Even in a nutshell, the art and life of Jean-Philippe Dallaire, cut short at the age of 49, reads like a rich tapestry. Born into a large family in Hull, Quebec, he studied art in Toronto, Montreal and Paris, yet was generally self-taught, too independent of spirit to associate with any particular group or adhere to one specific style.
His stay in Paris, a de rigueur visit for most Quebec artists, was marked by encounters with the art of Picasso and the surrealists but ended with an arrest by the Gestapo in 1940. Dallaire spent the next four years in a detention camp. He continued to draw, he even learned Italian. Back in Canada he was drawn to teaching, and spent many years illustrating educational films for the National Film Board.
Dallaire was essentially impervious to trends and critique, gently charting his own unique path, and the last word on his art has yet to be spoken.
His work has gone through many changes, as the 20th century took shape. Realistic portraits mark the early years, followed by experiments in cubism and surrealism, but always filtered, altered by Dallaire`s peculiar way of seeing the world.
A sense of the theatrical, an atmosphere of a carnival, permeate most of his works, an inescapable, tickling presence of another reality.
“One could say that I do not take life seriously. I always had a fondness for birds, little flags and the texture of fabrics. Perhaps it is a bit decorative, but so what,” Dallaire is quoted as saying in 1957.
This unpretentious self-analysis defies the plastic genius of his work, the attention to quality and draughtsmanship, the boldly subtle choice of colours and the magical way in which they fill every inch of the canvas.
Echoes of surrealism can be found in his floating compositions, the unusual pairing of figures, at once realistic and theatrical. But unlike de Chirico’s metaphysical stillness or Dali’s fantastical creations, Dallaire’s works accentuate the pictorial rather than the intellectual. Like the Surrealists, he is in search of virgin territories, but his flights of fancy are disarmingly human, almost childlike.
In L' Annonciation, one of several works on a sacred theme, the figures of Virgin Mary and the Archangel are composed of geometric patches of colour, floating against a grid, like trapeze artists above a safety net. The angel’s wings resemble peacock feathers, the faces are featureless, and the tiny blue cat at their feet adds a sense of domesticity to the composition.
Dallaire, although aware of the major currents in art, was staunchly original, creating his own fantasy-based universe, unapologetic about his fascination with theatre in all its forms, from drama to puppetry.
His cubist period produced magnificent still lifes, incorporating his beloved birds in one monochromatic composition with echoes of Braque, or focusing on a pair of fruit rendered in bold colour and rich texture.
Eclectic, quietly emotional, Dallaire was a lonely pilgrim in a world exploding with new ideas and visual experimentation. His work, in my opinion, is closest to that of Spanish artist Joan Miró (1893-1983), whose whimsical paintings were unlike anything contemporary art of the day had seen.
Beyond the stylistic similarities, the two diverse artists shared a common reaction to the turmoil of war and its aftermath. While in hiding, Miró renounces oil painting in favour of gouaches and watercolours, filling his canvases with images of birds, the harmony of the female body, stars… It was his way of escaping the horror around him, an artist’s only way of escape…
Could it be that Dallaire, too, sought to forget the hardship he experienced in the simple joy of painting his beloved birds, in losing himself in playful portraits composed of dappled patches of colour, faces staring at the viewer with childlike surprise, all adorned with fancy hats and tiny umbrellas.
Just take a look at Bossue à l’ombrelle, with her clown face and upside down hat that looks more like a chandelier. It could be a puppet plunked unceremoniously on a wide chair, sitting a little askew, tittering… The image is taken in quickly, there is very little of the narrative, what is captivating is the way it is painted; the monochromatic blue that permeates this work, set against a dark torso, creates that familiar shimmering effect of dancing patches somehow forming shapes. Dallaire had a magical way of applying paint. His oils look like gouaches, the texture of the board, or canvas, visible under the fine layers of paint.
As simple as the image may appear, it is in fact a symphony of colour and gesture, a painterly tableau in the guise of fairytale.
Miró put it plainly : “One should be able to discover new things every time one looks at a painting.” Each glance at Dallaire work reveals something new.
Patati-Patata, for example, may require a more prolonged study, replete as it is with rich imagery and an abundance of detail. Resembling a collage, it features two whimsical figures, accompanied by birds, little flags, leaves… Playing cards are scattered at their feet, and the shadow behind one of the figures seems to have a life of its own. Floating ribbons, esoteric patters, make this work a kind of tapestry, and echoes Matisse’s colourful cutouts.
But while the rest of the world was gasping at the avant-garde works of Rothko, Pollock and Bacon, Dallaire continued on his own path, securely ensconced in his magical universe, painting himself as one of his whimsical characters in L’homme à l’oiseau, a seminal work incorporating all the unique touches that mark his oeuvre. Painted in bold green and red, bright yet delicately subdued, as are all his works, it’s a wonderful portrait of a man smoking a tiny red pipe, a small flame rising from it. A fantastical bird perches on his head, its long feet gently clinging to his baldpate. A bizarre face peers from behind his shoulder rending the scene surreal. But beyond the magnificent combination of pure colour, lies the geometry of the background, painted in Dallaire’s signature dappled style, tones melding into each other, sprinkled with light.
This very personal manner of constructing his own pictorial universe sets Dallaire apart from other contemporary artists of his day. The expressive expansiveness of his imagery is unlike any other, and although it reflects numerous influences, it remains unique, and highly mastered.
Dorota Kozinska is a writer and art critic
© Dorota Kozinska – Jean Dallaire, Retrospective Exhibition’s Catalog from October 18 to Novembre, 2008 – Galerie Valentin, Montreal