Powerful, dramatic, challenging, evocative, breaking barriers, breaking new ground, shattering prejudices, shattering illusions, confronting white society.
Everything holds true about Norval Morrisseau – the grandfather of modern, contemporary Canadian indigenous art.
He broke several barriers.
Became the first indigenous artist to have a solo show of his own at a commercial art gallery in Canada.
Received the first retrospective of his work for an indigenous artist by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Canada’s pre-eminent gallery for Canadian art.
And Morrisseau’s prodigious talent was recognized well beyond Canada’s shores.
Two of the world’s major painters, the Russian, Marc Chagall, and the Spaniard, Pablo Picasso, met Morrisseau in Paris, and referred to the similarities of his art to that of Picasso’s.
And that led to to the French press referring to Morrisseau as the Picasso of the North.
Morrisseau created a style of his own – referred to as the Woodlands School of Art .
His art underwent several changes.
Originally he started off in simple brown colours.
Later that changed to vibrant powerful colours.
The recognition for his art endless – a Member of the Order of Canada, a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, to mention but a few.
The New York Times in a review of his art said this:
“Mr. Morrisseau, an Ojibwa (also called Anishnaabe or Chippewa) shaman, was one of the first native painters to adopt modernist styles to convey traditional aboriginal imagery and to have a crossover career in contemporary art. His style, which became known as Woodland or Legend painting, evoked ancient etchings from birch-bark scrolls and often used X-ray-like motifs: skeletal elements and internal organs visible within the forms of animals and people, and black spirit lines emanating from them.”
“Norval Morrisseau’s courageous and often controversial approach to his work was instrumental in encouraging First Nations people to know their spirituality, history and culture in order to better understand themselves, He taught us to be proud of who we are.”
– Phil Fontaine, former National Chief of The Assembly of First Nations
A Personal Recollection
I met Morrisseau several times at his art shows in Toronto. He was reserved, dignified, but you got the distinct impression these public events were not his cup of tea. I loved his art but it was out of my price range.
My wife and I used to go gallery hopping just about every Saturday when living in Toronto. We were in one gallery and had picked out a lithograph by Alexander Calder. But before buying it we decided to do one thing – to visit the apartment of Brian Marion, an assistant of Morrisseau’s, who advertised that he had Morrisseau paintings for sale in the Toronto Star.
We went to see Marion and, indeed, he had lots of Morrisseau’s. We picked two and on Monday went back to his apartment, paid for them and took them home. I had used the weekend to check out Marion’s legitimacy.
Later we discovered that there were lots of fake Morrisseau’s for sale. We had ours checked and they were designated as authentic.
And these are the two Morrisseau’s we bought.