Or not. After I speculated about ending the blog, a few kind and disappointed readers urged me to attempt heroic measures to revive it, so I’ll give it a shot. Last fall’s labour was exhausting and expensive, leaving me scrambling to pay bills and to meet other commitments. And then to look around in the spring and–after 5 1/2 years of labour and expense–to see that we’re still years and many thousands of dollars away from the prize! Dispiriting.
It’s not just being broke and housed in a construction site that pokes holes in the spirit. The collection of graffiti on a concrete retaining wall running along rue Knox was painted over a few years ago as a public art project. Gone the bicycle propaganda, gone the primitive but effective trompe l’oeil painting of a bike path going through the wall. Gone the stock epithets about bankers and capitalists. All replaced by a weird and ungainly panorama of history, racial essentialism, and idealism.
It begins on the east side of the wall with First Nations peoples looking down on the masts of European ships in an otherwise unpopulated landscape. The classically stern-faced Natives, seen from the back, are prelude to celebrating hordes crossing the
Lachine canal, leaving a smoking industrial Gehenna behind them as they arrive in the promised land of the Point. (But wait! Don’t factories provide jobs?) A black trumpet player raises his instrument, his lips and face contorted in impossible embouchure.
Women–old, white, black–are the sages and demiurges of this wall, associated
with imagination and verdancy. Point St. Charles is Eden regained, but this time, inclusively populated. There is no snake but, at the western extremity of the wall, coyotes watch from leafy cover.
Yes, yes, I know, most people seem to love the painting, and point out details to their children. I saw a little girl studying the wall with her mother and stopping at the image of a large-beaked, curly-haired man carrying a baby in a bag-looking thing on his chest. “Is that the baby Jesus?” the girl asked her mother.
Otherwise, one is less certain about the species of those depicted than about their race or ethnicity.
My rancorous old-cootism is inspired by more than the juvenile idealizations bordering rue Knox. I often have a problem with public art, and sculpture in particular. I dislike the gigantism of rusty iron slabs that look like dog houses, and the over-reaching, pick-up-sticks confections that poke through leafy park land and say…what, exactly?
“Look at me, humanity has landed amongst all you useless trees!” Feh.
The rue Knox wall is deliberately cartoonish and accidentally ugly in its idealizing fervor, but more skilled hands can do an equally egregious job of representing the world. A decently-executed painting on the front wall of St. Gabe’s school, just down the street, shows a nicely-dressed, slim and healthy (if headless) clutch of filles du roi apparently enjoying their lives in New France.
The faces of children superimposed on their skirts are also suffused with joy.
Of course those impoverished French women who endured the long and deadly passage across the Atlantic to marry men they had never met were happy to educate those little Native girls. They seem to have gotten along so well!
The Knox and St. Gabe’s paintings have in common that left-to-right march of progress feel. St. Gabe’s also begins with Natives (with the Vulcan-eared woman in the power
position in the stern), and imposes 300 years of development on the women’s dresses to arrive at the present day, in which a smiling woman tends medically to a child and the
modern city looms in the background. Thanks, ladies!
Every organization idealizes itself and wants to represent its history with images of the ideal. The bronze castings of 18th century heroes that surmount public fountains may well have been fools and brigands in life, but they represent a principle, if not a reality. States, churches, and families all do that, and I suppose it’s not all bad, but I do miss the honest and spontaneous touch of resistance that appeared on the old rue Knox wall. The new painting unhappily co-opts that independence of spirit.
Part II of Public Art is forthcoming!