It is not often that art gallery staff make my day, but John MacGregor Newman, Associate Director of Kinsman Robinson Galleries in Toronto, Canada, did just that two weekends ago.
He showed me a sneak peak of the current exhibition “Norval Morrisseau: A Retrospective” which is on now until 29 November. While he was doing that, his enthusiasm and extensive knowledge of the artist and his work brought out my appreciation for Norval Morrisseau’s work. In fact, it inspired me to learn more about this shaman artist’s spiritual work. As the gallery pointed out, Morrisseau’s paintings challenge viewers to look beyond themselves and their immediate surroundings into the realm of spiritual or astral worlds. And more than this.
“We Are All One in Spirit” to quote Morrisseau himself. “These paintings only remind you that you’re an Indian. Inside somewhere, we’re all Indians. So now when I befriend you, I’m trying to get the best Indian, bring out the Indianness in you to make you think everything is sacred.”
“Love for life is a gift” ~ N. M.
I have since looked at lots more of works by this First Nation artist, and have yet to see a Norval Morrisseau work that is not a celebration of sorts of that which is life. “Love for life is a gift” he once said, and it sure shows in his paintings. Actually, I believe that some of his happiest paintings are currently hanging on the wall in the gallery for public viewing. You’ll see ~ the painter’s sublimely colorful works are dazzling and kaleidoscopic, and particularly his mural sized works inspire awe.
His work may resemble childlike simplicity, but actually is very sophisticated. His colors effect us in ways that are not immediately apparent, and are of healing nature. Norval works in canvas and paper. The images are said to be lucky charms for the future and pictures of respect of the past. They have inspired three generations of First Nations artists and all this has made him an icon of Canadian art.
The Kinsman Robinson Galleries’ exhibition of Morrisseau is their first retrospective show of him in over a decade. It is timely, as it will be exactly one year ago on Dec 4 that Norval Morrisseau passed away at age 75 after having been challenged with Parkinson’s disease for quite some time.
Norval Morrisseau Biography
Morrisseau was a Canadian Native Anishnaabe (Ojibwa) painter, born on Sandy Lake Reserve in 1932. The reserve was near Lake Nipigon and near Thunderbay in Northern Ontario. He spent his youth in this remote and isolated place, where his artistic style developed without the usual influences of other artist’s imagery.
Norval Morrisseau signed his work with the powerful shamanic name ‘Copper Thunderbird’. He received this special name as a child from the tribe’s Medicine Man, when Norval was very sick and nearly died of fever. It was an unusually powerful name for a small boy and was meant to give him strength. Well, the fever disappeared, Norval survived, and the strength remained: he developed into one of the most influential Canadian artists.
Morrisseau was raised by his grandfather, who taught him shamanism and the secret oral legends of his people, the Ojibwa. He forbade Norval to paint illustrations for the stories as that would be playing with sacred imagery. As a compromise, grandpa allowed the young Norval to draw his visions on the sandy beaches of Lake Nippigon, so that they could be washed away by the tide at day’s end.
However, the images kept on coming back in his mind, and unstoppable by tribal taboo and elders’ warnings, Norval started to paint the legends using ancient forms. Fortunately, tribal attitude of Norval’s ‘misbehaving’ shifted over the years. In 1986 Morrisseau was acknowledged as Grand Shaman of the Ojibwa. In 1995, the Assembly of First Nations bestowed on him their highest honor, the presentation of an eagle feather.
Secret & Sacred Symbolism
Norval Morrisseau painted the visions that came to him in dreams and so revealed the tribe’s secret symbolism. Over the decades, Morrisseau’s works have ranged from evocations of ancient symbolic etchings on sacred birch bark scrolls and pictographic renderings of spiritual creatures, to more recent works that are more pure celebrations of color.
“I transmit astral plane harmonies through my brushes into the physical plane. These otherworld colors are reflected in the alphabet of nature, a grammar in which the symbols are plants, animals, birds, fishes, earth and sky. I am merely a channel for the spirit to utilize, and it is needed by a spirit starved society.” ~ N.M.
“Morrisseau reveals something of the soul of humanity through colour and his unique “X-ray” style of imaging: Sinewy black “spirit” lines emanate, surround, and link animal and human figures, and skeletal elements and internal organs are visible within their brightly colored segments.” – National Gallery of Canada
“My paintings are icons, that is to say, they are images which help focus on spiritual powers, generated by traditional belief and wisdom.” For example: “The fish, sacred trout, was the most respected of all fish. The trout gave the Indian life in abundance and according to Ojibwa Indian mythology it represented his soul carrier. The trout carried the Indian soul through transmigration into an other existence in the supernatural or reincarnation. All this belief worked for the betterment of the Indian food in reality – faith in the supernatural.”
“Now, when I paint a picture I just allow myself to be used. I pick up the pencil and the canvas. I allow the interaction with soul to reflect in the mind, to put down these images of people, men or women or children especially. I may draw a hundred children, but there is never the same color.” he said.
Discovery of Morrisseau, Becoming part of Canadian National Pride & Receiving International Recognition
Morrisseau was originally discovered by Toronto art gallery owner Jack Pollock. Jack gave him his first one man show in Toronto in 1962. It was a great success and sold out on the first day. Since, the artist’s principal dealer, Kinsman Robinson Galleries in Toronto, has represented Norval Morrisseau and his artwork for the last nineteen years.
Beyond Morrisseau’s initial success, there were many accolades in his artistic career. He and his friend Ray were commissioned by the Canadian government to paint the large mural for The Natives of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. He has received an honorary degree from the Royal Academy of Arts. In 1978, he was awarded The prestigious Order Of Canada Medal by the Governor General of Canada for his contribution to Canadian Art. This is the highest civilian honor in Canada.
2006 marked the year that the National Gallery of Canada held its first major solo exhibition of a First Nations artist, and this of course was Norval Morrisseau. As part of the homage to his work, Morrisseau became one of the first artists inducted into to the prestigious Royal Society of Canada ~ a society with 1,800 distinguished Canadians selected by their peers for their outstanding contributions to the arts, natural and social sciences and the humanities. Morrisseau has had numerous solo shows across Canada and the US. Today, his work hangs in major galleries and museums around the world.
The French Love Him
In 1969, the French Press named Morrisseau the “Picasso Of The North” of Native Art, and indeed he is considered one of the most innovative artists of the Century. Both original and important artists, Picasso and Morrisseau each are creators of a completely new art movement. While Picasso invented in the midst of an influential crowd of European artists and art dealers, Norval Morrisseau developed his distinctive style of art in a remote area of Canada without such external influence or help. I guess this is also reflected in their relative levels of fame and fortune today.
In 1989, Morrisseau was the only Canadian artist invited to exhibit at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France as part of the French Revolution Bicentennial celebrations, and in the “Magicians Of The Earth” exhibition at Paris’ Museum of Modern Art. While in Europe he went to see the works of Master artists. Their work was too dark & somber to his liking and he returned to Canada to paint in even more vibrant colors and abstract shapes ~ inspired in indirect ways.
Unique Artistic Style & Genre culminates into the Woodland School of Art
Norval was the first to paint the ancient myths and legends of the eastern woodlands, and in the ’60s he became known as the soul originator of the Woodland School. The unique style of the Woodland School is now called Anishnaabe painting, a term that refers to the artist’s heritage and the archetypal status of his work.
Over time, the ‘Woodlands School of Art’ has also been called ‘Medicine Art’ as well as ‘Legend Art’. Norval Morrisseau’s art images are agents for healing or reflect many of the secret legends known only within the Ojibway and Cree Tribes. He is the most popular of Canada’s “Native Group of Seven.” Others in this group include his apprentice, friend & fellow Cree artist Carl Ray, and Morrisseau’s artist brother in law, the now late Joshim Kakegamic. Both are from the Sandy Lake Reserve. All three were pioneers of this unique, bold style of art and their influence continues to affect young native artists today.
Morrisseau & God
“I have always been attracted to religious paintings, but only the ones that had that mystical or supernatural quality in them, especially Saint Teresa by Bernini. Just looking at Saint Teresa I get some kind of vibrations from it. I can close my eyes and feel them. That’s great art, and it brings on that tingling sexual feeling. Other saints, like Saint Sebastian, do that as well. But the Christ figure was always the one that was dominant for me. That’s why I say that Christ to me is still the greatest shaman, and that is why some religious visions are so complex, and so very hard to explain to people.” ~ N.M.
Sometimes dramatic events are required to make us see life from another point of view. Perhaps the fact that Morrisseau almost died in a hotel fire in Vancouver in 1972, helped him to make a such a shift. He fortunately recovered from the burns and healed enough to paint again. A new sense of oneness appeared, moving beyond the prior Ojibwa-Jesuit conflict within him. He adopted Christianity around that time and a number of his paintings in the ’70′s reflected this belief in the Lord as the Savior. In time the Lord and Native Shaman shared the same place and power. Morrisseau believed in astral travel and has since demonstrated a belief in Eckantar, the ancient art of soul travel with its origin in Atlantis.
By Astrid Lee, 2008
on Norval Morrisseau,
Note: the images of the paintings that you see here in this article do not do justice to the vibrancy of Morrisseau’s work. Some art translates well into digital imagery, however for Morrisseau’s work, a first-hand viewing is ‘a must’ to truly feel the thrill.