In February of 1969, then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau reached out to the People’s Republic of China’s leadership in hopes of forging formal diplomatic relations.
There was a general forbidden sense about the East at that time. Aside from the Soviet Union, China’s was the world’s most opaque Communist national government, shrouded in mythology and mystery. The United States, our closest neighbour and ideological ally, was still operating under the Formosan policy formulated during the mid-1950s by the Eisenhower Administration to protect independent Taiwan’s sovereignty against Red Chinese encroachment.
Taiwan had continued to function under the aegis of the American-allied Republic of China after the Chinese Communist Party triumphed in 1949, putting an end to the Chinese Civil War. Communist China’s price for friendship was the condition that Canada endorse its intention to imminently take Taiwan back — by force, if necessary. On October 10th, 1970, Ottawa issued a statement reaffirming the PRC’s Taiwan position, and diplomacy with Beijing was established that very day.
Trudeau Sr.’s cavalier approach to countries the West viewed as potentially perilous rankled conservatives who questioned the Canadian leader’s allegiances. The Prime Minister was a noted friend of the Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, too, and would entertain the rock-and-roll stars/anti-war activists John Lennon and Yoko Ono on Parliament Hill that December.
During the 1960s, Trudeau’s home province was undergoing its most total shift in generations. Jean Lesage’s Liberal Party upset the 1960 provincial election and initiated the overarching societal changes associated with the Quiet Revolution, in which Quebec moved further away from the Roman Catholic Church’s influence and towards a more secular, Americanized model.
Just as Castro was kicking out the Yanks, Quebec was flirting simultaneously with a form of economic socialism borrowed from the Pinkos, and an increasingly consumerist capitalism taken from America’s playbook. In Havana, Coca-Cola was on its way out. In Quebec, Coke was it.
Consumer products’ arbitrary placement in media — a barrage of ads sitting right next to the day’s news on TV and in print — reflected Pop culture’s ambivalence as both low culture and high art. In a proto-culture-jamming gesture, American contemporary artists like Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann in the 1960s and ‘70s incorporated these apparently absurd industrial-age incongruities directly into their works. Reproducing images that were themselves mass-produced seemed to serve as an ironic and radically post-modern artistic critique of mass-reproduction. Capitalist touchstones like Coca-Cola suddenly became iconic and iconoclastic in equal measure.
The Quebec artist Edmund Alleyn rose to prominence in the mid-1950s, receiving a grant from The Royal Society and Quebec’s prestigious Grand Prix aux Concours artistiques for his early Abstract Expressionist paintings. Alleyn relocated to France in 1955, representing Canada’s art scene from abroad, and came home to Quebec in 1970 to experience the cacophonous transformations abruptly wrought by the so-called Quiet Revolution. Those experiences shocked Alleyn into producing some of his most profound and popular works.
Immediately, Alleyn altered his style and media and created a striking cycle of photorealistic installations on Plexiglass that depict a culture foreign to its own land, bewildered tourists, as if returning home after a war. These monumental works in retrospect revealed the artist himself as a tourist, remastering his command of genre and artistic form while acquainting himself with a new Quebecois culture that had rapidly turned more American. If there was one thing France in the ‘60s was not, it was American.
Pop Art produced by the kaleidoscopic Quebec lens refracts American capitalist realism through the residual shards of traditional French-Canadian culture. Artists like Alleyn — and Pierre Ayot, whose prints and sculptures of the 1970s indicated capitalism’s sly colonization of the quotidian — were also showing their audiences the broken promise of consumerism as an organizing social force. Objects, regardless of their symbolic value, are void of any spiritual essence and ultimately leave their owners bereft of meaning. These artists adeptly anticipated today’s ennui.
Quebec in the 21st century continues to cling to some of the cruellest aspects of our patriarchal French Catholic history while having embraced enthusiastically and unconditionally a specifically American brand of hyper-capitalism. Quebec, for instance, seeks culturally to shore up the mother tongue in part by remaking bad American reality TV in French. We enjoy the dual pleasure of conformist homogeneity and the smug superiority of singularity — a distinctly mimetic culture.
Pop Art works on the subconscious, whereas memes work on affect. So the Quebec of the new millennium offers a whole nother order of Pop sardonicism, more Jung than Freud.
It’s cliché to say that history repeats itself. Nevertheless, Taiwan is once again among the sovereign nations under threat of armed invasion by old foes; we have another Trudeau in Ottawa who appears to conservatives to be soft on Chinese capital; we have advanced secularism, and linguistic nationalism; and we have an art world awash in copies of copies of copies of artworks that were never intended to convey originality.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts possesses a curatorial team capable of conjuring the complexity and also the unique curiosity of a Pop Art chez nous, recreating in fine detail the historical period in which Quebec was not-so-quietly redefining itself in wonderful and horrible ways, a revolution reverberating for decades.
The Pop of Life! reactivates a collection of artworks by unexpectedly juxtaposing them against each other, as well as opposite this moment in time. Warhol’s Mao portrait means so much more today than it did in 1972.
Another sort of patina has accumulated upon these alternately groovy, vulgar, plastic, and timeless masterpieces of Pop Art: a patina of meaning, laid on thick like layers of forever chemicals. We may see the works for what they are, or we might step further back and see ourselves seeing them.
Like Edmund Alleyn, we can journey to another place in time with a touristic fascination of discovery, tasting something familiar yet strange, Coca-Cola from another country, or Moscow’s McDonalds, a franchise still pulsing with semiotic vitality.◼︎
The Pop of Life!: Pop Art in the Collection of the MMFA continues through 24 March 2024 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Cover image: Edmund Alleyn (1931-2004), Iceberg Blues, 1973-1975, MMFA Collection, photographed for NicheMTL.