John Lyman, Hammamet (1920), oil on canvas, 40.7 x 32.2 cm. Private collection. Photo: MNBAQ, Idra Labrie
From Venice to Paris, North Africa to the West Indies, Dieppe to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and Québec City to Lake Massawippi . . . The Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ) takes visitors on a grand tour in its new exhibition, Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse, on view until September 7, 2014.
But what, exactly, is the common thread is between Montreal artists James Wilson Morrice (1865–1924) and John Lyman (1886–1967) — two icons of Canadian Modernism — and Henri Matisse (1869–1954)? It may lie in the effervescence of the avant-garde art world in Paris during the Belle Époque — a transitional time when art was constantly reinventing itself, ultimately resulting in Modernism. Matisse was an active participant in this revitalization of aesthetic expression, and the two Quebec painters — then living in self-imposed exile in the City of Lights — blossomed in this heady environment, which was far removed from the artistic conservatism in Canada that had rejected them.
Morrice and Matisse were of a similar generation, and had become fast friends during travels to the Moroccan city of Tangier in 1912 and 1913. Lyman had studied at the Académie Matisse in 1910 with the master himself, who considered freedom and authenticity the supreme values in a form of expression that saw itself as universal and modern, with no nationalist or regionalist aims—like those promoted, for example, by the Group of Seven. Lyman dubbed this new vision “homespun exoticism”.
The pictorial journey presented by the exhibition is laid out in 131 works — paintings on canvas, wood and cardboard; nudes; powerful portraits; shimmering landscapes — organized by the MNBAQ into the following thematic ports of call: The Lights of Exile, The Decorative, Invitation to a Journey, The Extraordinarily Fine Quality of the North African Light, The Endless Summer – Bermuda and the Caribbean, The Marvel of Water and The Homeland.
James Wilson Morrice, Fruit Market, North Africa (Tunis), 1914, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. David R. Morrice Bequest. Photo: MMFA
Each of these ports of call “echoes an aesthetic conversation on painting, demonstrating the easy camaraderie of three distinct sensibilities,” says Michèle Grandbois, the Museum’s curator of modern art. “They also reflect the relationship between the individual destinies of these three artists.” What is more, this conversation, which continued over many years, provides, by virtue of its longevity, real insight into their preoccupations and their friendship.
Morrice and Lyman were both financially independent, allowing them to live outside Canada for decades. Their exile was punctuated, however, with numerous trips back home, often resulting in works that reaffirmed their attachment to this country. Morrice died in Tangier suddenly at the age of 58. A few years later, in 1931, Lyman returned to Montreal permanently, where he launched a spirited crusade for the recognition of Modern art in Canada.
One of the key works by Morrice in the exhibition is Window at Tangier (1913). This work, which has not been displayed in Canada for decades, is considered one of the most eloquent examples of the rapport between Morrice and Matisse in Tangier—given that Matisse had produced a similar Window at Tangier the previous year. Another iconic work is House in Santiago, Cuba (1915) which, at once sublimely decorative and innately Modernist, was acquired by London’s Tate Gallery in 1924, recalling the international reputation that Morrice enjoyed during his lifetime.
James Wilson Morrice, Window at Tangier (1913), oil on canvas, 62 x 46 cm. Private collection
When it comes to Lyman, visitors will likely linger before On the Beach (Saint-Jean-de-Luz) (1929–1930). This painting, one of 18 works loaned by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) to the MNBAQ for the exhibition, was produced later in life, reflecting the knowledge Lyman had acquired during his time in France (1907–1930). And, of course, Jori Smith in Period Costume (c. 1935). This portrait of the Quebec painter was displayed at the Valentine Gallery in New York City in May 1936, and was reproduced in the American press—which says a great deal about the international significance of Lyman’s work at the time.
As for works by Matisse, visitors are sure to admire The Palm (1912). This painting, on display in Canada for the very first time, illustrates the master’s considerable influence on the West Indian works produced by Morrice several years later. There is also Nude on a Yellow Sofa (1926), created the same year that Matisse recorded his memories of Morrice, describing the great friendship that had existed between the two men. Nude on a Yellow Sofa is also part of the permanent collection of the NGC, which acquired the painting in 1958.
From the exhilaration of Europe to the gentler pace of the Maghreb, the dazzling tropics to the scintillating snows of Québec, there is no doubt that Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse will take visitors on a pictorial voyage that is as intimate as it is unique.
Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse is on view at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Québec City until September 7, 2014.
Johanne Lepage is a journalist, writer and speechwriter who has worked in the field of written communications for more than 30 years.
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