Friday, March 9, 2018

Clarence Gagnon: Dreaming the Landscape by Hélène Sicotte and Michèle Grandbois

An authoritative retrospective of Québec’s premier painter-etcher
Canadian art is an unknown realm to most Americans, but undeservedly so. As an American myself, even having graduated from art school, I discovered far too late in life the many superb artists and unsung masterpieces from north of the border that deserve to be viewed, pondered, appreciated, and in some cases revered. In general terms, the qualities that historically characterize Canadian art as distinct from that of its southern neighbor is a greater respect for representational imagery, a healthier regard for the landscape, and a marked appreciation for raw talent and refined craft over a slavish devotion to conceptual innovation. One Canadian artist who embodied these ideals in his life and work is the Montreal painter Clarence Gagnon (1881-1942). Ample proof of his artistic excellence is evident in the stunning book Clarence Gagnon: Dreaming the Landscape, published in 2006 by the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.

Gagnon is best known for his landscape paintings of the Québec countryside. His depictions of the Laurentian Mountains combine the colorful people and architecture of rural village life with the stark natural beauty of the region. Among his most recognized works are a series of beloved illustrations he created to illustrate Maria Chapdelaine, a novel set in Québec by French author Louis Hémon. Though best remembered today as a painter, during his lifetime Gagnon received perhaps more international renown for his etchings. He traveled throughout Europe creating expertly executed intaglio prints of the beautiful scenery he encountered in locales like Venice, Florence, and Brittany. Dreaming the Landscape treats both of Gagnon’s strengths equally. The book is divided not only into two sections but also between two curators: Hélène Sicotte discusses Gagnon’s paintings while Michèle Grandbois handles his prints. Each does an outstanding job in her area of expertise. The text, rich in biographical detail and historical context, meticulously charts Gagnon’s intellectual and artistic development. Rather than pushing their own philosophical interpretations of Gagnon’s art, the authors rightfully put the artist’s life and accomplishments in the forefront.

With its beautiful images, gorgeous printing, and fine quality paper, this lovely tome makes for a perfect coffee table book, but it also succeeds as a scholarly monograph by providing an exhaustive retrospective of this great artist’s career. Given all the art books already in existence, as well as competition from the internet, there is no point in publishing another art book unless it is going to be an authoritative reference on its subject, and this book is certainly that. In addition to the main text, the book includes a chronology of Gagnon’s life, extensive notes, and a deep bibliography. Initially created as an exhibition catalog, the book includes a detailed listing of all the paintings included in the 2006 exhibition, as well as a complete catalog raisonné of Gagnon’s etchings, both illustrated with thumbnails of each work mentioned. But wait, there’s more! Not only is every exhibition in which Gagnon participated listed, but also a list of the works that he showed in each exhibition. The level of detail and depth of research that went into this volume is truly impressive.

This is no doubt an expensive book, especially now that it’s out of print, but any Gagnon enthusiast wondering whether it’s worth the cost will not be disappointed with this excellent volume. Clarence Gagnon: Dreaming the Landscape is everything an art lover would want in an art book and a fitting tribute to this important artist and his unforgettable art.

The Yellow House, 1912 or 1913, oil on canvas, 54.2 x 74.3 cm

The Great Drive, illustration for Maria Chapdelaine, 1932, monoprint, 20.5 x 21.2 cm

Rue des Cordeliers, Dinan,
1907-1908, etching and drypoint, 19.8 x 24.5 cm

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