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Constance Naubert-Riser

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of Jean McEwen works
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Constance Naubert-Riser

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of Jean McEwen's life

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Jean McEwen
Jean McEwen
ABOVE: Montréal painter Jean McEwen (1923-1999).
Photography credit: Pierre Longtin.

JEAN McEWEN Biographical notes

1923 Born in Montreal on December 14, of a Scottish father and a French-Canadian mother. Studies at Collège Mont-Saint-Louis and at the University of Montreal, in Pharmacy.

1944 A deep interest in poetry brings him in contact with the group of students in the circle of the Quebec writer, François Hertel. McEwen’s poems are published in literary journals such as Le quartier latin, Amérique française and Gants du ciel.

1946 McEwen sees the film The Moon and Sixpence, from the Somerset Maugham novel based on the life and work of Paul Gauguin. The experience proves to be decisive, bringing with it the revelation of painting as a means of expression, as well as the realization that, like Gauguin, whose early career combined painting with a position at the stock exchange, one could be a painter and still pursue another career. With the purchase of art supplies and books on painters like Matisse, Picasso, Pellan and Borduas, McEwen becomes self-taught, working initially as a figurative painter at the fringes of the Montreal art scene, and simultaneously completing his degree in Pharmacy. In 1947 he marries Louise Lebeau.

1949 Sends the painting Nature morte aux ananas (Still Life with Pineapple) to the 66th annual Spring Salon at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Acceptance of the painting leads to contact – and an enduring relationship – with Paul-Émile Borduas, whom he visits regularly at the latter’s residence in Saint-Hilaire, just outside Montreal. Borduas becomes a major influence, and leads to formal experimentation, still defined by the parameters of figuration. Abstraction remains three years ahead.

1951 First solo exhibition at the Galerie Agnès Lefort in Montreal, in March. A favourable review in La Presse encourages the young artist to undertake a stay in Paris. The critic’s suggestion is seconded by Borduas, who advises McEwen to get in touch with Jean-Paul Riopelle, living in Paris since 1946. McEwen quits his job as a druggist and leaves for France in the fall.

1952 In Paris, an extraordinary series of encounters, most particularly friendships formed with Riopelle and with the American abstract expressionist Sam Francis, along with exposure to the work of Jackson Pollock and his contemporaries, not to mention travels to other European centres, lead to profound changes in McEwen’s work. Most decisive is an extended vacation with Riopelle and his family on the island of Belle-Île-en-Mer, off the Brittany coast.

1953 Returning to Montreal, McEwen takes up a position as sales representative with the Frosst pharmaceutical company. He participates in group exhibitions in Montreal, and has a solo exhibition in Ottawa.

1954 His solo exhibition at Galerie Agnes Lefort is favourably received, but McEwen decides to break with his current style of painting, which he now judges too close to that of Borduas.

1955 New work, the fruit of a new approach, is shown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in a group exhibition of avant-garde, non-figurative paintings organized by Gilles Corbeil, which includes works by Paterson Ewen, Jean-Paul Mousseau, Rita Letendre, Ulysse Comtois and Guido Molinari. The same year McEwen participates in a historic exhibition at the Galerie l’actuelle, opened by Guido Molinari and Fernande Saint-Martin with the avowed purpose of promoting non-figurative painting. Later that year, work exhibited in another group exhibition organized by Molinari elicits critical acclaim in Le Devoir that links McEwen to the cutting edge of contemporary American art.

1956 McEwen becomes a member of the newly-founded Montreal Association of Non-figurative Artists. During the year his recent white monochromes are exhibited in group exhibitions in both Montreal and New York. In the fall, a one-man show of these works held at the Galerie Agnès Lefort leads to a rupture with that gallery, whose owner, although a defender of the Montreal avant-garde, does not feel she can support work as unconventional as McEwen’s. In 1957, he participates in a number of group and travelling exhibitions.

1958 McEwen, who has now reintroduced colour into his work, has two solo exhibitions at the Galerie Denyse Delrue in Montreal: in January, the series Marges (Margins), and in December, the series Cellules (Cells). In 1959, he takes part in the third biennale of Canadian art at the National Gallery in Ottawa. In 1960, he has a one-man show in the Gallery XII of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and is elected president of the Montreal Association of Non-figurative Artists. During the summer of that year, on vacation in Maine, he executes his first artist’s book of poems accompanied by images.

1961 McEwen has his first, enormously successful, solo exhibition at the Gallery Moos in Toronto. He also participates in four group exhibitions, three in Montreal and one, 25 Quebec Painters, at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. He receives a number of awards: first prize in the province of Quebec’s artists’ competition; a Canada Council award, and the Hadassah prize. First summer vacation on Prince Edward Island, where it becomes the artist’s habit to work in watercolour.

1962 Walter Moos introduces McEwen to the New York art dealer, Martha Jackson who purchases a number of works, and proposes a one-man show for the following year. He has another exhibition with Walter Moos in Toronto, as well as one at the Galerie Agnès Lefort in Montreal. Group exhibitions in 1962 include participation in shows of Canadian art in Bordeaux, France at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York; an exhibition of British Commonwealth art in London; an exhibition of contemporary painting in Johannesburg, South Africa; and the "Recent Acquisitions" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

1963 The artist reduces his hours of work at Frosst to devote more time to painting. A solo exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York City in February, and the purchase of two works by the Museum of Modern Art lead to participation in a number group and travelling exhibitions in North America and Europe: at the University of Illinois, the University of Rochester, at the Arwin Galleries in Detroit, Michigan and in the exhibition Fifteen Canadian Artists at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; in the Dunn International Exhibition held consecutively at the Beaverbrook Gallery in Fredericton and the Tate Gallery in London, and in Cinq peintres canadiens at the Musée Galliera in Paris, among others. In 1963, McEwen also receives an honourable mention for his participation in the Sao Paolo biennale and executes a mural commissioned by the architect John Parkin for the Toronto International Airport. Discovery of Greek icons on a trip to Greece in the fall of 1963 prove a determinant factor in the further development of his work.

1964 McEwen executes the widely acclaimed series, Les Drapeaux inconnus (Unknown Flags), which are exhibited at the Gallery Moos in Toronto, and at the Galerie Anderson Meyer in Paris. One of these works is presented in the International salon of the Musée de Dijon, in France. A new series, Hommage au soleil (Hommage to the Sun), inspired by a trip to Majorca, is exhibited in late Fall at the Galerie Agnès Lefort in Montreal.

1965 An important turning point in McEwen’s development leads to the adoption of acrylic, rather than oil as a medium, and the espousal of hard-edge techniques current in American painting of the sixties. The series Hommage aux poètes (Hommage to the Poets), executed in this new manner and bearing titles taken from the works of poets such as Baudelaire and Valéry, is exhibited at the Gallery Moos, Toronto. Group exhibitions include the continuation of the travelling show Fifteen Canadian Artists organized by the Museum of Modern Art, the sixth biennale of Canadian painting at the National Gallery in Ottawa and the Spring salon at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He also receives a Canada Council Award.

1966 McEwen moves his studio from his home in Outremont to a space on Saint-Paul Street in Old Montreal, on the top floor of a building he shares with Montreal painters Charles Gagnon and Yves Gaucher. He executes a commissioned mural for Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University). He paints the large format acrylic series Les muses (The Muses). An exhibition, Jean McEwen, Harold Town, organized by the National Gallery of Canada, travels across Canada. McEwen also takes part in the exhibition Vingt-cinq ans de libération de l’œil et du geste at the Musée du Québec in Quebec City.

1967 The painter executes a mural for the Port-Royal Theatre in the Place des Arts, Montreal’s new cultural complex, and has a solo exhibition at the Galerie Agnès Lefort in Montreal as well as one at the Gallery Moos in Toronto. Group exhibitions include Panorama de la peinture au Québec 1940-1966 at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal, 300 Years of Canadian Painting at the National Gallery in Ottawa, Painting in Canada in the Canadian Pavilion at Expo ’67 and the Ontario Centennial Exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

1968 McEwen participates in the Sondage68 exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and in the exhibition Dix peintres du Québec held consecutively at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal and the Musée du Québec in Quebec City. In 1969 McEwen is elected member of the Royal Canadian Academy and in December of that year has a solo exhibition at the Galerie Jolliet in Quebec City, which marks the end of his use of acrylic paint as well as of his affiliation with American hard edge. In 1970, he participates in two group exhibitions: L’art au Québec 1948-1970 at Man and his World and Grands formats at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal.

1971 McEwen’s abandonment of acrylic and his return to oil painting is marked by an exhibition of the important series Miroirs sans image (Mirrors with no Reflection) at the Galerie Godard Lefort in Montreal. From 1971 on, watercolours executed while on vacation – usually in Prince Edward Island – take on an increasingly important role in the artist’s experiments with transparency.

1973 The artist resigns from Frosst in order to paint full time. In January, he exhibits the series Das lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth), named after Gustav Mahler’s song cycle, at the Marlborough Godard Gallery in Toronto, and produces a suite of four lithographs entitled Les quatre saisons (The Four Seasons). In the fall, a retrospective of his work McEwen 1953-1973, organized by Fernande Saint-Martin, is held at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal, and subsequently travels across Canada. He participates in an exhibition of works from the Canada Council Art Bank held at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris.

1974 He participates in the exhibition Thirteen Artists from Marlborough Godard held at the Marlborough Gallery in New York.

1975 An exhibition of the series Les continents fleuris (Continents in Bloom) is held at the Marlborough Godard Gallery in Toronto. McEwen produces the artists’ book Les îles réunies (Reunited Islands), a suite of poems and silkscreen prints printed at the Centre de conception graphique Graff in Montreal.

1976 The series Les jardins d’aube (The Gardens of Daybreak) is exhibited at the Marlborough Godard Gallery in Montreal, and a solo exhibition is held at the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver. McEwen also participates in the exhibition Trois générations d’art québecois at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal. In September he marries Indra Kagis.

1977 In March an exhibition of the series Épithalames (Epithalamia – "Wedding hymns") is held at the Marlborough Godard Gallery in Toronto. In these works the artist re-establishes a connection with the white monochromes of 1955-1956. McEwen also receives the Victor Lynch Staunton Award with which the Canada Council honours the Canada’s most distinguished artists. This award finances work in Paris from September 1977 to June 1978. In March of 1978, the series Les temples heureux (Temples of Joy) is exhibited at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto. The same spring a particularly luminous series of works, La suite parisienne (Parisian Suite), executed in Paris, is exhibited at the Canadian Cultural Centre there.

1979 Mira Godard exhibits the Parisian Suite in Toronto. Holidays in Prince Edward Island result in a new crop of watercolours. He produces a third artists’ book of poems illustrated with watercolour vignettes.

1980 McEwen accepts an appointment as sessional lecturer in the Fine Arts Deparment at L’Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. A solo exhibition of recent work is held at the Galerie Jolliet in Quebec City, and another in Calgary at the Mira Godard Gallery.

1981 McEwen continues to teach at Trois-Rivières. The series Les champs colorés (Colour Fields) is exhibited by Mira Godard at her gallery in Toronto in the early spring and in her Calgary gallery in the late fall. In December 1981 through January 1982, a number of white monochromes from 1955-1956 as well as other early paintings are exhibited in Les tableaux oubliés de Jean McEwen held at the Galerie Jolliet in Montreal.

1982 In January, exhibitions of recent works are held at the Galerie Jolliet in Quebec City and at Concordia University in Montreal. In December, he has a solo show at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto.

1983 McEwen accepts a sessional lectureship in painting at Concordia University. He takes part in an exhibition on the Montreal Association of Non-figurative Artists, organized by Sandra Paikowsky, and exhibits the series Les plaintes d’un Icare (Laments of an Icarus) at the Galerie Jolliet in Montreal.

1984 An exhibition of works, Jean McEwen: Thirty Years, is held at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto.

1985 McEwen participates in the exhibition Six manières, un language at the Musée du Québec in Quebec City. In December the series Les drapeau écorchés (The Slaughtered Flags) is exhibited at the Galerie Waddington-Gorce in Montreal. McEwen resigns his position at the university in Trois-Rivières, but continues to teach at Concordia. He is awarded a Canada Council grant. Group exhibitions include participation in the travelling exhibition Montreal Painters: A Second Look, organized jointly by the Memorial University Art Gallery in St. John’s Newfoundland and by Sandra Paikowsky of Concordia University, and in Le Musée imaginaire deº at the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montreal. In 1986, a second suite of Slaughtered Flags is exhibited at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto.

1987 A retrospective of McEwen’s work, Jean McEwen: Colour in Depth, is held at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (December 1987 - January 1988) in an exhibition guest curated by Constance Naubert-Riser, professor of Art History at the University of Montreal. McEwen also participates in the group show Histoire en quatre temps at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal. In parallel with his Museum retrospective, a series entitled Elegie criblée de bleu (Elegy Riddled with Blue) is exhibited in January 1988 at the Galerie Waddington-Gorce in Montreal. In the spring of 1988, he moves his studio from the building on Saint-Paul Street in Old Montreal to an industrial building on the Lachine Canal in the west end of the city.

1990 An exhibition of the series L’Envers du paysage (The Other Side of the Landscape) is held at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto.

1991 McEwen exhibits for the first time at the Galerie Madeleine Lacerte in Quebec City, where he shows two new series of paintings: Absence au carré (Absence Squared) and Légende du oui et du non (The Legend of Yes and No). A major commission for a mural installation at the new Scotiabank headquarters on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal consists of six panels and is installed as a triptych entitled En remontant les rouges (Raising the Reds).

In January, McEwen suffers a heart attack and undergoes a double coronary bypass operation. Late in the fall, he exhibits a new series of works, Trou de mémoire (Blackout), at the Galerie Waddington-Gorce in Montreal. Group exhibitions that year include Montréal, 1942-1992. L’Anarchie resplendissante de la peinture organized by the art critic Gilles Daigneault and held at the art gallery of L’Université du Québec à Montréal; The Crisis of Abstraction in Canada: the 1950s, a travelling exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Canada, as well as in another travelling exhibition entitled Achieving the Modern: Canadian Abstract Painting and Design in the 1950s.

1993 McEwen has his first solo exhibition with the Ron Moore Gallery in Hamilton Ontario, as well as a one-man show at the Galerie Madeleine Lacerte in Quebec City.

1994 Publishes a new collection of poems, Petit cimetière d’une présence.

1995 McEwen retires from Concordia University. He has his first exhibition at the Galerie Simon Blais in Montreal, a retrospective of watercolours dating from 1951 to 1995. The Art Sales and Rental Gallery of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts holds a McEwen watercolour exhibition later in the same year. A solo exhibition of the series Cantates des colonnes (Cantatas of the Columns) is held at the Galerie Madeleine Lacerte in Quebec City.

1997 Solo exhibition at the Moore Gallery in Toronto. Exhibition Jean McEwen: Oeuvres choisies 1952-1997 organized by the Galerie Simon Blais is held at the Galerie d’art l’Union-Vie in Drummondville. McEwen executes De ma main à la couleur, an artist’s book of poems and watercolours.

1998 Jean McEwen: Important Paintings from the 60s and 70s is exhibited in the spring at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto. McEwen participates in the critically acclaimed exhibition Peinture-peinture organized by the Montreal association of contemporary art dealers. In November, solo exhibitions of works from the series Poèmes barbares (Barbarian Poems) held concurrently at the Galerie Simon Blais in Montreal and the Galerie Madeleine Lacerte in Quebec City are accompanied by the publication of the monograph Jean McEwen : Poèmes Barbares, which also includes a series of previously unpublished poems. In December, McEwen is presented with the Prix Paul-Émile Borduas, the province of Quebec’s most prestigious award for art.

1999 On January 9, at the age of seventy-five, McEwen dies suddenly of heart failure at his home in Montreal.

Exhibitions held since the artist’s death in 1999:

Jean McEwen: A Celebration at the Moore Gallery, Toronto.

2001 Hommage à Jean McEwen, an exhibition held at La Maison Trestler, Vaudreuil, Québec. A retrospective exhibition of works on paper, Comme une aquarelle / Like an aquarelle, Galerie Simon Blais, Montreal.

2003 Solo exhibition of selected works, Winchester Galleries, Victoria, B.C.

2004 Retrospective exhibition, Galerie Simon Blais, Montréal.

2004 Jean McEwen:Last Works, Gallery One One One, Winnipeg.

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