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Link to essay by curator
Constance Naubert-Riser

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of Jean McEwen works
and descriptive texts by
Constance Naubert-Riser

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of Jean McEwen's life

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Jean McEwen page

Jean McEwen


by Constance Naubert-Riser
(Translation by Judith Terry.)

For over forty years, Jean McEwen’s visual practice has been evolving in a succession of series, each of which resumes and renews an exploration of colour that sets him apart in the world of Canadian painting. After abandoning all reference to nature during the 1950s, he dedicated himself to the construction of a flat space using nothing but the power of colour. As I have shown elsewhere, (footnote #1) his work progresses in a circular fashion. In comparing the various series, we observe a number of resurgences that give his production a remarkable unity. The permutation of the various elements ensures the recurrence of difference and enables the artist to vary ad infinitum the seductive effects of coloured matter. This year, the differential element is more marked than in any of the previous series.

The boldness of McEwen’s recent works may come as a surprise to some. These Barbarian Poems are a veritable glorification of colour. But despite the series’ title there is nothing brutal about this painting, except perhaps the initial shock to an eye not primed by a knowledge of art history. In our appreciation of the work, the new orientation of this year’s explorations and the variety of their chromatic combinations prompt us to expand our network of references to include the art of such masterful colourists as Gauguin, Matisse and Bonnard. While not denying the link between McEwen’s mature works and North American painting of the 1950s, (footnote #2) ever-present in their underlying rigour, I would like to propose a new reading. The painter certainly makes no concessions to public conservatism. He invites us to share a fascination for saturated colour that can best be grasped if we examine his current preoccupations in light of those that have driven reflections on colour for the past century and more.

During the 1890s, a group of young painters - disciples and heirs of Gauguin - eager to make a name for themselves on the Paris art scene, adopted an unusual and mysterious name, the Nabis, from the Hebrew word nebiim, meaning "prophet." And, indeed, these young men had "good tidings" to impart: the primacy of colour would henceforth be the golden rule of all avant-garde painting. Acceptance of this overriding principle was not uncommon in Paris, where, in the wake of the Impressionists’ discoveries, pure colour exerted a real fascination. A whole generation (including Bonnard, Denis and Vuillard) took advantage of Gauguin’s lesson (transmitted by Sérusier) to reinvent their approach to colour, and in so doing became increasingly aware of its autonomy as a structuring element of the composition.

Concurrently with the work of Signac, whose influence was considerable following publication of his text D’Eugène Delacroix au Néo-impressionisme, (footnote #3) the Nabis would explore the full potential of colour’s luminosity, each continuing to exploit it in his own fashion until the mid-twentieth century. (footnote #4) In the forefront of France’s great colourists is also, of course, Matisse, who began painting in 1890. This artist’s reading of Signac’s treatise in 1899 provided the principles that enabled him to impose a certain order – temporarily, at least – on the transcription of his sensations. In different ways, all these painters passed on the conception of colour as an independent and radiant force. And an acute sensitivity to the relations between hues, the foundation of a lifetime’s painting practice, culminated in their late works in the most brilliant chromatic expression.

McEwen’s work, too, has maintained its impetus. Without formal training, he had begun painting on his own in 1946 after having seen The Moon and Sixpence, a film on the life and work of Gauguin --– whose belief that everything must be sacrificed to pure colour he shares.(footnote #5) Convinced of the need to draw from the artistic wellspring, he moved to Paris in 1952. That year also saw the publication of a small book by art critic Michel Tapié that played an important role in the defence of French art informel. Entitled Un art autre, the text begins with these provocative words: "Art, today, has to be astounding … creators worthy of the name know full well that they can only transmit their ineluctable message via the unusual, the paroxysmal, the magical, the totally ecstatic." (footnote #6) These two imperatives have perhaps been, for over fifty years, the most deep-seated source of McEwen’s painting. The recent canvases have moved away from the American colour-field tradition, with its thin, semi-transparent layers of colour, in order to enthusiastically renew ties with that trend in European painting that has contributed largely, since the beginning of the century, to establishing colour as a specific energy that operates independently of the figured object.


1. See my essay "The Works: Colour, Variegated and Stratified," in the catalogue of the retrospective exhibition Jean McEwen: Colour in Depth (Montreal: The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1987), pp. 39-52.

2. See my essay "Conjuncture: Paris - New York - Montreal," reproduced in the present volume with the kind permission of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (p. 177 and ff.).

3. "From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism." This theoretical text was published in La Revue Blanche in three successive instalments, from May to July 1898.

4. As we have recently been able to confirm in the exhibition The Time of the Nabis, shown this past fall at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

5. Paul Gauguin, Oviri, écrits d’un sauvage (Paris: Gallimard, 1974). See The Writings of a Savage, ed. Daniel Guérin, trans. Eleanor Levieux (New York: The Viking Press, 1978), p. 144.

6. Michel Tapié, Un art autre (Paris: Gabriel-Giraudet fils, 1952), n.p.


Jean McEwen, Colour in Depth, exhib. cat. Montreal: The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1987. Text by Constance NAUBERT-RISER. Includes an exhaustive bibliography on the artist. Translation by Judith Terry. French edition, Jean McEwen. La Profondeur de la couleur.

Montréal, 1942-1992. L’Anarchie resplendissante de la peinture
, exhib. cat. Montreal: Galerie de l’UQAM, 1992. Texts by Gilles DAIGNEAULT (ed.), François-Marc Gagnon and Fernande Saint-Martin.

The Crisis of Abstraction in Canada: The 1950s, exhib. cat. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1992. Texts by Denise LECLERC and Marion H. Barclay. Translation by Bob Sandler. French edition, La Crise de l’abstraction au Canada. Les années 50.

Achieving the Modern: Canadian Abstract Painting and Design in the 1950s, exhib. cat. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1992. Texts by Robert McKaskell, Sandra Paikowsky, Allan Collier and Virginia Wright. French edition, L’arrivée de la modernité : la peinture abstraite et le design des années 50.

McEWEN, Jean. Petit cimetière d’une presence. Montreal: Éditions Fini/Infini, 1994. A collection of poems. The first fifty copies of this edition are numbered and include a signed etching by the artist.

ROBERGE, Gaston. Autour de Jean McEwen. Montreal: Éditions Le Loup de Gouttière, 1995. A collection of texts and poems accompanying an exhibition at the Galerie Simon Blais. The first twenty-five copies of this edition are numbered and include an original signed watercolour by the artist.

The "Jean McEwen:Last Works" CD-ROM also contains information about other Gallery One One One exhibitions. Gallery One One One, School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2 TEL:204 474-9322 FAX:474-7605

For information please contact Robert Epp