For those meeting Morrisseau’s paintings for the first time, the direct, flat-shaped compositions appear to be narratives with limited subjects, shallow dimensions, and random though responsive colour choices. Longer acquaintance to this master painter’s work inevitably reveals deep complexity in his colour choices and a highly refined sensitivity to colour resonances more equal to the intricate chords and sequences associated with European symphony.
The analogy of colour to music is historically comfortable, allowing a general way to understand how colour can, like music, operate in chords, keys, and harmonies that can be “in” or “out of” tune, sweetly harmonic, or terrifyingly, deliberately dissonant – and how, in the hand of a genius these nuances of resonating frequencies can create emotional states of great power.
Norval Morrisseau’s use of complex, sometimes dissonant chords and colour sequences move us through excitement and quiet, joy and awe. He knows how to quicken our visual pathway and how to slow it; to compel our eyes to dart from one corner of the canvas to another; to make the edges of our teeth tingle with a nails-on-chalkboard yellow against a plaintive mauve; to tease with counterpoint; and yet to hold the whole in exquisite balance. Refined orchestrations like these are well known to the epicure, to the wine connoisseur, to the composer, the choreographer, the architect – in short to anyone who has spent a great many hours in contemplation of the subtlest nuances of sensory experience.
Morrisseau did not use colour wheels and manuals to direct his choices, but like Van Gogh, he had a prodigious natural instinct that, through continual exploration and aspiration, developed the ability to feel his way unerringly around passages of unusual colour with extraordinary sensitivity to the impulses and overtones of each selected hue. Like the work of the Dutch artist, Morrisseau’s work should never be considered just technical wizardry. These two artists shared a deep drive to express a state of being that moved beyond the quotidian: Van Gogh in his intersection of landscape and raw emotional response, Norval in his intersection of the spirit world and reverberating storytelling. The truthfulness of Morrisseau’s shamanic vision is not to be underestimated. His narrative landscapes were as strongly in his sight1 as the French landscape was in the plein air observations of Van Gogh.
Morriseau’s early wide ranging colour palette was determined by the materials he was able to access, “anything he could find”: pencils or ink on paper, etched birch bark, and various qualities of paint, often chalk tempera or poster paint.The earthy primary tones and neutral palette of the years from ‘59 through the early 60’s were possibly encouraged by friend and anthropologist Selwyn Dewdney – perhaps out of a sense that these would be more “authentic” to an artist from such a remote background, following the thinking of a Eurocentric art perspective. This palette remained a part of Morrisseau’s colour vocabulary into the 1970’s.
Certainly, the earthy reds, yellows and green support the graphic strength in pieces such as Sacred Beaver, 1969, or The Dream of the Indian, 1973, or the nestling birds and insects of the Untitled paperwork of 1972-3. But any expectation that this unique artist would or should continue on in this “natural” palette would have been to confine him to the Native art apartheid decried by Carl Beam in 1992.
Fortunately, Norval Morrisseau’s forceful talent was to absorb the energies of his surrounding environment, redefining them through his exceptional shamanic lens.Thus the meeting with Toronto gallerist Jack Pollock that resulted in his sold-out first exhibition of 1962, provided a significant introduction for Toronto to the powerful imagery of this northern visionary, and for this visionary Morrisseau, to the broader art scene in Toronto – a Toronto flamboyant in the aftermath of the Painter’s 11 and a Canadian art scene including colour works as various as Toussignault, Riopelle, Bush, and Markle, and of course, Michael Snow’s ubiquitous Walking Woman. Clearly seen in the evolution of his colour palette, Morrisseau was not insensible to the currents surrounding him, nor to the (then) expanding spectrum of acrylic paint colours.
As early as the 60’s Morrisseau was exploring the primaries of clear bright colours with particular leaning towards the colour vibrations (now termed “luminance”) that modern acrylics could provide, as seen in the Thunderbird (acrylic on paper), 1968. Here as well, were the beginning contrasts of transparent colour vs. opaque colour.Later on, transparent colour washes would be used to demarcate alternate planes of existence and portals.
Within five years, his investigations of pairing complementary hues along with introducing modern synthetic intermediary hues like the “new” hot pink and violets were evident. Sacred Trout, 1973 is a beautiful example of the insertion of synthetic magenta, bright orange and clear cyan breaking into the simple harmony of the traditional primary palette.
By the time Morrisseau’s work was exhibited in Paris, at Magiciens de la terre, the 1989 contemporary art exhibition at Centre Georges Pompidou, the surety with which the artist wielded cools and warms, simultaneous contrasts, dissonant resonances and chromatic chords all structured in every conceivable tonal and saturation variation, put the artist in a category of colour mastery that has certainly justified the moniker “Picasso of the North”.
When we look at Copper Thunderbird | Wabino-Wiin Shaman of 1992 (image above), we are looking at a mature composition with a highly sophisticated balance of unnatural colour placements: rich yellows and heavy reds against light blues or light teals; an arresting central red/orange surrounded with many focal points including hot pink and luminous yellow punctuations. Yellow is the most difficult colour to control on the two dimensional plane, and this composition strides with all manner of yellows, the whole business as electric as Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. The riot of dancing energy however, is held back from fracturing only by the field of subdued tempered yellow, and with the finality of the canvas edge. That tempered yellow, and the small diluted yellow-green framing Copper Thunderbird’s face are the only quiet voices that ground the eye just enough, before it moves off again into the tensions, the explosions of power and life. Although harmonic, the work is not flaccid. Although balanced, it is not easy. The tensions hold the viewer riveted, but never trapped. In this astounding masterpiece, Morrisseau gives us a visceral experience of the metaphysical power embodied in the shaman. He gives us a glimpse of the raw complex life-energy of an artist/visionary who hears the sacred symphony of being.
– Sylvia Whitton, Associate Professor OCAD University
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