It is undeniable that Alfred Pellan, through his art, contributed to the advent of modernity in Quebec. Each new breakthrough he achieved sent shockwaves throughout the art world, here and abroad. While some critics condemned his work harshly, others praised it. Consequently, Pellan found himself continuously caught between polarizing views of adulation and contempt. Despite it all, he persisted and soon became the first Canadian painter to receive a retrospective at the Musée national d’art moderne (National Museum of Modern Art) in Paris. When he returned to Quebec, Pellan was granted a solo exhibition in Montreal—after fifteen years of being ignored. Invited by Mayor Jean Drapeau, Pellan exhibited his work in the Hall of Honour at Montreal’s City Hall in November 1956. The exhibition, a media sensation that drew enormous crowds, became embroiled in a scandal that was resolved in extremis—much to the dismay of the artist’s detractors—with the removal of certain works deemed too daring.
Pellan created prodigious canvases during the mid-1950s, a period in which, as Michel Martin explains, the artist “explored the physical properties of new materials such as sand, silica, tobacco, charcoal […] and Polyfilla, which he mixed with coloured paints to give his surfaces a dichotomous structure, much like a bas-relief.” (Translation ours) His painting Sous cloche, which features a still life—a favourite Pellan subject—is just such a material exploration, but here the raw materials are very refined. The image’s flowers and leaves, rendered in lightly oxidized tones, are huddled closely beneath a bell jar—a reflection, perhaps, of the state of mind into which Pellan found himself having to retreat to safeguard his creative liberty.
Sous cloche was part of a retrospective presented at the Musée du Québec, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery of Canada, in 1972. (A. L.)