The comparisons of Norval Morrisseau to Pablo Picasso were, perhaps, unavoidable. Called the 'Picasso of the North' by the French press, Mr. Morrisseau himself saw parallels when, as a young man, he scrawled on the back of a sketch sent to Picasso "from one great artist to another." Indeed. Canada, particularly a generation of native artists, owes much to Mr. Morrisseau, who died Tuesday at 75.
Mr. Morrisseau never attained the global adulation or the commercial success of the Spanish cubist. But, he, too was at the vanguard of a contemporary movement - his Woodlands School - that inspired budding artists who grew up in his thrall. He was born amid the rugged beauty of the Canadian shield north of Lake Superior, on the Sand Point Reserve at Lake Nipigon, Mr. Morrisseau was the first Indian artist given a solo exhibition in an art gallery, as opposed to a museum. That was in 1962, in Toronto, and it was a roaring success.
Mr. Morrisseau had connections to Manitoba. It was here, in the 1960s, that he became part of a group of notable artists that would be dubbed the Aboriginal Group of Seven. Their homeground was at a Winnipeg shop opened by Daphne Odjig. The movement coincided with an awakening political activism among Indian people; the young were breaking free of the chains that subjugated aboriginal people and that was evident in the art. Ms. Odjig, Mr. Morrisseau, Jackson Beardy and others put to canvas the legends and sacred ceremonies of native spiritualism - considered a taboo. It did not go down well with elders, but it inspired a pride and confidence among new generations. It was a turning point in the cultural relations between natives and mainstream Canada. The heavy black lines and X-ray representations of animals, people and spirits have been etched into the Canadian art consciousness and the country's mythology. The Woodlands School is among Canada's most recognizable contributions to world art history.
Mr. Morrisseau struggled with alcoholism and poverty, but he painted through it all, until his Parkinson's disease and then heart trouble made him too frail. He left behind a voluminous trove of work and a profound legacy: a cultural renaissance that echoes today.
Source: Winnipeg Free Press