A painting is made of rhythm, form, space, light, shadow, and colour—but it’s sensation and the painter’s own poetry that give it harmony.
- Jean McEwen
Adagio des pays vastes (1973) is like a song of the earth: its lyricism and power echo throughout. Jean McEwen was at the top of his form when he painted this work: well into his fifties, he would knead the substance with his fingers until he had saturated the pictorial layer, imbuing it with an incredible sumptuousness.
Mindful of the paintings being made in the 1950s and 1960s, McEwen challenged the formal and material limits that he had imposed on himself by reproducing the transparencies, drips, and clearings in a new way. A layer of incandescent pigment with a hazy, marbled effect covers the entire foreground. In the bottom quarter, a mysterious opening invites the viewer to imagine what lies beyond, if not before, it. The gap gives the illusion of a deep cavern containing a secret pictorial space. An almost mineral flicker frames the painting on all four sides, like a growing, golden, inextinguishable circle of fire.
The Adagio des pays vastes series (1972–73) is the logical follow-up to Miroir sans image (1971) which, rather than reflecting an image of the outside world, projects its own inner image, that of a brilliant, multicoloured, stratified painting. This “controlled exuberance,” as Constance Naubert-Riser terms it, introduces coloured fields that undergo a rigorous, serial spatial organization that enables McEwen to explore the full potential of colour and spatial dynamics. Following this principle, the coloured pigment mixed with varnish in this painting produces a sumptuous textured effect that echoes through the Laque d’un pays vaste and Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) series from the same period. As a variation on this composition, but on larger scale, Adagio des pays vastes no. 1 (1973, collection of the First City Financial Corporation Limited, Vancouver) is reproduced in the catalogue titled Jean McEwen: la profondeur de la couleur : peintures et oeuvres sur papier, 1951-1987 (cat. 51, p. 102).
Jean McEwen is considered one of the most influential Canadian artists of his generation. His works have been presented in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, and New York. In 1973, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal presented a retrospective of his work, followed by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, in 1987. McEwen received several awards and distinctions during his career, most notably the Victor Martyn Lynch- Staunton Award from the Canada Council for the Arts, in 1977, and the Prix Paul-Émile-Borduas, in 1998, one year before his death in Montreal.