Review by John Fleming

EAN-FRANÇOIS Blanchette, recently retired as curator from the Canadian Museum of History after a research career in the fields of furniture his­tory (18th and 19th century), decorative arts, and popular culture, draws upon his long career to create a far-reaching synthesis of the many elements brought together within the still shifting concept of art populaire in Québec.

In broad terms, his study opens upon a museological dilemma: how to describe and use the museum’s collection of artefacts in relation to the current circumstances of peripheral and fractured object-making. In the postmodern world of evolving perspectives and disruptive movements and practices, Blanchette sets out to assess the ways in which Québec folk art reflects a society in constant evolution along the path of common experience and through the multiple manifestations of the aesthetic of the everyday. The investigation he undertakes encompasses archival records and historical materials, government commissions, and private initiatives to preserve and revive artisanal traditions in danger of extinction.

Blanchette first anchors his text in the collections of the late Nettie Covey Sharpe and her own history of collecting traditional Québec furniture and folk art from an early age until her death in 2002. At that time, some 3,000 items, along with her historic house on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River across from Montréal, were bequeathed to the Canadian Museum of History. The story of Mme Sharpe’s enthusiasm and collecting activities resembles in kind a summing up of the origins and development of interest in the heritage of Québec furnishings and folk art from their beginnings through the 20th century. As Blanchette’s own personal narrative and inquiry follow the trajectory of Mme Sharpe in a rolling progression and evolution through the cultural and aesthetic landscape, his in-the-field, hands-on approach intensifies in keeping with the objects studied by careful probing of the motives, emotions, and practices of the artists/ artisans he interviews.

Blanchette’s discussion of the “patenteux” (creators of eccentric and highly personal lawn ornaments) and “les indisciplinés” (makers of objects in rebellion, or indifferent to tradition and aesthetic norms of content and technique) brings into focus categories at the limits of mainstream artistic acceptance or the dogmatic precepts of the day: “Les formes d’art nouvelles se multiplient. L’individualisme devient un caractère identitaire de la société et de l’art qu’on produit, car l’art populaire et la tradition, agissant autrefois en synergie, se retrouve en rupture face à la modernité.” (p. 89)

The second half of Du Coq à l’Ame is a catalogue of about 200 objects both traditional and modern, some even postmodern in their de-centred and off-angle content and technique, all offered as a mirror held up to the life of a particular society in a special time and place. From eggshell mosaics, hooked rugs, and grotesque carvings of mechanical imaginings and primitive masks, a typological back-to-the future revises our perceptions of the present without losing entirely a certain nostalgia for a reassuring image of the past. As such, these images and their story will have wide appeal to both traditionalists and those with a curious eye to future prospects.

Excerpted from Fall/Winter 2014 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

John Fleming is the Editor of Ornamentum.

Jean-François Blanchette, Du Coq à l’Ame: L’art populaire au Québec.
Collection mercure, etudes Culturelles numéro 85. ottawa: musée Canadien
de l’Histoire et les presses de l’université d’ottawa [2014].