“More than silence, it’s the invisible that roams, that asks to be captured, because it invites us into contemplation, into the beyond.” – Anne Hébert, on the work of Jean Paul Lemieux.
La chasse (c. 1979-80) embodies the eminently classic landscapes of Jean Paul Lemieux’s oeuvre; mysteries play off one another at the dawn of the final decade of his career. As art historian Marie Carani writes, “Each painting [from this period] becomes the magical setting of an immediate experience, while remaining an instrument of mediation.”
Rifles point toward an invisible prey hiding in the whiteness of freshly fallen snow. Eyes scan the frozen bay for the slightest sign of life. Paired off on either side of the pictorial space, the figures produce a kind of symmetry echoed by the barren islands in the distance. Their backs turned to the viewer, the hooded hunters dot the pictorial space that halts abruptly against a dark-grey curtain of clouds, highlighting the tension that unfolds in this captivating scene. Climate plays a distinct role in this universal drama: “Lemieux’s particular use of white has produced his key, neatly metaphoric effects of memory and fascination,” Carani observes. “His use of multiple viewpoints, layered planes, optical flashes of light, proximity, frontality, and immediacy contributes to this new quality of presence, this ambiguous and still vague feeling of eternity in painting.”
The feeling of vastness is certainly hypnotizing in this work. It reflects Lemieux’s wonder and obsession with the unfathomableness of human nature and wilderness, which he explored more intensely during this final period of his truly exceptional career. The essential contrast of black and white, along with browns and greens, bring to mind his earlier quasi-monochrome paintings, such as Cavalier dans la neige (1967) and Le Rapide (1968). In La chasse, an immaculate desert of white separates each element, and the gaze of the viewer—also on the hunt—is drawn in closer to find clues that may crack the enigma. The landscape gradually engulfs the anonymous, fur-clad figures. In the distance, two silhouettes fade into a snow squall, ready at all costs to hunt down the prey that will ensure their survival in these merciless plains, which will soon be warmed by the islands of earth on the horizon. A hushed force seems to absorb all sound and foretells the start of a new season: spring is already arriving on the archipelago to melt away the snow.
In the early 1980s, Lemieux made a firm decision to approach painting more symbolically, based on personal insight and emotional awareness, which, when transposed visually through a series of formal processes, transcends the pictorial space. These methods are easily identified by the large format of the works, their diagonal, often oblique lines, the play of scale and surface planes, and the steady presence of figures placed in opposition to their surroundings—depicted in close-up, from behind, or blurred. Discussing this period in Lemieux’s work, Carani writes, “Many of Lemieux’s late drawings and paintings depict the great drama of modern humanity … All of his work addresses the duality of being and nothingness, truth and illusion, the face and the mask.” La chasse brings together every element that characterizes the artist’s work: desolate landscapes, fragmented and enigmatic figures, sloped horizons, seasonal cycles, and the human condition. The piece illustrates hope and elevation at a time when Lemieux’s work was being recognized and praised, both here and abroad.