Phytographie, by Alfred Pellan, reads like a finely executed botanical drawing of vegetation, redolent of the European Modernist style by which he was greatly influenced. Bolstered by his years in Paris, Pellan appropriated the aesthetics of avant-garde movements such as Surrealism, Fauvism, and Post-Cubism to serve his abundant imagination. The painting’s pictorial space evolves neatly from top to bottom as he gently plays with perspective; the bundle of fruit in the foreground suggests both macro and micro versions of the visible world. Here, spring is in full bloom: the ground has broken, fruits and flowers brim with sap and pulp, and an entire universe is in metamorphosis. On the lower left, a tree—a simplified apple tree, perhaps—sits on a sloping green relief feature near a bulb that has freshly risen from the earth. A garden of budding tomato and pomegranate clusters swirls against a black-and-white backdrop, injecting it with pure, contrasting colours. Each element seems activated by a delicate internal mechanism enhanced by dots, lines, and intricate colour fades: just a hint of mayhem to liven up this remarkable composition.
Alfred Pellan was born in Quebec City in 1906. In 1920, he studied at the École des beaux-arts de Québec. The province’s first recipient of a painting grant, he left for Paris six years later. Pellan continued his studies at the École supérieure nationale des beaux-arts de Paris, where he received the first prize for painting in 1928. He lived in Paris until 1940, working at the academies in Grande- Chaumière, Colarossi, and Ranson. Pellan left France to escape the war and returned to Canada, where he taught painting at the École des beauxarts de Montréal from 1943 to 1952. Among the numerous prizes and distinctions he received over the course of his prolific career, the most notable are a first place in Paris’s first major mural exhibition (1935), the first prize in painting at the 65th annual spring exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1948), the Royal Society of Canada Prize (1952-53), the prize for Best Mural for Montreal’s City Centre Building (1957), and an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa (1969). Pellan died in Montreal on October 30, 1988.