MBAS: Works of Marc-Aurèle Fortin

Marc-Aurle- FortinSHERBROOKE : The exhibition, ‘Marc-Aurèle Fortin. Paysages modernes du Québec traditionnel’ has been developed and is being circulated by the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (May 25 to October 2013). Visitors will have the opportunity to experience this interesting exhibition consisting of thirty rural and marine scenes created in oils or gouache by Fortin between 1910 and the 1950s, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Sherbrooke (21 Dufferin Street), The works are grouped both by subject and by pictorial technique, with the aim of demonstrating how the practice of painting can be associated with tradition not only by thematic choices but also, paradoxically, by the expression of certain modernity in these choices.

Marc-Aurèle Fortin produced the bulk of his work between 1910 and the beginning of the 1950s. At that time, the art world of Québec was undergoing a series of upheavals which heralded the beginning of modern and abstract painting. These transformations did not happen from one day to the next, or without resistance. The time between the wars can be considered as a period of transition during the course of which artistic practice was subjected to sometimes contradictory influences. Many painters followed modern trends while still remaining tied, in some aspects, to traditional ways. Fortin was one of these artists.

During his career, Fortin dedicated himself primarily to the painting of Québec landscapes, with a distinct focus on traditional forms even in urban scenes. On the other hand, the bold technique he uses in these works allies him with more progressive tendencies. In exposing the paradox of these thematic and stylistic choices of Fortin, this exhibition of paintings in oil and gouache demonstrates how this artist has come to be associated with both tradition and modernity.

The Québec Countryside: a conservative theme//As did many artists of the time, Fortin advocated the development of a “national” painting style. Among French-Canadian painters, this idea took the form of representation of the Québec landscape and rural life. In their eyes, their own identity was founded in the land and customs inherited from the Régime française. By adhering to the nationalist idea, and painting innumerable variants on the theme of rural Québec, in which trees, houses, boats and even whole villages inhabit the space, Fortin chose a traditional path.

In the early 20th Century, the theme of landscape painting had permitted artists to abandon more academic subjects and to experiment with modern interpretations such as impressionism. However, beginning with the 1920s, and even more during the 1930s and 1940s, this repertoire had become so over-used that it was in itself a new academism. Promoters of a more modern art demanded subjects that were contemporary and universal. Defying these critics, Fortin continued to feature an ancestral way of life in the majority of his works, far from the technological progress and transformations Québec was then experiencing.

A Modern Technique

Though his thematic choices are often conventional, Fortin is perceived as a modern painter by many critics of his time, who recognized in his work a style both personal and audacious. In the time between the wars in Québec, artistic practice was deemed to be modern when the subjective interpretation of the artist took precedence over the illusionist representation of reality. However, for most of the French-Canadian critics, art did not need to be just a faithful copy of nature. They preferred the celebrated formulation of Émile Zola: “L’art, c’est la nature vue à travers un tempérament (art is nature seen through character)”. Fortin was therefore considered to have a great deal of character. 

In the landscapes of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, in his pictures with black or grey background, or in his caseins, he used vivid and contrasting colours, simplified shapes, paid scant attention to the rules of three-dimensional perspective, and created decorative effects even though they went against the faithful representation of reality. It is true that with the emergence of abstract art in the 1940s, Fortin’s primarily figurative painting was no longer considered “avant-garde”. Nevertheless, we continue to recognize him as an innovator, but in the context of an epoch now vanished.

This particular exhibition is being presented by Hydro-Québec. The Musée des beaux-arts de Sherbrooke is supported financially by the ministère de la Culture et des Communications and by the City of Sherbrooke. The museum is open to visitors from Tuesday through Sunday - noon to 5:00 p.m.


Photo: Marc-Aurèle Fortin in the garden of Jean-Paul Pépin in Sainte-Dorothée, Île de Laval, around 1940.