Warming up to our own

NOTHING about art mystifies me more than why it is that the work of an artist, who has built a worthy reputation by dint of talent and persistence, can be forgotten by all and sundry within that artist's generation or era -- only to come bouncing back, cloaked in genius or something like it, decades later. Yes, I do acknowledge cyclical reality as it pertains to civilization's trappings -- literature, art, furniture, clothes, and so on; but I can't easily equate that rather capricious component with the devotion and dedication required and exerted in a lifetime by the artist, writer, or designer of integrity. Or is it -- that component -- the true test of worth? By that I mean, regardless of what one may express at any given time, is cyclical reality a kind of safety check on the validity of that expression and endeavor?

This puzzlement of mine has surfaced again with the return to glory in Canada recently of the paintings of James Wilson Morrice. Our art columns have become full of his work. People are now saying he was Canada's first internationally recognized artist.

I live at the moment in London, a Canadian city of medium size. To my knowledge it has no direct connection with Morrice or his work. However, not so long ago our daily newspaper came up with the headline: ``World respected painter'' (on one line) ``largely ignored at home'' (second line). We're superb at that; it's hardly an excuse to add that we usually admit it. It was a wire service story, datelined Montreal, so all over this country the apology for omission, went out.

It seems the definitive biography on Morrice was written 56 years ago; and from 1970 until late last year there had been no major exhibition of his works. Then, in the first week of December, the Montreal Museum of Fine Art opened a Morrice retrospective consisting of 109 works drawn from collections the world over. Simultaneously Canada's National Film Board premiered a 20-minute documentary about Morrice.

What it was that triggered Morrice's revival, as it were, I haven't been able to determine, but the important thing is that his art has clearly been restored to Canadian consciousness.

Those familiar with this Montreal-born painter's life and work will tell you that, while educated to be a lawyer, Morrice chose art instead, and in 1890, when he was 25 years old, he voyaged to Paris to study. Thereafter Paris became his home. His closest friends before the turn of the century were a Boston-raised painter, Maurice Prendergast, and Charles Condor, an Australian painter. Over time Morrice came to know Matisse and the distinguished British authors Arnold Bennett and W. Somerset Maugham.

Up to World War I Morrice returned to Canada every winter to paint. By the time he started producing works such as ``The Ferry, Quebec,'' he had, as a learned observer was to note, broken ``the tidy bonds of refinement which had held the art of Condor and the other men of the nineties in precious tutelage.''

Plain to see there is nothing tidy or refined about this picture. Most likely Morrice first sketched this scene on wood panel, on location, as was his custom, then reworked it in oil on canvas indoors. He has captured the cold -- the remorseless, numbing chill -- to the extent that my teeth chatter just looking at it.

It takes courage to proclaim this painting ``one of the very greatest paintings of Canadian art,'' as one respected academic has; but few, I suspect, would deny that, in a distinctive way, it vents the winter breath of Quebec.

From about 1910 onward Morrice visited warmer climes -- Cuba, the West Indies, and North Africa. The paintings that resulted from those trips are as hot as this one is cold, although in much the same style, which is to say daringly unlabored and free-spirited.

The turn to public awareness of James Wilson Morrice's paintings -- whatever prompted it -- suggests that, even if at some stage relegated to neglect, art possessing of uncommon diligence and significant expression is bound to resurface sooner or later.

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