The press conference for Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist, at the National Gallery of Canada last week, was one of those surreal affairs that sometimes transpire in the art world, moments where the spectacle of the museum, the artist and the public is almost as fascinating as the art on display.
There, seated in front of his huge, vividly colourful work Androgyny, the artist sat slumped in his wheelchair. His body, at 73, has absorbed a lot of punishment; the horrors of sexual abuse during his residential-school years in Port Arthur, Ont. (now part of Thunder Bay), the ravages of an enduring alcoholism that drove him to live for a while on the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in the late 1980s, and the final indignities of Parkinson's disease, which has left his facial features limp and hanging. Talking is no longer really an option.
At his feet, a swarm of photographers crouched to get their shots of the famed Anishinabe artist. Some lay sprawled at his feet, propped on their elbows the better to wield their heavy lenses. They were pulling out all the stops, going for the most dramatic view of the artist's weather-beaten, crumbling frame, a figure that many might see as embodying the tragic, broken figure of the Indian in contemporary society. These pictures would be worth a lot. It made you want to look away.
In truth, behind the mask of his Parkinsonism, Morrisseau was having a great moment, long awaited and fully savoured, at least according to his adoptive daughter-in-law, Michele Vadas. When her husband, Gabe, stepped in after a few minutes to ask Morrisseau if he had had enough, he indicated that he had not.
After all, this had been a long time coming.
Morrisseau is the first living aboriginal artist to have a solo show at the National Gallery, but the gallery didn't start acquiring his work until 2000, and even then it was a pair of works accepted as donations. (The gallery has subsequently bought four more.)
For decades, he has been working in obscurity. These days, he lives in a care facility in Nanaimo, B.C., but there was a time, in the late 1980s, when he was selling his work on the streets of Vancouver for next to nothing. It was pandering tourist-trap drivel that held little of the intensity of Morrisseau at his best.
Then there have been the fakes -- a rash of pseudo-Morrisseaus that have destabilized the market in his work, and further eroded his reputation.
This moment at the National Gallery, however, seemed to lift him up above all the squalor and the sorrow. Here, in the galleries around us, you could discover incontrovertible evidence of two truths about Morrisseau: the force of the artist's visionary spirituality in his prime, and his extraordinary ability to convey those qualities in the painted image.
The show has been carefully shaped by NGC curator Greg Hill; 60 pieces have been selected from a highly variable oeuvre of more than 8,000 works. Hill begins with Morrisseau's earliest pieces, such as a spidery, ballpoint drawing titled Coming Away from the 1960s -- a complex transcription of a mystical journey rendered in two dimensions. But the pictures soon bump up in scale and become more simplified and graphically bold, like his electrifying study of the lake monster Michipichou, a cat-like horned creature with fierce red eyes who lived beneath the waves, reimagined as the electrifying Water Spirit (1972).
As Ruth Phillips explains in her excellent catalogue essay, the pictures say as much about white notions of native "authenticity" as they do about the artist's rootedness in Anishinabe lore and legend, and she identifies the three principal white influences that shaped his early production.
The first, in 1959, was Joseph and Ester Weinstein, his first white buyers. They offered him access to their art collection and their extensive library of art books, and they instilled in him a fascination with modern European painting, which they also bought.
Next was anthropologist and painter Selwyn Dewdney from London, Ont. Morrisseau met him in 1962, when Dewdney was touring Northern Ontario. It would be a complicated bond. Dewdney advised the young artist on how to make his delicate, highly coloured drawings palatable to white audiences even as he shared with his new aboriginal friend the records he had made of prehistoric Anishinabe pictograms, drawings that would be important source materials for Morrisseau's developing art.
Dewdney also guided him on the use of materials, urging him to abandon pen and paper in favour of the more durable paint-on-canvas, or even paint-on-moosehide. As well, he encouraged him to stick to earth tones that, he argued, would best reflect the artist's indigenous roots, unwittingly betraying his understanding of the aboriginal artist as a being more of nature than of culture.
Devoted to developing Morrisseau's reputation in the South, he coached him to make the leap from souvenir-maker to successful fine artist in a white world. The paintings that resulted, such as Death the Devourer of Human Flesh and Snake Sturgeon of the Ojibway, both from the mid-1960s -- are among the finest works in the show, but they are best understood as documents of two worlds colliding, and the pressure and allure each held for the other.
Finally, there was Jack Pollock, who, like the Weinsteins, was steeped in modernism, and who held the first wildly successful commercial show of the artist's work in Toronto. (Pollock used to insist that Morrisseau had discovered him, in 1962, and not the other way around, rightly underscoring the role the native artist had in the creation of Pollock's reputation on the Toronto scene.)
Phillips describes how Morrisseau, and the Inuit carvers under the like-minded direction of James Houston, fed into the developing sense of Canada as a place both primal and modern. One thing was for sure: native artists had to know how to play the white man's game, they had to be able to work the media and the market, or they weren't going anywhere.
Morrisseau and his followers (the artists of the Woodland School), the early Inuit carvers and the Haida artists of the West Coast were the first to try.
Morrisseau's pictorial manner has been described as an X-ray style, with the inner parts of the body revealed, and every form bounded by a heavy black line. These bold outlines are often extended with flaring hooked tendrils that evoke a vivid force field around the creature, spirit or human subject. Critics have found the roots of this style in the scroll paintings of the Midewiwin Society, the centuries-old order of Anishinabe shamans who recorded their visions and travels between dimensions.
It is notable, though, that the rib cages of his subjects are the most frequently defined, recalling, perhaps, the chest X-rays to which the artist would have been subjected during his early 20s, when he was hospitalized for tuberculosis in a Thunder Bay hospital. Medical technology saved his life, no doubt, but it also would have delivered a way of knowing and governing the body that was utterly alien to the young man raised with traditional Anishinabe medicine.
The X-ray imagery thus cuts both ways: It's a visual souvenir of his foray into the white world of medicine, through which he was healed, and it's a reminder of the illnesses brought by European contact, and the white man's alienating, clinical way of understanding the body and its healing.
The other signature feature of the Morrisseau style is the separation of form into areas of distinct colour, in a manner reminiscent of stained glass. Morrisseau reputedly began using this technique during his convalescence, when he made frequent trips to the nearby Catholic church. For a time, he became a convert to Christianity. Like the X-ray style, the stained-glass style suggests salvation, but it also invokes the loss of the artist's own traditional beliefs.
Making these images -- like the magnificent 1977 painting cycle Man Changing into Thunderbird -- Morrisseau had to contend not only with a white audience and its denigration of aboriginal people, but also with his own community, which felt he had betrayed the sanctity of the old myths -- imbibed in childhood at the knee of his maternal grandfather -- by representing them to the white world. In the end, one senses that Morrisseau ended up a figure alienated in both spheres.
Several works in the exhibition directly address the social problems in the native community, and they read now as very much ahead of their game. In The Gift (1975), a white missionary approaches an Anishinabe man and child, bearing a medicine bag decorated with a crucifix. At first, the scene seems congenial enough, until you notice that all three figures are covered in spots, the imprimatur of smallpox. A painting made the next year, titled Land Rights (1976), shows an Anishinabe man and child negotiating a land claim with a white government agent and a miner. The work suggests the greater militancy of the emerging generation through the form of the baby, who leans forward from his father's embrace into the white man's space, his fist a fiery club radiating spikes. In his activism, Morrisseau was a pioneer, breaking open new ground in a discourse that has now become a staple of Canadian cultural debate.
In the eighties, prompted by exposure to European art during a trip to France (he was one of just three Canadians included in the landmark show Magiciens de la Terre, at the Pompidou Centre), he turned his back on the dour European palette (as he saw it) and embraced vivid, strikingly synthetic colour. The rest of his production is a testament to his faith in the restorative power of colour, and the importance of Eckankar (the New Age religion he embraced in 1976), but the work often seems to resort to mere illustration.
Turning away from darkness has arguably come at a cost for Morrisseau, aesthetically, but it represents a happy ending. This is, after all, a trajectory traced by many artists in their last years -- an arc from edgy brilliance and innovation in youth to mellow coasting in old age, with the celebration of family and the beauty of the world at the centre. One of the comforts of advancing years, surely, is that one's inner demons can finally lie down and sleep a little, exhausted from their struggles.
For his sake, we should rejoice in these later paintings, light and decorative though they may sometimes be. Morrisseau, at last, is seeing the joyous side of life. We should wish for him these brighter days.