Canada, as a whole, is renowned for its public artwork displays from city architecture to sculptures in town squares. If you’ve ever been to the beautiful city of Montreal, then you’ll know it’s no different. The stunning stained glass displays, an art form usually only found in churches, cover every inch of the city.
What you may not have known is who was behind Montreal’s public art culture. Keep reading to learn more about Marcelle Ferron: the artist, activist, and the very soul of Montreal.
Who was Marcelle Ferron?
Marcelle Ferron was a Quebecoise painter in the 1940s up to her death in 2001. Her work was part of a more significant movement that was the catalyst for change in Quebec socially, politically, and artistically.
To give some context, Quebec in the 1940s was a deeply traditional province. Under Duplessis‘ rule, Quebec was the most pious and God-fearing that it had ever been. Church-state relations practically dominated government policy. While the rest of the world was experiencing a wave of modernization, Quebec remained in a cultural bubble that refused to let society move past the culture and traditions of the 1800s.
It was around this time that Marcelle Ferron joined the École des beaux-arts de Québec.
Marcelle Ferron’s Early work:
Marcelle Ferron dropped out of the École des beaux-arts de Québec after she argued with her professor over how they were teaching modern art in the college. Since all modernity was criticized at the time, contemporary art was illustrated with a heavily biased and unappreciative eye. Marcelle Ferron herself was fascinated by modern art and resented the overly harsh critiques of the genre.
After dropping out, Marcelle Ferron joined Paul-Émile Borduas’ ‘Les Automatistes‘ movement. Les Automatistes was a branch of surrealism, founded in the 40s, that later evolved into modern abstract art. The group got their name from surrealism’s theory of automatism – the notion that you should let the canvas and painting speak to you rather than setting out to try and paint a concrete idea or image.
That is why the art of ‘Les Automatistes has long sweeping brushstrokes and bold panels of paint. The movement practiced applying paint in large splotches directly on the canvas and then pushing the palette knife or brush directly against it, letting the paint spread however it wished. The idea was to paint ‘automatically’ rather than manually. It was liberating, creative, and loud. ‘Les Automatistes’ was everything art should be.
The very nature of this style of art meant that it was a political statement. Quebec in the 1940s only allowed representational art – paintings and sculptures that depicted recognizable scenes and images. Representational art was a literal rendition of an actual entity (mountains, people, animals, etc.). Les Automatistes created portraits of the soul, emotion, and feeling. This rejection of custom meant that the movement was political from the get-go.
Marcelle Ferron’s Evolving style and political activism:
By 1948, Marcelle Ferron had signed the ‘Refus Global‘ – the manifesto of ‘Les Automatistes.’ In it, members renounced the traditional cultural values of Quebec. The Catholic religion, loyalty, and the church’s morality were questioned, and there was a demand for change. The manifesto was aimed at and signed by “modest French-Canadian families, working-class or lower-middle-class,” but Marcelle Ferron was the only woman to sign the declaration.
After its publication in 1949, The ‘Refus Global’ has been widely regarded as a critical document in the modernization of Quebec and the ‘Quiet Revolution.’
This was just the beginning of Marcelle Ferron’s role in the Canadian art and cultural revolution.
Marcelle Ferron moved to Paris in 1953, where she lived for 13 years. Paris has always been a country of liberty and art. It was here where Marcelle refined her work and discovered the art of staining glass, the very medium that she would be best remembered for.
During her time in Paris, Marcelle Ferron presented her work in various exhibitions and became a renowned artist in the avant-garde scene. In 1961, She won the Silver Medal Sao Paulo Biennial in Brazil. She was monumental in bringing Quebec’s art to the global stage.
Why Is Marcelle Ferron’s Work So Popular?
Marcelle Ferron’s work isn’t just a political statement. Her art is beautiful, luxurious and visually stunning. However, non-representational art like Marcelle’s can be hard to understand, especially if you aren’t directly viewing it in person. To put it simply, abstract art is all about textures, colors and patterns.
To understand Marcelle Ferron’s style of art, let us consider what makes something beautiful. It’s easy to identify beautiful things; flowers, oceans, and forests all come to mind. But nature is not magnificent simply because it is nature. A mountain is attractive because of the striking colors it is composed of; a river is captivating because of the light that dances across its surface, a rose is gorgeous because of the pattern of its petals.
Marcelle Ferron and abstract art, in general, understand this. It takes the elements of what makes something beautiful and creates something new and equally as stunning out of it.
An Exploration Of Marcelle Ferron’s Art:
Marcelle Ferron’s art went through massive evolutions throughout her career. To fully appreciate her genius, we must take a closer look at some of her life’s most significant works.
Ghost Hills 1962:
Made during the apex of her career, Ghost hills is a fascinating piece of abstraction. The sharp, restrained rectangles of paint, created with short flicks of a palette knife, add a sort of perpetual movement to the canvas. The negative space, on the other hand, slows the work down into a timeless eternity.
If we focus on the ‘interior’ of Ghost Hills by Marcelle Ferron, we can see vivid colors and a busy blend of paint. Rectangles overlap each other such that you can never tell what stroke is on top. The colors, therefore, look like streaks of light being moved across the canvas in mesmerizing ways.
If we focus on the ‘exterior’ of the painting, we can see the curious shape that the painted section creates. Some have likened it to a butterfly’s wings or a bird on a branch. Either way, it forces the spectator to view this burst of energy and movement as contained within an entirely stationary entity. This technique proves Marcelle Ferron’s skill and command over the visual arts. She can manipulate and guide audiences in the way she wants altogether through her art.
Just because this art is non-representational doesn’t mean we can’t attempt to search for meaning within it. After all, the expression is the fundamental appeal of art. In Marcelle Ferron’s painting, we can see the neon colors of a busy city in 1960. The movement adds to this idea that Marcelle is capturing the bright lights and fast pace of the city through her use of color and shape.
The exterior could be an allusion to how the rest of the world remains quiet and unaware of the hustle and bustle of the city. Another interpretation could be that the beautiful complexities of the soul are contained within the unassuming vessel we call the body. This contrast and subsequent themes of containment make this painting one of Marcelle Ferron’s best works.
Permanent Holocaust Memorial:
This stained glass installation is one of the most moving pieces Marcelle Ferron ever created. Located in Concordia University, this memorial was commissioned to pay respects to the six million victims of the World War II Nazi Holocaust.
This is the least abstract piece in Marcelle Ferron’s repertoire. The article features the Hebrew word Shalom (meaning peace) distorted and scattered within shards of red, representing flames. The top of the installation features curved pieces of yellow and earth green glass that overlap to create an abstraction of the sun. To Marcelle, this was symbolic of hope for a better future.
The bottom of the artwork is composed entirely of red and purple. Red has strong connotations of pain and suffering, while purple is the darkest color you can use to stain glass without blocking the light completely. The top half, however, is golden and shimmering.
The effect this has is that when you stand close to the glass, you are engulfed in somber tones, the red and purple light combining midair to create deep maroons. The atmosphere of anguish and grief is dispelled as you move away from the glass, however. As you step back, you are surrounded by a warm, buttery light that diffuses into the air gracefully (due to how high up the stained glass is).
The message is clear; the victims of the Nazi Holocaust suffered in a humanmade hell of flames, never knowing a moment’s peace. The light at the end is the heaven they will spend the rest of the time in.
Alternative readings of the artwork include the notion that, because the light refracting through the glass gets lighter and softer as you move back, the message is that time makes it easy to distance ourselves from tragedy and forget the pain and torment suffered by millions. The ‘sun’ has also been likened to an eye (like that of Doctor T.J Eckleberg) that is watching over the mural. This could be an allusion to God watching over the victims, thus reinforcing the themes of Heaven and Hell.
Champ de Mars Metro Station:
The pinnacle of her career, Marcelle Ferron’s stained glass art, is even featured at the Champ de Mars metro station in Montreal. The windows in this metro station have historical significance because they were proof of the success of the Refus Global. Now, public buildings like the Champ de Mars were packed with striking, non-representational art like Marcelle Ferron’s.
The piece itself is magnificent. It doesn’t block the incredible view of Montreal, but it doesn’t concede to it either. The painting enhances the scenery by a thousand times.
By now, you will have noticed the signature reds, purples, yellows, and greens characteristic of Marcelle Ferron’s work. In this piece, the colors move with the sun to create oceans of light across the station. Colors even crash into each other in midair to produce sublime blends of orange, pink, and blue. The stains themself draw your eye across the landscape outside, making it a visual feast for any commuters.
From the outside, the effect is entirely different. When backlit by the industrial LED lights of the metro station, the stained glass lights up like an 80s rave. It complements the spectacular nightlife of Montreal perfectly! Inside the station, the light is fluid and ever-changing, dancing across the footprint of the building. From the outside, these dancing shapes are bright, bold, and steadfast. By day the Champ de Mars metro station is a quaint and charming piece of art, but by night is it a sophisticated, courageous and charismatic statement piece, smack bang in the middle of Montreal.
The material Marcelle Ferron painted on was ancient glass (mouth-blown) because factory glass could not hope to reproduce the same vibrancy of color. Marcelle Ferron enlisted the help of master glassworker Aurèle Johnson to install the artwork. Today, the ancient glass has gone through several restoration projects, and the original glass is sandwiched safely between more fortified panels.
However, looking at a picture or reading a critique of this art will never hold a candle to the otherworldly experience of viewing the artwork in person. The vivid colors and the fluid movement can only be truly appreciated in person. This is why we recommend you visit your local gallery or take a trip to Montreal to enjoy the majesty of Marcelle Ferron’s work.
Why Should You Care About Marcelle Ferron’s Art?
Marcelle Ferron was one of the many pioneers that built Quebec as we see it today. If it weren’t for artists like her, Quebec’s art would have remained in an orthodox bubble for all eternity.
She took massive strides for Quebecoise painters by participating in the ‘Quiet Revolution.’ Her work brought stained glass ( traditionally only found in Catholic churches) to the masses. Public art is now fresh and exciting and we have artists like her to thank.
Marcelle Ferron is the artist that gave ‘the city of stained glass’ its name. If you have no other reason to visit Montreal, go just to admire her stunning art.