Must See: Alex Janvier at the National Gallery of Canada

Career retrospective for Alberta-based painter is the gallery's third-ever for a living indigenous artist

Under the soaring windows of the National Gallery of Canada’s Great Hall, overlooking Ottawa’s glowing parliament buildings on November 24, Alex Janvier greeted a crowd estimated at 1,200 people. “Gosh,” he said, looking out over the sea of faces. “It’s more packed here than a church.”

Apparently the Great Hall hadn’t seen a turnout so spectacular since a popular Van Gogh exhibit in 2012. The man of the hour: an 81-year-old artist of Dene Suline and Saulteaux descent, whose paintings are meant to reflect – through their famously swirling colour – a series of dichotomies: land and culture, good and evil, spirit and body.

“I’d like to let you know where my art came from,” Janvier said. “Not from art school [but] from my people.”

The National Gallery's Janvier retrospective, which covers a 65-year career and runs until April 2017, is just the third solo showcase for a living First Nations artist organized by the National Gallery. It acknowledges and affirms the story of a man who was plucked from his home in Cold Lake, Alberta, as a child and thrown into residential school, like so many other First Nations children in 20th-century Canada.

To assemble the show, the National Gallery borrowed some 150 paintings and drawings from the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Canadian Museum of History, private collectors, and the Janvier family, who run their own private museum at Cold Lake. Despite the exuberant impression Janvier’s colourful work can make at first glance, there are also expressions of the pain, oppression and unjust rule that Janvier experienced during his time at residential school.

Kim Griffiths, Courtesy of the artist and Janvier Gallery, Cold Lake First Nations

Alex Janvier

Janvier is already well-known to fans of contemporary Canadian art – and is growing in recognition among the broader public, too, judging by the turnout at his opening at the National Gallery. For those who are new to Janvier, here's what you'll learn about him in Ottawa this year. 

The artist as a young man 

The opening space, called “Janvier in the Round,” serves as an introduction to Janvier’s core aesthetic: It’s a constellation of 34 circular paintings of various sizes (and of course colours), which Janvier created from 1970 onward. “Beyond the format, the circle has a lot of significance within Indigenous culture,” says Greg Hill, the gallery’s senior curator of Indigenous art and the exhibit organizer. The shape captures “the idea of the circle of life – continuity, renewal, the medicine wheel.”

Photo: NGC

Installation view: Alex Janvier exhibition, presented at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Alex Janvier

From the striking display of spheres, visitors move onto Janvier’s first paintings from the 1950s, when he was a young man. As he made the move from residential school to adult life, he grappled with his sense of place and the Christian ideology forced upon him. One of the most significant of these paintings is Our Lady of the Tepee, a 15-year-old Janvier’s skilfully executed interpretation of the mother of God. It features an indigenous mother (the Sacred Heart) holding her son and floating above the world. The Mary figure straddles the Earth, a tepee at her feet. She wears a white robe adorned with Aboriginal symbols. At first, the painting was condemned by school priests, but later revered and chosen for an exhibition at the Vatican.

Janvier in his prime

We next see Janvier’s development as an artist, with pencil-drawn sketches from his days at the Alberta College of Art and Design, signalling the development of his signature style: a mix of abstract forms, luminous colours and sinuous lines. “He finds this combination of line and colour early on in the 70s,” Hill says. Most often, the paintings are reflections of the land at Cold Lake – Earth and Sky (1974), Alberta Rose (1977), Big Fish Waters (1982), for example. These lead up to some of Janvier’s most iconic paintings: Untitled (1986) and Lubicon (1988).

© Alex Janvier. Collection of the Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton

Purchased with funds from the Estate of Jean Victoria Sinclair (98.13)

In the 1990s, Janvier turned his attention toward the stories of his people – their struggles, their sadness and their fight. “[These paintings] have very, very strong narratives,” says Hill of pieces like Land Before They Arrived (1992), which depicts the connectivity of the people, animals and land at Cold Lake. Warriors are seen riding across the plain on horseback, women display their headdresses, animals battle one another for food – Janvier’s version of a paradise lost.

“He painted in this direct way to communicate with viewers,” Hill explains. There’s a lot of difficult stuff in them, and I think he wants to make sure that they’re interpreted as directly as possible.”

The exhibit crescendos with Blood Tears (2001), which Janvier created on his 66th birthday. An emotive and dark work – more figurative than the abstract paintings for which he’s better known – it conjures the demons of residential school. An faceless, dark figure with a cross on its forehead exerts its power over the entire painting. There’s a dismantled, limp leg from a human body, and a resigned Aboriginal man who appears lifeless, sullen and obedient. Red paint drips down the entire piece. Written on the back of the canvas: “1943-1953: loss of childhood; caught in a mess between evil and good; told the Indian ways was the work of the devil.”

And then it says this – a poignant message from a man who has lived to be 81 and counting: “Most died with a broken spirit; some live to tell about it.”

Published Monday, January 9th 2017

Header image credit: Alex Janvier, Coming of the Opposite, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 61.3 x 92.3 cm. Courtesy National Gallery of Canada



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