Norval Morrisseau died in 2007 after a meteoric art career that began in the sixties. His art struck a chord with collectors who had not been exposed to his Woodland style Ojibway painting.
Intrepid characters like artist/anthropologist Selwyn Dewdney and art dealer, Jack Pollack, had ventured north, meeting Morrisseau. Dewdney was recording ancient petroglyphs on rocks. Morrisseau, who was well versed in Ojibway mythology, acted as his guide. His grandfather was also an important shaman. As a child, Morrisseau endured the Catholic residential school system that obliterated oral First Nations culture.
In Anishnabe culture, children are only named after they have their identity vision. For Morrisseau, the power came during illness in his late teens. He donned his shamanic mantle after a medicine woman embellished him with the name “Copper Thunderbird”. He writes this in Cree syllabics on the front of his paintings in addition to signing his name on the back. His quest became to contemporize and transmit Ojibway culture, charging his visual elements with healing energy.
Very astutely, he built up his personal mythology, particularly after his first successful sell-out show. He linked briefly with other First Nations artists in what became known as the Indian Group of Seven. He formed the Thunderbird School of Shamanistic Arts (1979), which was a place of learning but also reminiscent of art factories like Warhol’s. It is a truism that success demands increased production, beyond the scope of one artist. A Globe and Mail article estimates around 11 000 paintings exist.
The works in the Kinsman Robinson retrospective range from an early image scratched onto birch-bark, through a phase of earth tones to brightly coloured, luminous paintings in acrylic. Transformation is a major theme with the philosophical belief is that all things are connected and that spirits manifest as bears, snakes and birds like raptors.
Morrisseau’s shamanic visual lexicon consists of divided circles symbolizing dualities, squiggle lines that indicate prophecy, lines of interconnection between beasts and lines indicating biological movement, like a heart beating. He represents the interior of the forms, which often contain other animals or diagrams. Colours can take on Ojibway symbolic significance, like Red might be associated with south, the place of new life. White is north, the place of healing. The Creator is in the East and linked with the sun and yellow.
The images often tell traditional stories like the Creation Story. In brief, Manitou created the earth but it was obliterated by flood. He approached Sky woman to bear his children and save the earth. She used small water creatures to dive under to retrieve some soil so she could renew the creation. One of the most striking images in this show is of the Earth Mother. Her feet are like a bear’s and the diagrams in her body reference the internal structures of creatures like turtles and fish or even venal pathways. There is a raw quality to the line that hints at the “carnivorous” nature of reality.
His work also referenced Christian symbolism since his spiritual background included both Ojibway and Catholic influences. After exposure to the cathedrals in Paris, he used a stained glass motif. Known for his vibrant colour combinations, these works emphasize the luminosity associated with spiritual transformation.
He painted quite flatly on backgrounds that suggest an impenetrable space. Writing “Copper Thunderbird” on the surface emphasizes the flatness. The imagery is held in dramatic tension within this shallow “space”. Lamentably, the New Age movement seems to draw inspiration from Morrisseau’s work. Imitators paint scenes in the Western tradition, with stylized figures superimposed on scenes. It is deceptively easy to duplicate his flat style. Shamanism has been popularized and commercial interests predominate, which ultimately undermines Morrisseau’s intentions.
Morrisseau was selected for the prestigious “Magicians of the Earth” show at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, France (1989) conceived by Pompidou Center director Jean-Hubert Martin. This exhibition attempted to present art and artists from around the globe. One would think that those charged with upholding his legacy, would realize the importance of nurturing this global perception of his significance. Paradoxically, his contribution to Canadian Culture would probably be more valuable over the longer term. Currently, I think his work is in danger of becoming trivialized.