Such was the case for me, just yesterday, with this handsome, slip-cased volume devoted to the life and work of Quebec painter, Alfred Pellan (1906-1988), published—quite lavishly—by McClelland and Stewart in 1973.
The text is by Germain Lefebvre, about whom I have discovered very little except that he wrote a second book about Pellan in 1986. Oddly, the more I searched for Lefebvre the writer, the more I turned up the French actress-model Capucine, who committed suicide in 1990. Her real name was Germaine Lefebvre.
I have always had rather a love-hate, hot-cold, on-again-off-again relationship with Pellan’s art. I admired its verve (I still do), its utterly unapologetic forthrightness, its cocksureness.
In the early days of his career, in the 1930s and early 40s, Pellan made exquisite—and remarkably original--still life paintings and powerful, stark portraits. His Nature morte a la lampe from 1932 features maybe the most beautifully wrought white metal coffee pot in all of painting, while his gorgeous, over-heated, red-gold still life, Le panier de fraises (1935), (creamy vase, cross-hatched basket of berries) remains as fresh and inexhaustible as the day it was painted. His tender, masterful portrait, the famous Jeune comedien from 1937, is as delicate and as searching as portraiture gets. You can see it in the National Gallery—if it isn’t packed away somewhere in the vaults.
But these are all rather academic paintings—albeit academic in a really exalted sense. Pellan really starts to look like Pellan, like the Pellan everybody once knew (does anybody look at Pellan anymore I wonder? I bet not much), in the mid-1940s. It is in the mid-1940s that his paintings begin to look flat, diagrammatic, blindingly hot in hue (lots of saturated reds, yellows and blues) with saucy bits of surrealistically-inclined details imbedded in the increasingly tumultuous grounds of decoration—human figures, mostly (harlequins, sprightly hide-and-seek female nudes).
The rest is décor: rushing fields of crosshatching, dotting, faux geometries, interlocking circles, structures made of what look like tiny painted bricks—each canvas a counterpane of graphic overload, all of it so chromatically rich you almost need shades to gaze at it (see f or example Femme d’une pomme from 1946).
So anyhow, I say and looked at all the pictures, from the 30s to the 70s, and marvelled at Pellan’s boisterous individuality and aesthetic persistence, all the while feeling a bit queasy about his wild embracing of fussiness. A mature Pellan is both buoyed up and dragged down by prodigious bouts of frigging detail so meticulous it wearies you just to find yourself putting up with it. This is what seems so astonishing in Pellan—his sublimely exhausting surface filigree, his unabashed wallow in fringes and x’s and o’s and dots and dashes. It’s so perverse it makes you want to scream.
And sometimes it all comes bristling and clanging together into an undeniable masterpiece like the huge, unassailably beautiful jardin vert of 1958.
And what do I get from Germain Lefebvre, the writer of the book’s accompanying text? Not much.
In fact it’s hard to think of a duller piece of writing. Which is outrageously lax of the writer, given the vivacity of Pellan himself. What a missed opportunity!
Except for the Introduction (they say hello, they sit on the patio of Pellan’s country home in Quebec, they discuss the “thick hedge of young maples” which threatens to obscure the view of the river, they look at photos of 50 years of the maestro’s work, etc.), the prose that fills the rest of the monograph is lifeless, leaden, relentlessly, infinitely generalized, flat-footed, banal. Here is prose without joy, without fervour, without affect.
Pellan spent a lot of his life in Paris. Here is poor Germain Lefebvre trying to convey the young painter’s excitement at being in Paris for the first time:
“He enjoyed these stimulating meetings and the pleasing visits to the galleries. Without however depriving himself of the long evening walks and the interesting discussions at the sidewalk cafes, Pellan continued to work hard.”
“Enjoyed”? “stimulating”? “interesting”? “work hard”? That’s it? No conversational whiff of his visits with Picasso? No texture of the talk at the Flore or the Deux Magots? No smell of espresso? No sparkle on the Seine at night? Blah. Nothing left but to look at the Pellan pictures.
I suppose that’s enough.