Kittie Bruneau (b. 1929) has been compared to everyone from Picasso through Kokoschka to Joan Mirò, with a touch of Jean Dubuffet for good measure. And while some of these references are not without merit, they ultimately do a disservice to the original and utterly unshackled spirit of this artist. Bruneau’s art has even been seen as akin to the Automatists’ style, and again, albeit not totally off the mark, the two have little in common. For while all the afore-mentioned artists share a certain exuberant approach to composition, they all paint from a different source, driven by individual energy.
Bruneau reaches deep, into a kind of primordial realm within her psyche, her art an atavistic communication with herself, expressed through gestures that are at times a reflection of a very different inspiration — dance. Following her studies at l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Montréal and at the Museum of Fine Arts School of Arts, Bruneau sojourned in Europe, studying dance in Paris. That aspect of her career finds its way into her canvases, where movement is as vital as colour and composition. Bruneau also drew inspiration from her many travels; the colours and textures of exotic lands imbuing her oeuvre. Closer to home, she found her muse in the vast expanse of the Gaspé Peninsula, channelling its natural beauty into her creative process. And yet, and yet. Each work is like an eruption. A landscape all to itself, albeit in dialogue with the other oeuvres. While the works on display in this mini-retrospective span close to 40 years, it is impossible to place individual pieces into any particular period, and this perhaps, more than anything else, makes Bruneu’s art such a an original production.
A painters’ painter, Bruneau tackles her metier with the exuberance of a child and the astuteness of a sage. She draws from a range of symbols, her own personal assortment of visual notations that take the form of fish, birds, boats, but also faces and masks, thus oscillating between reality and fantasy, the inner and outer world, and all the time keeping true to her visual lexicon. Free and audacious, she consistently, persistently labours on the side of artistic expression, all else be damned. Bruneau tends towards the large format in her paintings; that kind of energy must be difficult to hold in check, and it is to her enormous credit that she does so with the same ease as when she releases it.
Once she embarks on a painting, Bruneau in effect begins a kind of dance. She literally steps into her work; standing on, walking over the canvas spread on the floor, creating, sowing the images as she moves across it. There is no rush, the steps are deliberate, the gestures unencumbered yet controlled, the colours leading the way in this dazzling visual pageant.
The works in this exhibition have been handpicked by the owner of the gallery and an accomplished painter in his own right, who saw in her work echoes of the Dutch artist, Lucebert, known as the poet of the CoBrA avant-garde movement.
Active in Europe between 1948 and 1951, it was based on spontaneity and experimentation, taking inspiration from children’s drawings, as well as the stylized, primitive forms found in the works of such artists as Mirò and Klee.
Dubuffet once said that art must make you laugh a little and make you a little afraid, and Bruneau’s paintings do just that. The figure in Les embroches, with its two Janus-like heads and splayed or missing limbs is both scary and grotesque, with a touch of the Baconish. The scruffy dog with a sharp snout staring out of the canvas adds to the unsettling sensation. The bright colours are in perfect balance with the powerful imagery, a Kittie Bruneau hallmark.
The energy imbuing Hunguedo I delivers a virtual blow to the viewer. The gestures are almost frenetic yet controlled; the entire composition simply exploding, forcing the eye to dance from shape to shape, tripping on the vibrating colours, getting tangled in this dizzying plastic landscape. There is a sense of overlap, as if the background was separating from the mask-like shapes that occupy the canvas. They emerge and recede; there is relentless, constant movement entrapped within this painting.
From time to time Bruneau becomes a storyteller, her canvas a page on which to paint a tale, as is the case with Le Grand pianiste that at first glance resembles a child’s drawing. Birds are cascading from the sky, others lift off from a shadowy corner, while a long-armed pianist plays with wild abandon, head thrown back in ecstasy. A giant shape sits atop the piano, composed of a tangle of colourful gestures, tiny ears pointing to a feline. The whole composition undulates, the colours and shapes in perfect unison, the narrative but a link between the many layers.
Picasso once avowed: It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. Ditto, for Kittie Bruneau.
KITTIE BRUNEAU. Han Art Gallery (Westmount). November 12 — December 12, 2015.