Article by Gloria Lesser

HESE CATHOLIC IMAGES from the 1940s or 1950s can be situated as “tinsel art” or “foil art” within the broad rubric of folk art. They are a form of domestic art/craft on the cusp of change from a rural to an urban society in the years leading to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s in Quebec. Iconographically, they express popular beliefs within the confines of a world view soon to be altered by the onset of television in the province in 1952.

As is the case with many popular art forms of the pre- and post-World War II period, “found” and easily available materials were gathered, selected, and reused by the thrifty during the Depression.

In the case of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a French Carmelite (1873-1897), declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II in 1997, she has been captured in paintings and photographs over time. This particular depiction is derived from a sculptural representation at St. Pancras Church in Ipswich, England. Identified by her iconic symbol as patron of florists and gardeners, and named co-patron of France with Joan of Arc in 1944, this rendition shows the saint clasping a bouquet of roses surrounding a crucifix. According to mystic belief, a rain of roses that appeared after her death is a literal and figurative commemoration of her presence. The other example of foil art illustrated here represents a Welcoming Christ with outstretched arms within a circle of decorative tinsel rosettes.

Circulated in Catholic communities, ready-mades such as these served loosely as what we might call today, in secular terms, “advertorials.” In the two images presented here, cartouches in tinsel separate mottoes from the black background, while tinsel in gold, silver, green, and red surrounding pasted chromolithographic cut-outs, animates the composition. From a historical perspective, “papiers roulés,” “paperoles,” or filigree paperwork appeared in Provence, in 18th-century France, in nunneries/convents where members of the Carmelite order were found. The visual qualities of the materials, their reflective effects, and the composition created a deliberate and
active enhancement. The examples shown here come from the Houle and Fortier families of Rosemount and St. Leonard, Montreal.

The fact that these naïve works were usually placed in a simple commercially carved wood frame suggests that they were valued as artworks fit for the wall in a domestic environment. This inexpensive art form used chromolithographs as paintings and the reflective quality of aluminum as a spiritual metaphor for enlightenment, unconsciously echoing perhaps early filigree paperwork, or quilling, a difficult and intricate process using thin strips of gold and silver rolled and shaped to embellish jewellery and precious objects often within the context of reliquary devotion associated with the saints.

From Spring/Summer 2015 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Gloria Lesser is a Montreal-based interior designer, art historian, and occasional curator with a particular interest in the decorative arts.

My thanks to Almuth Seebohm for bringing to my attention references to the history of this once popular art form in France.

Religious foil art from Quebec, showing Saint Thérèse, circa mid-1940s to 1950s
Photograph: Fanny Luquet