It was a summer day in Paris in 1964 that changed Roméo Savoie’s life forever.
He was a Canadian architect on a study trip to Europe. He had just been looking at Notre Dame Cathedral on ÎIe de la Cité and had come to the conclusion that he understood the building. Later that day, he had another realization. Now he was looking in the window of a commercial art gallery that was close by, at a small red abstract painting. “I can understand cathedrals,” he thought, “but I don’t understand this painting and I want to.” It was at this moment that Savoie realized that he wanted to be a painter. There was no turning back although it was six more years and second trip back to Europe before he was able to break fully away from architecture and devote his life to painting.
Savoie was certainly aware of painting and drawn to it before 1964. He had come a long way from his Moncton Acadian roots. Born there in 1928, he graduated from Collège Saint- Joseph (the forerunner of the University of Moncton) in 1950 with a BA and a degree in architecture in 1956 from the École des beaux-arts de Montréal. He told me that he spent a lot of time looking at art while, and after, schooling in Montreal, “When I was in Montreal as an architect I spent my lunch hours in galleries look at the avant garde”. I was more interested in painting than I was architecture. These were heady days for art in Quebec. A revolution in fact. The revolution of Refus global with artists such as Paul-Émile Borduas, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Marcel Barbeau and others turing the art world upside down. He was present, and took note, of the birth of Modernist painting in French Canada. Nevertheless, he was not yet ready to become an artist.
It was that two-year trip, travelling in a VW camper van, from place to place, in 1964 that gave him a solid grounding in European modernism. He has told me about how he was drawn at the time to the Spanish artist Antoni Tápies and Art Povera and, in particular, the artist’s use of collage that is still evident in Savoie’s art. Another major influence was the COBRA movement with artists such as Karel Appel, Pierre Alechinsky and Corneille. There were, as well, the French abstract artists of the time such as Georges Mathiel and Pierre Soulages. Of course, European modernist painting was great influenced by America action painting and its emphasis on very physical painting. Two America artists that Savoie greatly admires are Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollack. The latter for his ability to paint beautiful and complicated painting with a stick dipped in paint and the former for his nonchalant mixture of materials that result in wonderful art objects.
Since the beginning, symbols have always played an important role in Savoie’s paintings. Sometimes they are apparent, but often hidden, waiting for the viewer to find them. Like the artists he admires, he relies on his sub-conscious for both his subject matter and methods of working. There are strong roots of Surrealism both in his work and that of mentors. Layering is an another important element in his painting. Spitfire (1999, 155 x 155 cm) is a perfect example of a layered painting. It rewards a viewer’s careful reflection. Black, ink based, washes cover underpainting which is then rediscovered through etched lines to uncover hidden colour beneath.
He told me some years ago, and it still holds, “Just putting paint on is not thinking. You have to be emotionally ready to be able to do something as a link to yourself which is your body, your emotions. Your body just operates as an instrument of all these energies working through you.” It has not been easy for Savoie working as an abstract artist in New Brunswick and, in particular, in Moncton. New Brunswick is known as the home of Maritime Realism. The place of Alex Colville, Tom Forrestall and the Pratts, all educated at Mount Allison University in Sackville some fifty kilometres from Moncton. Acadian art in New Brunswick has developed very differently from the realist school thanks largely to artists such as Savoie and Herménégilde Chiasson who have made Moncton the centre of Acadian art. While Savoie could be viewed as an Acadian nationalist, especially in light of his continuing series on the figure of Evangeline, much of his art is international and modernists in its nature. It’s his influence on the younger generation of Acadian artists who have learned from his example of hard work and endurance what is important. Modernist art is art for art’s sake. Savoie’s paintings are beautiful and they are art for art’s sake. However, these facts do not lessen his role or importance as a pivotal figure in the development of Acadian culture in New Brunswick.
Move forward the fifty-two years from 1964 and Savoie is the dean of abstract painting in the Maritimes and certainly a strong voice for Acadian art. He is closing in on ninety years old yet works every day in his studio planing future exhibitions. Besides being a prolific painter, he is also a poet who has published over a half dozen collections of his poetry. He recently told me, in a studio visit, “I am who I am” and that about sums it up.