Illustrative lessons of a cartoonist's career
McCord Museum pays homage to legendary visual satirist Aislin, whose art has entertained and informed for 50 years
The year 2017 has been a bountiful one for Canadian anniversaries. The country is turning 150 years old, and Montreal, 375. Expo 67 was held exactly a half-century ago. But another anniversary is also being celebrated in Montreal right now, perhaps a smaller event though one just as important to the culture: Terry Mosher, known internationally by his pen name Aislin, is being honoured for 50 consecutive years as a full-time editorial cartoonist.
Along with television and radio interviews, newspaper columns and assorted tributes, Montreal's McCord Museum is presenting a retrospective show, Aislin: 50 Years of Cartoons, to mark the occasion. (It opened to crowds of fans on April 5 and will close Aug. 13.)
The year of Aislin's first published editorial cartoon, 1967, was a watershed year for Canada in general and Montreal in particular. Expo 67 unlocked an unexpected burst of national pride and focused world attention on a country unused to being regarded as remotely interesting. The subsequent years of FLQ unrest, referendums, Parti Québécois victories and language bills rocked the country, while at the same time unleashing powerful creative forces. In Quebec during those years, the fine arts – painting, theatre and music – all seemed to flourish in the environment of fraught politics and social revolution. It was an especially exciting time to step onto centre stage as a talented satirist (Aislin started at the now-defunct Montreal Star, before moving to the Gazette in 1972.)
As a fellow editorial cartoonist strolling through the McCord gallery, the thing that immediately strikes me is how strong and consistent Aislin's work is, right from the beginning. For most cartoonists, there seems to be an apprenticeship period during which the early work is often tentative and searching for a voice. Aislin found his voice early on and remained true to it throughout his 50 years at the drawing board.
Aislin's central contribution to Canadian cartooning was to nudge the art form from its somewhat earnest and socially proper voice into the contemporary world. Traditional cartoons of an earlier era portrayed burdened taxpayers carrying weighty sacks labelled "oppressive taxes" and frightened politicians looking at missiles labelled "atom bomb." Aislin's drawings catapulted readers into the visceral modern world of sex, politics and rock 'n' roll.
Editors initially had their doubts, but his readers immediately loved the rawness and honesty, and they still do. René Lévesque standing beside Robert Bourassa advising Quebeckers (and Canadians in general) to "Take a Valium." An open-shirted Pierre Trudeau asking a similarly dishevelled cigarette- smoking René Lévesque, "Did the earth move?" Images such as these and hundreds more have been implanted in our national consciousness and have become a part of our country's image of itself. The spirit in those drawings was edgy, fresh, graphically sophisticated and powerful.
Creating the show was a daunting task for both the artist and the museum. Over the course of his career, Aislin has drawn more than 12,000 editorial cartoons and the McCord Museum currently has 6,000 originals in its permanent collection. From those cartoons, Christian Vachon, the show's curator, and Aislin had to reduce the exhibited work down to a final 50 editorial cartoons.
How does one encapsulate 50 years of social and political satire into one exhibition? Aislin's work has always covered a broad range of subjects: international, federal, provincial and municipal politics, professional sports (especially the Habs) and the fascinating nuances of evolving popular culture. Instead of trying to summarize these diverse areas of commentary, Aislin and Vachon decided that the show would focus on his vision as a quintessential Montrealer.
The city of Montreal and its complex anglophone/francophone culture has always been a source of inspiration and deep affection for Aislin. Born in Ottawa in 1942, his family lived in Toronto while Aislin was in his teens. In his early 20s, he moved to Quebec City to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, and it was during that period that his love for Quebec took root, as did his passion for drawing.
Throughout his 50 years of cartooning, those dual passions have been at the heart of Aislin's intense creativity. Serge Chapleau, a cartoonist at Montreal's La Presse, summed up Aislin's importance when he said, "If you want to know what English Montrealers are thinking, you need to look at the cartoons of Aislin."
During my visit this past Wednesday, the museum was packed with excited fans. In the jammed foyer, a brief ceremony took place. The current editor of the Montreal Gazette, Lucinda Chodan (Aislin's 24th editor at the paper), spoke of Aislin's overwhelming and consistent ability to connect with readers. Bob Rae, the former Ontario premier, spoke of Aislin's ability to rattle the psyches of political leaders and arbiters of the status quo. There was a palpable feeling of respect in the room for the artist and his unique achievement.
Also launching on opening night at the McCord is Aislin's 48th book, Trudeau to Trudeau; 50 Years of Aislin. It is a rich autobiographical compendium of cartoons accompanied by Aislin's comments as well as his reflections on highlights from the past 50 years.
Having received so much acclaim and so many tributes, Aislin must feel an immense sense of accomplishment. He has surely met his goal, which he described in an interview in January with the Gazette journalist Marian Scott: "I would like to be remembered for recording my place in time – and getting it right." For 50 years now, Aislin did just that.
Aislin: 50 Years of Cartoons runs at the McCord Museum in Montreal through Aug. 13 (musee-mccord.qc.ca).
Brian Gable is the editorial cartoonist for The Globe and Mail