Untamed Colour
Celebrating Jean McEwen

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Jean McEwen (1923-1999), the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is paying homage to this Montreal great by presenting a selection of his works acquired mainly over the last two decades. The number and importance of these works donated by the artist’s family and various local collectors attest to the special connection between McEwen and the MMFA.

Installed in a newly renovated gallery of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion, about 20 pieces – which include paintings and works on paper that date from 1951 to 1998 – provide a concise summary of McEwen’s distinct artistic practice, characterized by an exploration of the pictorial surface through the application of successive layers of paint that exploit the expressiveness of colour within a confined space. By unravelling the duality between colour and structure in his own way, the artist organized his colour fields with tremendous spatial precision while exploring the full potential of colour and the space/plane dynamic.

Nathalie Bondil, Director General and Chief Curator of the MMFA, explains that “Jean McEwen is without doubt one of Canada’s greatest painters. In the tradition of automatism and colour field painting, McEwen’s style using hand-applied varnish is sensual yet precise and truly unique. His work creates a universe that is both complex and poetic and that has singular depth. As the artist himself said, ‘There are two ways to judge a painting. One is based on criteria and theories of art. The second is based on the sensations we get before a picture. I paint the second way.’ ” “This commemorative exhibition presents a selection of works that the Museum has mainly acquired since 1999 and that span nearly a half-century of his career. It underlines the understated monumentality, continuity and haunting beauty of the work of this Montrealer who marked the history of modern painting in Canada,” said Anne Grace,Curator of Modern Art, MMFA.

The artist used his hands to apply paint directly on the canvas, yet his paintings nonetheless eschew the drama of gesture, exploiting instead the intensity and expressiveness of colour. The numerous successive layers of paint simultaneously suggest a rugged and polished surface, renouncing the gesticulative character of impasto and the optical effects of colour juxtapositions. The paintings retain a geometric structure and potent symbolic form that eludes specific meaning.

About the Artist
A self-taught painter born in Montreal, Jean McEwen (1923-1999) exhibited his art for the first time in 1949 at the MMFA’s 66th Annual Spring Exhibition. His early development was shaped by a meeting with fellow Quebec painter Paul-Émile Borduas as well as a trip to Paris in 1951, where he met Jean-Paul Riopelle and was introduced to prominent avant-garde painters, including most significantly Sam Francis. His return to the Montreal scene coincided with a crucial moment in the history of abstract painting: in 1955, he was part of the Espace 55 exhibition at the MMFA as well as the first collective exhibition of the Galerie actuelle. McEwen would subsequently join the Association des artistes non figuratifs de Montréal (AANFM).

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Jean McEwen (1923-1999), Loophole Crossing Blue, 1961, oil and varnish on canvas. MMFA, purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Gérard O. Beaulieu Fund. © Estate of Jean McEwen / SOCAN (2019). Photo MMFA

Jean McEwen (1923-1999), Untitled, 1963 or 1964, oil and varnish on canvas, 106.5 x 91.5 cm. MMFA, gift of Merck Canada Inc. © Estate of Jean McEwen / SOCAN (2019)