André Biéler by Sidney Carter
André Biéler was born in Lausanne in 1896. In 1898, the family settled in Paris before moving to Montreal at the end of the following decade. From 1913, André began training as a draughtsman at the Institut technique de Montréal. Two years later he enlisted in the Canadian army and soon after left for Europe. As a result of injuries sustained during a mustard gas attack, from which he would suffer permanent after-effects, he was assigned to the army’s topographical service. It was here that he made the acquaintance of several artists working within this field – including Maurice Cullen and Fred Varley – who appear to have nourished his love of painting.
On his return to the North American continent, Biéler began training as an artist, which led him to Florida (Stetson University), to Woodstock, New York (Art’s Students’ League) and to Paris, where he studied under Paul Sérusier and Maurice Denis. During his time in Switzerland he assisted his uncle, the painter Ernest Biéler, in his work with murals. The Art Nouveau style of this regionalist artist undoubtedly influenced the young André.
Biéler returned to Montreal in the Fall of 1926 and the following year settled on the Île d’Orléans. There he developed a passion for the French Canadians’ rural way of life, painting and drawing aspects of their everyday lives. The numerous drawings of this period, accomplished whilst travelling the length and breadth of Charlevoix and the Gaspé Peninsula, were soon joined by eloquently and powerfully made wood engravings, which he enhanced with gouache, applied through the use of stencils. His pioneering primitivist technique allowed him to fuse the strength and dynamism of the etched line with chromatic eloquence to form his own personal style. Half way between regionalism and modernism, this style slowly evolved through his experiences with this region, a land that was celebrated by the likes of Gagnon, Fortin and Duguay.
From 1930 to 1936, Biéler lived in Montreal, on Sainte-Famille Street and then on Beaver Hall, during which time he regularly exhibited his work. In 1931, he married Jeanette Meunier. They then moved to Kingston (Ontario) where André taught at Queen’s University until 1963. It was here that he died in 1989.
SUBJECT / THEMES
Throughout his career, Biéler combined a desire to align himself with the values of the past – here, his choice of themes connected him to a series of trends of the second half of the 19th century, spanning from the Realists to the Impressionists – and the need to revitalize them through a modernist aesthetic. Although connected to this heritage, he was nevertheless resolutely looking to the present, to which his works pay fervent tribute. In this can be detected the influence of the Arts & Craft movement, that of the European regionalisms of the end of the 19th century, which he most likely encountered through his uncle and his trips to Europe. A certain parallel can also be established with several trends dating from the beginning of the 20th century, namely that of American social realism.
Although the majority of art historians have been quick to rank him amongst the regionalist artists of the 1930s, describing his art as nostalgic traditionalism, it would be more accurate to use the words of David Karel in calling Biéler a “modernist regionalist”. This apparent opposition between a modern style and a traditional iconography has meant that Biéler’s role in the evolution of Quebec modernity has long been played down by the experts, and all too exclusively associated with the Refus Global and the Automatistes. While Borduas and his followers succeeded in definitively breaking with a past that was coloured by religiosity and rural life, it also remains true that by the end of the 1920s, certain artists of the Belle Province had paved the way for an artistic style where a certain modernity, albeit relative, was slowly breaking ground. Thus in the Interbellum, through the Group of Seven (Canadian modernity) and the Automatist movement (Quebec modernity) “a modernist continuity” took shape in Quebec. Although the artists of this movement chose to depict regionalist themes, they nonetheless pursued a modernist study of the form, with which the majority had come into contact with during their visits to Europe. The conservative nature of historians’ appreciation of Biéler’s artwork may stem from the fact that from 1936, this artist settled in Ontario where he took an active role in Canadian institutions. This oddity has a tendency to set him apart from the heart of the “pure laine French Canadians” artistic community, despite his Frenchness and his on-going relationship with these artists, notably established through his many trips to the Laurentians, where he regularly summered in the 1930s.
Parallel to his quest for the aesthetic, Biéler also contemplated the artist’s status and role in society. During the Second World War, he organized the first Canadian artists’ conference, during which they questioned the role of art in a country seeking to define its singularity on the fringes of the British crown. In 1941, he became the first president of the Federation of Canadian Artists. A large number of them, encouraged by the federal government, highlighted the Canadian war effort through the use of committed themes. Biéler participated in this movement producing several works with military subject matters, as well as publishing articles pertaining to an artist’s social commitment in the contemporary world.
EXHIBITIONS / BIBLIOGRAPHY
Biéler’s contribution to Quebec and Canadian art history has recently been the subject of research papers and publications, which have allowed us to better judge the impact of his work. The renewed interest in this painter-engraver’s collection of work reached a climax in 2006 with the republication of Frances K. Smith’s biography, having been considerably reworked and revised under the supervision of Philippe Baylaucq. Amongst this current research, David Karel’s essay and the exhibition dedicated to Biéler’s prints and drawings organized in 2003 by the Musée national des beaux-arts du Quebec are of note.
The 2012 Galerie Valentin’s exhibition displays 33 of Bieler’s works, offering a fine panorama of his career. His landmark and most productive years, spanning from the middle of the 1920s to the end of the 1940s are showcased here by drawings, prints and canvases of varying styles and themes.
Text by Marie-Claude Mirandette for Galerie Valentin.