It wasn’t until the 1830s, as everyone knows from Grade 9 art, that early French Impressionists began to paint from life outdoors, in reaction to the formal constraints of the Academy. Pleinairism took off, giving the world Manet, Monet and company and (later, in Canada) the Group of Seven. The art world, rabidly commercial, loves a movement: Plein air was one, with real subjects painted in real settings in real time and real space, the here and the now and the human.
That was the romantic theory, in any event. Kitty Scott, curator of modern and contemporary wonders at the Art Gallery of Ontario, has pointed out that the new rage to paint outdoors was actually the result of three new technologies – ready-mixed tubes of paint, the retractable French easel and trains (so painters could travel to the suburban wilds of Paris).
More than 150 years later, artists are still making art outdoors, albeit more self-consciously. This summer, the Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Centre (named for a beloved Western plein air painter) will mount Pleinairism, a new edition of a show that graced Quebec City’s Musée national des beaux-arts last summer.
One classic modern plein air work in the Phillips collection is Rebecca Belmore’s Speaking to Their Mother – a seven-foot-high, eight-foot-long, hand-carved megaphone that Belmore, an Ojibwa artist from Southern Ontario, conceived at Banff in the early 1990s. Belmore set up the megaphone all over the country – on Parliament Hill, by lakes, in the forest – so people could speak to the landscape. They got up to all kinds of antics, apologizing for clear-cuts, playing drums, reading poems. Speaking to Their Mother let people do what outdoor art has always done: capture a moment in time and bring the present closer, in the same way people remember who they were with when they saw Christo’s silky saffron gates in Central Park in Manhattan. Outdoor art may be old-fashioned, but it has a knack for connecting with common folk.
It probably helps if money is not an issue
The breeze picked up, and Alex Emond set his pad against his boots to dry the washes of yellow, rose and blue he had been applying to the paper in layers. He was talking about the independently wealthy Lawren Harris, who also painted outdoors in these mountains. “Unquestionably a genius. A master, master painter. But you wonder how it helps when you know money’s not ever going to be an issue.”
Emond began to brush in shadows of lunar black, followed by washes of a thin and transparent viridian green.
Sometimes while out painting, he runs into bears, or wolves denning in the spring. “It’s kind of thrilling. Because how else are you going to see a bear close up without getting the shit scared out of you?” When he tires of painting greens – the curse of all landscape painters – he moves higher, above the tree line. “That’s the other thing. You get any heat at all, you get a billion bugs, which only make it harder to sit on your ass. But any day that’s above freezing, with watercolours, you can paint.” Pause, look, dab.
Emond turned to the mountain itself, and its largest tower. “It’s called Brewer Buttress,” he said. “I don’t know too much about the guy it’s named after, but I think he was hit by lightning.” Pause, look. “Railway worker.” Pause. “Not a bad way to go. Gets you right away.” Pause, dab, dab, look, dab. “I used to say my preferred way of dying would be to be in a tent and have a meteor go right through me. Then they could name the rock after me. Emonite.” Something to be remembered by.
Contemporary artists work in a hive of assistants and curators. Alex Emond works alone. He has never married. “I’ve had a few girlfriends, of course. And all that. But I like my independence. Like being able to pick up and go when I want to go.” His solitude seemed to be a necessity, rather than a stance, broken only by his two Australian cattle dogs. He paints them, a lot. He once lived alone as a fire watcher in a tower on the edge of Jasper National Park. He saw two fires start in three seasons. He never felt bored. “A lot of people don’t like any form of alone.”
Whatever else Emond paints outside – cars, cabins, creeks – he is also painting a chronicle of his solitude. It seemed admirable, but difficult. The way he kept going, faintly apologetic but never resentful, because somehow he had to. He keeps trying to find “the elemental,” the quality he admires in the work of his favourite painters, Edward Hopper (seaside light), Peter Doig (emotional mystery) and Doris McCarthy (the spareness of the High Arctic).