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This three-storey homage to Mordecai Richler, created by Dominique Desbiens and Bruno Rouyère, is one of about 100 murals that the organization called MU has fashioned on walls around Montreal.


In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.

Mordecai Richler looks down on a small parking lot and a firefighters' museum. Gilles Vigneault is caught with his mouth eternally open in song, along a bleak avenue in Montreal's east end.

In recent weeks, images of Richler and Vigneault have appeared, larger than life and weatherproof, on buildings in Montreal. The Richler caricature, the work of Dominique Desbiens and Bruno Rouyère, rises a full three storeys.

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In some countries, you have to be a despot or political prophet to merit such a towering hurrah. In Montreal, where outdoor walls are frequently used as projection screens, a permanent mural is often only partly about celebrating a theme or public personality. The other objective is to put something on the wall before someone else does.

Interior murals are as old as painting itself, as we know from ancient cave murals. The modern kind of outdoor mural is a different phenomenon, spurred by shifting ideas about what exterior walls are for. The advent of commercial culture brought new meaning to an exposed wall, as a blank surface awaiting a profitable message. If your store had a wall people could see, you naturally sent someone up on a scaffold with a bucket of paint, to turn the wall into a giant ad for whatever you were selling.

Ads of this kind can still be seen, in Montreal and elsewhere, faintly touting the quality of goods in a long-vanished store or factory. Hand-painted wall ads were replaced decades ago by billboards, and also by a more informal kind of hand painting: graffiti.

MU, the organization behind the Richler mural and about 100 others in Montreal, says its mission is to turn the city into "an open-air museum." But a key part of its pitch to building owners is that a mural will act as "a deterrent to acts of vandalism," as its website says.

Elizabeth-Ann Doyle, MU's general and artistic director, says one of her guiding principles is the "broken windows" theory, an influential idea from the 1980s, which holds that disorderly and criminal behaviour tend to flourish in places that are rundown and vandalized. Put up a professionally painted mural that has some local significance, Doyle says, and "you change people's perception of their environment," and stimulate other community-minded actions. MU also does companion projects at each site, often involving local school kids, and by putting murals where ads used to be, "makes art available to everybody on a daily basis," she says.

MU's website also proclaims the need to "take back public space," which is where the discussion gets complicated. MU installs murals only on privately owned walls. But Doyle argues that a wall visible to everyone is part of the public space, although any and all decoration is under private control. "Whoever owns the wall is irrelevant," she says.

"Taking back public space," in this context, seems to refer to those pesky graffiti artists, who, by making a private mark on a private surface, are deemed to be usurping a public space. This is an even more complex overlap of the private and the public than you find in the average shopping mall.

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Doyle's intriguing position has played remarkably well with the City of Montreal, which has funded many MU projects through its department of public works. No doubt, MU's status as a not-for-profit organization helps bridge the conceptual gap between public works and private property. This year, MU submitted an application to fund the Richler mural to the city's Public Art Bureau, which, under a pilot funding program, gave Doyle's organization $30,000 toward the project's approximate $50,000 cost.

The Richler mural is part of a MU series called Montreal's Greatest Artists, which, since 2010, has offered building-sized tributes to 10 local creators. They include painter Paul-Émile Borduas, pianist Oscar Peterson, cabaret singer Alys Robi and poet Émile Nelligan, who is represented with five other poets in a giant bookshelf mural clearly beholden to the Kansas City Public Library's Community Bookshelf installation.

Foregrounding artists is a shrewd move, as Doyle seeks to nudge her "open-air museum" notion ahead of the vandalism-control theme that helped MU get started.

The Gilles Vigneault portrait, which is actually a ceramic mosaic, is part of another artists series, produced by the wonderfully titled Société pour Promouvoir les Arts Gigantesques (SPAG). SPAG's all-francophone series of eight includes singer Pauline Julien, Théâtre de Quat'Sous founder Paul Buissonneau and rock musician and writer Plume Latraverse. All the mosaic portraits were made by Laurent Gascon, a veteran artist whose work was included in Corridart, a legendary open-air group exhibition set up in 1976 along 5.5 kilometres of Sherbrooke Street. The provincially-funded show became the centre of a scandal when it was demolished just before opening by order of Mayor Jean Drapeau, who decided that the artworks constituted "a pollution" of the public space.

All of Gascon's works for SPAG are arrayed along a wide swath of Ontario Street East. He seems intent on establishing his own personal Corridart along this rugged east-end artery. Any rogue mayor who decided to eliminate these art works in the dead of night, as Drapeau did in 1976, would have a hard job chipping Gascon's ceramics off the masonry.

The current mayor, Denis Coderre, became a skittish partner in the recent resurrection of one Corridart piece: a giant cross by Pierre Ayot, similar to the one on the top of Mount Royal, but tipped over on its side. It was installed earlier this month at Parc Jeanne-Mance, after getting, then losing, then regaining the mayor's support for a $10,000 city grant for the project.

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Apparently, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of turning Montreal into an open-air museum.

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