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The removal of the paintings from the Foreign Affairs building is inspired! Perhaps it will bring Alfred Pellan to public attention. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The removal of the paintings from the Foreign Affairs building is inspired! Perhaps it will bring Alfred Pellan to public attention. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Baird orders Quebec paintings replaced by Queen's portrait Add to ...

Foreign service staff and art lovers are grumbling about new Minister John Baird's decorating tastes inside the lobby of his department.

A pair of historic paintings by Quebec modern master Alfred Pellan were removed from their decades-old spot and replaced by a 2002 photo portrait of the Queen late last month.

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The change was ordered before the visit of Prince William and Kate in late June, and took some staff by surprise when they entered the Lester B. Pearson Building after the long weekend.

The large, brightly-coloured Pellan paintings, called "Canada West Canada East," show two coasts - one with details such as totem poles and the Coastal Mountains, the other featuring fishermen, moose and sailboats.

They have hung in the spot above the reception desk since the Queen opened the building in 1973, and the faint outlines of the works are still visible on the brown stone wall around her newly-hung photograph.

The Pellans were originally commissioned for the first Canadian mission in Brazil for its opening in 1944. Mr. Pellan had just fled Paris and the Second World War to return to his native Quebec.

Foreign service officers who spoke on condition of anonymity said the decision was taken quickly, and with little consultation with the department beforehand. They griped about the optics of removing a quintessentially Canadian piece that greeted foreign visitors, and replacing it with a photo image of the monarch.

Chris Day, a spokesman for Mr. Baird, said his boss was a "huge fan" of Canadian art but that the wall has a new designation.

"The Sovereign's Wall is a tribute that befits our head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, in recognition of her upcoming diamond jubilee in 2012," Mr. Day said in an email. "It was also established as a recognition of the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to the Pearson Building on July 1."

Robert Finch, dominion chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada, applauded the move, saying there haven't been nearly enough portraits of the Queen visible in Canadian government buildings - including the Governor General's residence at Rideau Hall.

This particular portrait was taken during her Golden Jubilee visit to Canada in 2002, and shows her standing before a Canadian flag and wearing Canadian insignia.

"To have a portrait of the Queen in a public building reinforces subtly, or explicitly frankly, the fact that the Queen is the head of state, the fact that the Queen is really the person who personifies the Canadian government," Mr. Finch said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government has emphasized respect for traditional Canadian symbols, including the military, the monarchy, and the North.

The Pellan paintings are in storage, but Mr. Day said they would be displayed elsewhere in the future, "as there is great demand and competing interest for them across government."

Mr. Pellan is regarded as one of Canada's most important, pioneering modern artists. Since his death in 1988, he's had a federal riding named after him as well as several public spaces in Quebec. Commuters in Montreal's Place des Arts Metro station might be familiar with his large stained glass mural, and another is visible to the public at the National Library of Canada.

Pellan biographer Germain Lefebvre called it "crazy" that Mr. Pellan's paintings had been taken down and replaced with a photograph that can be seen elsewhere.

"Alfred Pellan is the man who brought modernity in art to Quebec and Canada, when he returned from Paris in 1940," Lefebvre said.

"We were still in the Group of Seven period during those years, and he arrived with all this background in European modernism, with surrealism, with cubism, with all the influences of Matisse and Cezanne and all the great European painters. That was almost unknown here."

Fellow Pellan historian Reesa Greenberg said she worries about the direction the Department of Foreign Affairs has taken in recent years away from cultural diplomacy. The Conservatives have eliminated two programs to promote Canadian artists abroad, PromArt and Trade Routes.

She said Mr. Pellan had been an excellent choice for the reception area of the department.

"He's long been involved with federal projects, and that is of course what distinguishes him from Paul-Emile Borduas, who is another major Quebec artists of the 1940s. Borduas was a separatist and Pellan was a deep, deep federalist," said Greenberg.

"The appeal of Pellan I would think for the government was, here was an artist who had lived in Paris for over a decade, and came back as a result of World War II, and he was very much representative of an internationalist style when he came back to Canada, so in some ways an ideal choice for an international presence."

Mr. Finch of the Monarchist League said Canadian art has plenty of other venues, and the portrait of the Queen is refreshing.

"At the end of the day, it's not an art gallery," Mr. Finch said. "As much as some people may prefer to see pictures from various artists, we have lots of galleries and museums right across the country."

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