Edmund Alleyn, painter (born 9 June 1931 in Québec City, QC; died 24 December 2004 in Montréal, QC). Throughout his career, Alleyn’s art was exhibited in such places as the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, and the 49th Parallel Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art in New York. He won many prizes and awards, including the bronze medal at the São Paulo Biennial in 1959. He also represented Canada at international arts events on a few occasions, including the Guggenheim International Award in 1958 and the Venice Biennale in 1960. Today, his work can be found in a number of private and museum collections, such as those of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the National Gallery of Canada, the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.
After studying at the École des beaux-arts de Québec under Jean Paul Lemieux and Jean Dallaire, Alleyn moved to Paris in 1955, where he lived and exhibited his work until 1971. Upon returning to Québec, he settled in Montréal and continued to pursue his painting career there while teaching at the University of Ottawa from 1972 to 1991.
1950s and 1960s
While Alleyn’s oil paintings from the late 1950s have a figurative quality, his works from the early 1960s contain central, abstract silhouettes, marked by quick movements and broken, textured impastos. His palette changed drastically around 1963, and he dedicated the following two years to themes inspired by Indigenous cultures from the western coast of North America (see Indigenous People: Northwest Coast), depicting geometric patterns, organic figures, arrows and suns in bold colours floating in imaginary landscapes. Alleyn claimed he used this period, during which time he lived far from his native North America, to escape certain international and personal realities.
Alleyn’s works from the mid-1960s are primarily figurative. With a focus on technological issues, they make use of biomedical and electronic imagery. Film reels and electrical wires appear alongside human bodies subjected to scientific advances. The installation The Big Sleep (1968) takes the shape of a large control panel. A screen displays an image of a human brain covered in tiny flashing lights. Below, a tape reel, a series of pipes filled with blue liquid, and a life-sized human mannequin wearing an oxygen mask make up a biomedical machine that is both intriguing and alarming. Alleyn’s thoughts on scientific advances are undeniably skeptical and distrustful: some of the works from his technological period have titles such as Agression 1 (1967) and Conditionnement 1 (1967).
An in-depth reflection on mass consumerism lies at the heart of Alleyn’s paintings and installations at the turn of the 1970s, which often bring up the theme of television. His famous Introscaphe,an egg-shaped capsule with room for one viewer, provides a multi-sensory experience of sound, light, vibration, images and changes in temperature.
The series Suite québécoise,part of the ambitious 1974 exhibit Une belle fin de journée, consists of six paintings of kitsch landscapes placed behind 32 life-sized characters painted on Plexiglas, which are based on the artist’s photographs taken in various public places throughout Montréal. Having recently returned to his native province after several years in Europe, Alleyn dove back into Québec’s sociopolitical climate through this series of installations, which depict a procession of stereotypical 1970s-style Québecers. The physical distance and the difference in materials between the painted backgrounds and the Plexiglas figures — as well as the characters’ poses and demeanours — cause the viewer to reflect on the sense of alienation or detachment that people in consumer society feel when in the presence of art.
From this point on, the repetition of the human figure, which often fades out gradually, becomes a recurring theme in Alleyn’s drawings and photo collages, provoking a sense of intimate reminiscence and sometimes nostalgia, such as in Caroussel and L’heure fixe.This sense of introspection is also found in the large oil paintings he produced between 1983 and 1990, depicting scenes captured during visits to his lakeside cottage. His illustrations of the water’s surface, the horizon line, folding chairs and motionless boats, dominated by blacks, purples, indigos and reds, as well as his portraits of loved ones immersed in daily activities or reflection, evoke moments of quiet contemplation and interiority.
This sense of silence and stillness is manifested in an even stranger way in Alleyn’s wash drawings from the early 1990s. The small black and white ink drawings on paper illustrate galleries of disparate objects: ships, parrots, wooden chairs, and plants resting on columns, placed side by side in unidentified rooms, make up his famous and final series, Éphémérides,produced between 1995 and 2004. These large paintings on black backgrounds depict everyday objects suspended in darkness. Bizarre hodgepodges of stark floating objects in shades of grey are sometimes painted over with large colourful brushstrokes. Turtles, skulls, dice, lizards, strollers, suspenders, and faces of Freud — fragments of Alleyn’s everyday life rearranged in patterns that are more or less structured from one painting to the next — create somewhat surrealist portraits bursting with the artist’s states of mind at the turn of the century.
Homages and Artistic Legacy
In 2008, Alleyn’s daughter, filmmaker Jennifer Alleyn, produced a full-length feature film about her father’s career entitled My Father’s Studio.Shortly after Alleyn’s death, she explored the contents of his studio, which she inherited. The film allowed her — one of her father’s former models — to go back in time thanks to a montage of interviews with loved ones and with her father, who revealed his thoughts about his work as well as images of the rigorous process undertaken by a small team the studio to take inventory of his works.
In 2016, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal presented a retrospective exhibit entitled Edmund Alleyn: In my studio, I am many. According to its curator, Mark Lanctôt, the exhibit’s focus on plurality speaks to how the artist resisted classification through his ever-changing materials and themes. It also explains why he is absent from much of Quebec’s historiographical discourse. Les Horizons d’attente 1955–1995, the latest retrospective on Alleyn’s work, dates back to 1996 and was presented at the Musée d’art de Joliette and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.