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New York artist depicts Quebec’s role in Canadian history

Adam Miller’s nine-by-10 foot painting was unveiled in Manhattan, and will be shown in Montreal this fall

Adam Miller’s painting, simply titled Quebec, takes in the sweep of history to tell the province’s role in shaping Canada.

The leading figures of Quebec and Canada’s history are reunited on a grand scale in time for the nation’s 150th birthday. A monumental canvas, painted in the style of the so-called New Old Masters movement, was unveiled on Saturday at a Manhattan art gallery.

Commissioned by Montreal businessman and arts patron Salvatore Guerrera, the work was painted by New York-based artist Adam Miller and will be shown in Montreal in the fall. The nine-by-10-foot painting, simply titled Quebec, takes in the sweep of history to tell the province’s role in shaping Canada; Mr. Miller estimates he carried out 30 interviews with politicians, historians and other figures in Quebec to prepare his Baroque-inspired work. There are hopes to show the piece in venues across Canada and eventually hang it permanently in a public institution in Quebec, such as the provincial National Assembly.

The Globe and Mail spoke to Mr. Miller by phone on Sunday. Here is a condensed version of the interview.

What were you trying to convey in this painting?

We wanted to see if we could make a painting that would look at Quebec as a microcosm – as this place that is similar to the rest of humanity in terms of the struggles of identity and nationalism, but focus in on what it means to be Québécois. And we wanted to find a few historical events and moments that encapsulated that.

Some figures appear in the sky almost like angels – figures such as nationalist icon Lionel Groulx, aboriginal Chief Donnacona and Sir John A. Macdonald, while contemporary leaders such as Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper are on the ground. What are you trying to get across?

One of the ideas that resonated for the painting was how the ghosts of history haunt the present. At the top are historical figures. They represent the events of the past. Below them, you have the political actors who are reacting to the mythology of history – history as a myth that we tell ourselves to define who we are.

Leading separatist figures such as former Quebec premiers René Lévesque, Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau get particular prominence on the canvas. Meanwhile, current Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard looks like he’s in some kind of death grip by former Parti Québécois premier Pauline Marois.

The centre of the painting was built around Lévesque and [former prime minister Pierre] Trudeau as the two polarizing figures that defined everything else. Then I looked for people who were active in creating stories. With [Lévesque, Bouchard and Parizeau], Quebec independence almost happened. Oftentimes, the agents of change who are trying to undo the system end up having a very outsize role in shaping culture. They create the conflict.

There are also figures in the foreground who are not identified, including a woman holding the Quebec flag.

They symbolize everyman and the big movements of society. Some of them sort of play the role of the chorus in a Greek play.

What surprised you most in the course of your research?

I found that talking to most people, even if they were on different sides of the issue [about Quebec’s place in Canada], were very reasonable and intelligent people. I was blown away that there were really no extreme, crazy positions that I came across. In some ways, you have a more mature political culture than we do in the U.S. I sense more anger and ideology driving things down here.

What kind of public response do you expect to your work?

Realistically, it’s going to create a discussion. Some people will love it and some people will disagree with who’s in it and how they’re portrayed. That’s okay. … In the end, a work of art is celebratory. It’s done to elevate people. That is the challenge: Can we find something that we can celebrate in common right now?