In 1962 an exhibition of the work of Norval Morrisseau (1931–2007) at the Pollock Gallery in Toronto marked the first time an Indigenous artist had shown work in a contemporary art gallery in Canada, and the media hailed the debut as a new development in Canadian art. All the paintings sold on the first day and the exhibition instantly made Morrisseau a celebrity artist and a public figure.
Yet success was a mixed blessing: both Morrisseau’s work and his private life were subjected to scrutiny. His art received mixed reviews, judged by critics as either modern or primitive or a combination of the two, and Morrisseau himself was framed as a painter of legends, in keeping with the images of the “Imaginary Indian,” the “Noble Savage,” and the “Hollywood Indian” peddled by popular culture. This stereotypical attitude was moulded by deeply entrenched colonial views and had little to do with Morrisseau as an individual or an artist. Astutely, Morrisseau defied these conceptions: he attempted to take charge of his life story by challenging interviewers and critics. For example, in the Toronto Star in 1975, he responded to art critic Gary Michael Dault’s query about the media’s scrutiny of his private life: “I am tired of hearing about Norval the drunkard, Norval with the hangover, Norval in jail, Norval torn apart by his allegiance both to Christianity and to the old Indian ways.… They speak about this tortured man, Norval Morrisseau—I’m not tortured. I’ve had a marvelous time. When I was drinking. Now that I’m not drinking. I’ve had a marvelous time in my life.”
This effort had mixed results, as press reports typically characterized his challenges as rants. Still, Morrisseau’s paintings began to command attention in art circles, and his success generated interest in the work of other Indigenous artists across Canada. Collectors started to take contemporary Indigenous arts more seriously, and although Morrisseau was still living in Beardmore with his wife Harriet and their growing family, he began to travel to Toronto to sell his works to dealers and to negotiate new commissions.
Morrisseau often relied on art dealers, politicians, and government employees to aid him in his efforts to promote his work. In 1965, the Glenbow Foundation in Calgary purchased eleven Morrisseau works, including Jo-Go Way Moose Dream, c.1964. This significant sale led to more exhibitions, including one at the Musée du Québec (now the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec) in Quebec City the following year, that signalled a growing national interest in the artist’s work.
Shortly after his exhibition at the Musée du Québec, Morrisseau was one of nine Indigenous artists commissioned to create work for the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. His large-scale exterior mural showed bear cubs being nursed by Mother Earth, and when organizers raised concerns about this unorthodox image, Morrisseau decided to leave the project rather than censor his drawing. The mural was changed and completed by his friend and fellow artist Carl Ray (1943–1978). Through that commission, however, Morrisseau had met Herbert T. Schwarz, a consultant on the Expo pavilion, an antique dealer, and the owner of Galerie Cartier in Montreal, who would go on to organize Morrisseau’s first international exhibition.
The 1960s established Norval Morrisseau as a noteworthy contemporary Indigenous artist in Canada, and he ended the decade with an international reputation. Based on a solo show held at Galerie Cartier in 1967, a selection of works travelled to the Art Gallery of Newport, in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1968 and then on to Saint Paul Galerie in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France in 1969. The posters advertising the French exhibition declared Morrisseau the “Picasso of the North.” More importantly, by blending the traditional and the contemporary, Morrisseau used his painting to advocate for change, giving voice and artistic direction to new generations of viewers and artists who encounter this art.
This Essay is excerpted from Norval Morrisseau: Life & Work by Carmen Robertson.