Your Collection: The “Last Surrealist” and his Mentor
Jean Benoît, The Four Four‑leaved Clovers or Homage to Seurat (1948), oil on canvas, 175.5 x 127 cm. NGC
For a body of work that features everything from painting to performance art to sculpture pairing the mundane with the macabre, Jean Benoît has sometimes been called the “Last Surrealist.”
At first glance, his painting The Four Four-leaved Clovers or Homage to Seurat (1948) looks like a dizzying number of tiny, meticulous strokes that may or may not add up to something. Closer examination, however, reveals a wealth of detail and symbolism. Though created before Benoît’s full embrace of Surrealism, Four Four-leaved Clovers reveals many of his later preoccupations.
To tour the work in Benoît’s own words: “The canvas is crossed by a large curve that represents the different phases of an eclipse, in which are intermingled two couples making love. One in the water, one on land, with their male and female sexual organs. The heart, Adam’s apple, breasts, and a filigree of circulating blood with all its microbes . . .”
He also describes a sky roiling with “clouds, strato-cumulus, nimbo-stratus, that are transformed at the wind’s whim” and “rain and crystals and snow [and] on the horizon, the flight . . . of migratory birds. At water level, myriad insects, dragonflies, horseflies, etc.”
Of the ten strata prominently featured in Benoît’s composition, Denise Leclerc, former Curator of Modern Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada, described them this way in her acquisition justification: “Drops touch the water and rebound. There are fish, and the sea bottom is also evoked, with its shells, mollusks and crabs. And then, after the element of water, earth with its soil and its four four-leaved clovers hidden in the lawn, and its sub-surface, containing roots, centipedes, millipedes and fossils, complete this subtle vertical panorama organized in a grid.”
Born in Quebec in 1922, Benoît began his art studies at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal at the age of twenty. It was here that he met fellow artist Mimi Parent, whom he married in 1948. The couple moved to Paris that same year, and in 1949 Jean studied ethnology at the Musée de l’Homme (today the Musée du quai Branly). He would soon become something of an amateur ethnographer, taking many trips to New Guinea and other Pacfic islands.
But it was arguably a meeting with Surrealist André Breton in 1959 that would set the course for the rest of Benoît’s artistic life. After joining the Surrealists, Benoît adopted some of the darker and more bizarre aspects of the movement, including a memorable 1959 performance of L’Exécution du Testament du Marquis de Sade (“Executing of the Will of the Marquis de Sade”).
For the performance, Benoît made strange mechanical costumes for a series of grotesque characters who have been described as looking like walking torture devices. His own costume included masks representing four heads, one on top of the other. As the performance went on, Mimi peeled off Benoît’s costume, until, at the end, Benoît branded himself with a hot iron bearing the word “SADE”. The act so entranced Surrealist painter Roberto Matta that he was compelled to run up onstage to brand himself as well.
Over the years, Benoît continued to push the boundaries of taste and subject matter, showing a marked predilection for images that combined sexuality and death. Despite the often gruesome art he produced, however, Benoît was, by all accounts, a rather playful and jovial sort who never took himself too seriously.
Alfred Pellan, Young Actor (1936), oil on canvas, 100 x 80.9 cm. NGC
Benoît and, in turn, his painting Four Four-leaved Clovers, were profoundly influenced by the work of Canadian painter Alfred Pellan, whom Benoît had met in 1940. By 1943, Benoît was studying with Pellan, while also teaching art himself. Over the next few years, Benoît helped Pellan produce theatrical costumes: an activity that undoubtedly stood him in good stead some 15 years later for his Marquis de Sade performance. Their great friendship continued despite the distance between Montréal and Paris, and Benoît and Pellan discussed their art practices and collaboration through regular correspondance.
While the painting pays homage in its title to the Pointillist master Georges Seurat, Four Four-leaved Clovers is actually more similar to the “cake icing decoration” technique employed by Pellan around 1945, in which paint is squeezed directly from the tube, forming small peaks on the canvas. Fittingly, Four Four-leaved Clovers currently hangs adjacent to two works by Alfred Pellan.
Young Actor (1936) is an acknowledged masterpiece by Pellan. Its bright Fauvist colours and Cubist treatment of space are blended with an expressive use of line, resulting in a Modernist painting that still manages to reveal the personality of the sitter. The other nearby work by Pellan, On the Beach (1945) features a bold tangle of shapes and bodies. Although addressing one theme of great importance to the Surrealists — love and desire as an essential part of life — in Pellan’s depiction, the satyr in the foreground appears pensive, perhaps unwilling to approach the women before him.
Alfred Pellan, On the Beach (1945), oil on canvas, 207.7 x 167.6 cm. NGC
Although inspired by Pellan in style, technique and even subject matter, Benoît presents a far more uninhibited approach to the ideals of Surrealism. In Four Four-leaved Clovers, it is possible to see Benoît absorbing Pellan’s technique, subversively adding his own concepts of sexuality, life and death, then practically champing at the bit to embrace a brave new world of artistic possibility.
The National Gallery of Canada invites you to discover the four four-leaved clovers hidden in Jean Benoît’s painting, which is currently on display alongside Alfred Pellan’s work, in Room A110 of the Canadian Art galleries.