National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 3, 1979-1980

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Click figure 34 here for an enlarged image

A Selection of Books Illustrated by 
Quebec Artists  between 1916 and 1946

by Jean-René Ostiguy

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5        

Finally, if an exhibition catalogue can be included in the same category as a book, a composition (fig. 28) by Omer Parent for the cover of the catalogue of the Exposition de l'École des Beaux-Arts de Québec in 1944 offers a humble but very revealing testimony to the importance attached at that time and in that milieu to the preparation of a printed text. Parent, who was a pupil of René Vincent (1879-1936) in Paris in his youth, created for this cover a stylized allegorical figure in the manner of the work being done by his colleagues engaged in the revival of sacred art in Quebec. Thus in the 1930s the books illustrated by Quebec artists reflected a new form of international modernism and exhibited a considerable difference from those of Clarence Gagnon and the previous generation. This phase continued throughout the 1940s and had scarcely ended when another began, from which engraving was totally absent - the artist would merely submit a drawing to the publisher, who would reproduce it by means of a plate.

There were fewer models for artists to use in this new phase, and often each artist would depend on the individuality of his own work in order to sell it. In other words, artists were contributing to the development of the illustrated books of today. This was the case with Alfred Pellan's illustrations for Îles de la nuit (1944) by Alain Grandbois. He improved on this two years later with the part-cubist part-surrealist style used for Eloi de Grandmont's poem Le voyage d'Arlequin (fig. 29). In 1945, Jacques de Tonnancour revealed the stylistic changes his painting had undergone while faithfully adhering to the text of Réal Benoit, the author of a small collection of short stories entitled Nézon. In fact, he gave publisher Marcel Parizeau a Picasso-like cover (fig. 30) and illustrations reminiscent of Matisse in the tail-pieces for the plates. Moreover, the undeniably surrealist drawings (fig. 31) of Jean-Paul Mousseau for Les sables du rêve (1946) by Thérèse Renaud, as well as those of Charles Oaudelin for Gilles Hénault's Théâtre en plein air (fig. 32) (les cahiers de la file indienne, 1946), completely changed the iconography and page layout of books in Quebec. Alfred Pellan was already introducing the oniric image in 1944. Mousseau and Oaudelin did likewise by fully utilizing the plate page. In 1945 Robert LaPalme brilliantly illustrated a children's story; in many places the text was included in the space for the drawing. The illustrations for this story, André Maillet's famous Ristontac, (23) were clone in the spirit of Art Oeco, because many decorative formulas used by Matisse or Picasso could be recognized in it. Borrowing copiously from LaPalme, Jean Simard made very attractive illustrations for his own book Félix (Variétés, 1947).

Another children's book, conceived in this case after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit prince, is Irène Legendre's Pompon et le lapin-fée (1944); it was published later under the title Pompon chéri, with new illustrations. The original manuscript contains delightful illustrations with billowing forms as in the drawings of Archipenko. The artist, improvising as a writer, also takes inspiration from Matisse for the cover (fig. 33) of her book. The heroes of the story, Pompon and his rabbit, are seen in a softly-coloured decor that is somewhat abstract, half Fauvist and half Cubist. In its first version then, more so than in the one published by Fides in 1959 under the title Pompon chéri, this little book - produced in handicraft fashion in a single copy only - is a moving testimony to the vivid interest taken by Quebec artists in illustrating books between 1916 and 1946.

There is much additional evidence of the high esteem enjoyed by illustrated books in Quebec society. Many specialized artists, craftsmen, illustrators and bookbinders considered them to be fine-art objects, and in 1942 the provincial government unhesitatingly founded the École des Arts Graphiques de Montréal, more or less along the lines of the École Estienne in Paris. Louis-Philippe Beaudoin, the school's first principal, demonstrated his own interest in illustrated books by publishing in 1940 a work nicely illustrated by Louis Archambault entitled Gutenberg et l'imprimerie. Conceived in anticipation of the fifth centennial of the invention of printing, this monograph summarizes the history of book manufacturing in a useful and original way.

This study is confined to an initial aesthetic evaluation of a limited selection of books highly appreciated in Quebec society; it does not deal directly with the complexity and richness of their iconography, and it barely touches on children 's books. A detailed study of each illustration should doubtless be carried out, showing all the significant relationships with the author's work as a whole. For example, do not certain pages of Le grand silence blanc (fig. 34) or Maria Chapdelaine, especially those illustrating the lives of wild or domestic animals, add to the paintings of Clarence Gagnon a dimension that could be brought out only by a certain type of imaginative literature? The affective content of such pictures is not derived solely from the choice of subject, but also from the artistic style in which they are rendered. In the genesis of this style, the animal element - in constant interaction with the cultural and human element - is every bit as important as the geological or the geographical element is in the work of the Group of Seven.

These considerations are important for an understanding of the specific nature of artistic expression in Quebec. They might make it possible to identify, as is the case with the iconography of Clarence Gagnon, a neglected aspect of the content of certain formulas inherited from various international trends, for example from the post-Impressionists, the Divisionists and the Nabis.

It is from this viewpoint that future research must proceed. But it has first been necessary to consider the garden in some detail and to identify the gardeners who, each in his own way, gave a new look to Canadian illustrated books in the first half of the twentieth century.

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