations, he could have become ensconced in comfortable certainties, as an artist who, in his early thirties, at the end of the War, had already won a Grand Prix de la Peinture at the Concours artistique du Québec.
Yet in this stifled Province, he sort of allowed himself to become destabilized by some of the winds that managed to blow in from abroad nonetheless: the United States, which had not yet begun to vibrate from the shock of their meeting with contemporary Europeans, but where, in 1941, according to him, he absorbed a naturalism that soon brought more vigor to his own representations. Painting as a form of touching, as he likes to emphasize regarding still life works where the framework and background are already transgressing the rules of representationalism.
In 1950, he finally went to Europe, and he returned with stars in his eyes. As well as some sadness. The windows were still narrow in Quebec, and it seemed to him that thus they would remain. For him, this was literally a black period, where objects were sketchily outlined on ochre and beige. Yet the École des Beaux-Arts, where he was still teaching, was now more in tune with the times. Father Couturier would be his guide through the parting of ways, while he stayed away from the great squabbles between Pellan and Borduas, who each laid claim to the first forays into Quebec modernness.
A founding member of the Association des Artistes Non Figuratifs, in 1956, he talks about this with some detachment. He especially distanced himself from the Refus Global, which had been glorified to the point of being a myth. When a creative artist is in touch with his roots, he explains, the social dimension of his work is self evident. He does not see any need to remove himself from his creative activities in order to proclaim his rejections.
And his work from that time, when his personality as a painter, with his very own style of expression, was shaped for good, bears witness to the fact that he went along with the deep breath that was rattling Quebec art once it had shaken loose from the shackles of its imagery. Great vertical planes emerge which reshape the paintings from the inside, as a kind of literal stage set with solid colors, which stands on its own. Superimposed, and playing on one another, barely stopped here and there by a black line – a living remnant from the recent past combined with his articulate knowledge of construction – the planes are chasing a very fine light. To hear him speak of this is almost as beautiful: “I capture it, then I give it some windows.”
The words of a man in love, and therefore anxious. For though he does not wish to be associated with any group that lives by the thunder of rejection, Maurice Raymond intensely experienced the successive dead ends of non-representationalism. He thus ended up in the minimalist, geometric movement of the sixties, which he sees less as a technical development than as a “quest for the absolute”, frustrating, and out of reach. The large scale paintings of the time were like an organ point, from which he eventually dared to emerge, yet with restrained lyricism, at a time when popular fads almost invariably called for total lyrical immersion.
The painting from the seventies goes back to more discrete dimensions, while suggesting a little more vegetation. One can just glimpse the tree under the brief oriental strokes, and the black intersections that finally let a glimmer of light escape, and sometimes also allow some color to run. One has to settle for one’s curiosity before an unbridled solstice of red and gold, for which he has a special fondness but which was not repeated. The “Ramures” (“Branches”) towards which he finally agrees to gravitate, now more explicitly, and this just a few years ago, are a representation that the mind concedes to the body: the tree is set, pure, tangled, and black. Maurice Raymond does not set himself totally free: “The lyrical in me, he says, always struggles with correctness”
Of certain painters it is said that they are beyond fads, sometimes to excuse them from being out of their time. Here, the century remains a presence right up to today. Mr. Raymond, as he is affectionately called by those he taught until 1977, has faithfully pursued his abstract research while others gave it up before the end of its term. In 1969, when the École des Beaux-Arts was integrated with the Université du Québec à Montréal, he initiated some technical research on color which, as far as he was concerned, was not properly speaking an aesthetic endeavor. Yet in this unique initiative taken at a time when others would have been content to rest, we can sense a kind of willful attempt to break through what must finally be seen as the deadlock of abstract expression.
He makes no claim to have succeeded. But through this effort, the pedagogue he is, who was admired by so many students, has provided us with a model of perseverance at a time when the return to emulating classic forms of expression all too often slipped into the worst forms of indulgence. Maurice Raymond’s work offers a renewed understanding of Quebec art, a reassuring rediscovery of its capacity for inward inquiry(2).
1) Presented at the Galerie du 22 mars, from April 17 to May 4, 1986.
2) See also the article by Gilbert Tarrab entitled Couleurs et lumières (Colors and Lights), in Vie des Arts, XXII, 90, 76.