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The Troubled Grandeur Of Quebec: Adam Miller’s History Painting

Quebec, Fresco (Detail). 9 x 10 foot oil on canvas, 2017. Courtesy of artist's website.

By DONALD KUSPIT, July 2019 

And, since civilization is but the individual writ large, all civilization is a precarious order imposed on seething disorder beneath. 

-- Peter Gay, Freud for Historians

Rising from the bottom of the canvas, as though from the depths of hell—and Adam Miller is a kind of Virgilian guide through the seething disorder of Quebec’s history—are scenes and figures alluding to the conflicts that marked the end of the 20th century in what was informally recognized as “a distinct society,” and finally formally recognized as “a nation within a united Canada.”  The former event occurred in 2003 during the administration of Jean Chretien (1993-2003), the latter in 2006 during the administration of Stephen Harper (2006-2015)—both Prime Ministers are pictured in Miller’s masterpiece.  But it was to no avail, for nobody quite knows what it means:  once French and still largely French speaking and Catholic Quebec remains an anomaly—dare one say a sore thumb, a stumbling block, even an Achilles heel?—in Canada, largely English speaking and Protestant however much a so-called “mosaic” of peoples (as distinct from the “melting pot” that the United States supposedly is).  Quebec’s peculiarly problematic presence in Canada—it’s technically part of it but emotionally not of it, uncomfortably in it however benefitting from it (it has the second largest economy in Canada)--signals the peculiarly problematic character of Canada itself.  

For Quebec’s repeated pursuit of independence and separateness—its perpetual rebelliousness in ostensibly peaceful Canada--threatens Canada with disintegration and diminishment, much as Catalonia’s threatens Spain with disintegration and diminishment, and Scotland’s threatens Great Britain with disintegration and diminishment.  However frustrated, the longing for independence remains an ideé fixe in the minds of many Quebecois, Catalonians, and Scots.  Catalonia and Scotland are also distinct societies and nations within a united nation, and all also have their own language—their mother tongue as distinct from the tongue of the father nation of which they are a part (increasingly more in name than in attitude), the conquering nation that incorporated them (in what they came to experience as a sort of Procrustes bed or straightjacket).  It is the root of their independence, as it were, not to say seemingly radical difference—absolute “Otherness”—all the more so because it is the language of the minority, the loser, the conquered:  alienation has been built into them by history. 

However wealthy Quebec, Catalonia, and Scotland have become—however much they have been granted power and privilege in the present, as though in compensation for their defeat in the past --they continue to suffer from an inferiority complex.  Hence the superiority—the upper hand---they imagine they will gain by overturning history—achieving independence, going their own way, no longer answerable to the greater authority of the nation to which they belong, no longer dependent on its largesse to survive.  The separatist movements in Quebec, Catalonia, and Scotland are part of an ongoing, global movement for autonomy and decolonization, self-determination and freedom—a climactic rebellion against the conquerors that absorbed, dehumanized, exploited, trivialized them for its own ends.  (Even Texas has threatened to secede from the “oppressive” United States, as though there was no advantage in being part of it and that it had taken advantage of Texas.)  

Quebec, Fresco (Detail). 9 x 10 foot oil canvas, 2017.

There is a kind of wishful thinking behind Quebec’s separatist movement.  To gain independence from Canada is to magically recover an imagined spiritual purity, authenticity, and originality, symbolized by the “pure,” “authentic” language the Quebecois “originally” spoke—the language of their “origin,” the French language “native” to them, the language of their land when it was a homeland.  Speaking their own language, they own themselves.  To speak French instead of English—or Catalan instead of Spanish, Scottish instead of English—is to transcend the condition of one’s alienation and inferiority, to no longer be a second class citizen but a first class person.  Mothered by their mother language, they can once again become children in paradise—the natural paradise that is Quebec.  “Quebec has one of the world’s largest reserves of water, occupying 12% of its surface,” and is “rich in forestry”—the elemental resources of paradise on earth.  Liberated from Canada, Quebec can return, at least in its dreams, to its glorious state of pre-conquest being.  

The figures on the lower level of Miller’s painting signify major incidents of violent conflict in Quebec’s history—above all, in the center and shrouded in black, Pierre Laporte, a provincial minister and Vice-Premier, strangled with his own rosary beads a few days after being kidnapped in 1970, along with James Cross, the British trade commissioner to Canada, by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), a paramilitary group founded in 1963.  This so-called October Crisis precipitated a national crisis.  “In their published Manifesto, the militants state:  ‘In the coming year Bourassa will have to face reality; 100,000 revolutionary workers, armed and organized.’  At the request of Premier Robert Bourassa, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act.”  There is a certain parallel between the FLQ, in effect a terrorist group, and the West German Red Army Faction, a far-left militant group responsible for 34 deaths in the 1970s, and the Italian Red Brigade, responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Christian Democrat Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978.  However different the ideologies and purpose of the FLQ and the West German and Italian groups—and it is not clear that they were so different, for the FLQ was implicitly leftist, as its description of itself as a workers’ revolution suggests—there is a remarkable parallel between them, all the more so because they arose in the wake of the 1968 revolts against authority, claiming to speak the people’s truth to established power.  Whatever the particular history of Quebec, it partook in the anti-establishment terrorism that was a trendy sign of the troubled times.

In the far left foreground corner of the lower level of Miller’s painting, a militant young woman, probably a student protester, as her outfit suggests, and an orphan of the war—a class war as well as a battle for Quebec’s freedom—defiantly stares at the spectator.  Her eyes catch his, drawing him into the picture.  It is a standard Old Master device for engaging the spectator, a way of making him a sort of participant observer in the scenic situation, implicated in it however outside it, witnessing it however unwillingly, spellbound by it however detached from it.  The intensely gazing modern young woman has her precedent in the wealthy Guaspare del Lama, the white haired old man benignly gazing at us from the Adoration of the Magi  he commissioned from Botticelli in 1475.  Appearing on the right side, he would be lost in the crowd of figures observing the scene if he did not turn his head to look at us.  Botticelli’s Old Masterwork has something in common with Miller’s New Old Masterwork—a major example of truly “postmodern” art, as distinct from the postmodern art that depends on the modernist art that preceded it to make its aesthetic point and give it expressive character (Post-Impressionism’s dependence on and elaboration of Impressionism is the model)—for both are crowd scenes.  More importantly, both honor prominent political figures, the Medicis who ruled Florence, and the Prime Ministers who led Canada, placing both groups in the center of the picture, in recognition of their central position and all but absolute power in their societies.  The center of attention, they are the fulcrum around which the scene swirls.  

Prominent among them, and almost in the center of the painting—the exact center is the empty space between them--are Pierre Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada from April 20, 1968 to June 4, 1979 and again from March 3, 1980 to June 30, 1984, and Rene Lévesque, the Premier of Quebec from November 25, 1976 to October 31, 1985. “Lévesque was the first Quebec political leader since Confederation to attempt through a referendum, to negotiate the political independence of Quebec.”  They stand next to each other, companions in competitive arms as it were—they were both members of the Liberal Party, until Lévesque left it to form the Parti Quebecois, and led it in its attempt to separate—legally, it should be emphasized, rather than violently, as the FLQ did--Quebec from Canada.   However unwittingly, both parties of the separatist movement acted on—and acted out—the unspoken assumption that Quebec was isolated in Canada, that is, didn’t belong in it from the beginning by reason of its unique history. 

Quebec, Fresco (Studio). 9 x 10 foot oil canvas, 2017.

Both men are upright and righteous, but Trudeau stands above Lévesque, as though in victorious triumph:  Trudeau kept Quebec in Canada, defeating Lévesque’s efforts to remove it.   Holding a maple leaf, the symbol of Canada, Trudeau is a Canadian patriot, unlike Lévesque, a Quebec loyalist, not to say a rebel, for in leading the Parti Quebecois he betrayed Canada, suggesting he was a kind of traitor, to overstate the matter.  Both men look upward to the heavens, as though pleading their cause to the gods above—the founding fathers of Canada—and seeking their blessing.  The difference in their appearance is also symbolically pertinent:  Lévesque is older and heavier than Trudeau—Lévesque’s great coat covers his body completely, as though it was a shroud—suggesting that he represents the old and lost cause of Quebec independence, not to say the past history of Quebec; the thin, youthful Trudeau signifies the “wholesome” new Canada—the Canada of the future.  Lévesque’s arms are down by his sides, as though suggesting the futility of his pleading—the failure of his cause—while Trudeau raises his left arm and points his finger to heaven, in a gesture reminiscent of that of Leonardo da Vinci’s St. John the Baptist, 1513, who raises his right arm and points his finger to heaven, smiling at us as he does so.  Trudeau is clearly a more successful, blessed leader than Lévesque.  

He stands in front of Lucien Bouchard, founder of the Bloc Québécois, Premier of Quebec from January 29, 1996 to March 8, 2001 and, crucially, the “central figure for the ‘Yes’ side in the 1995 Quebec referendum” to leave Canada.  He came to regret the referendum, suggesting the reason Miller pictures him close to Trudeau, placing his right arm on Trudeau’s right shoulder, implying that Trudeau was “right.”  Bouchard seems to cling to Trudeau, the way Quebec clung to Canada despite itself, even as Trudeau seems to be saying “get thee behind me,” as though to the devilish lost cause of Quebec independence, symbolized by Bouchard.  At the same time Bouchard, once a symbol of go-it-alone Quebec, seems to be saying to Trudeau, a symbol of a unified Canada, that the people of Quebec now back you up, that is, support you.  Bouchard raises his left arm over Trudeau’s left shoulder, and his left hand to the sky, echoing Trudeau’s.  His glance follows Trudeau’s heavenward, indicating they are now in accord, have the same faith in Canada.  Troubled—and troublesome--Quebec no longer rejects Canada, but identifies with it, as Bouchard does with Trudeau, belatedly.  Their physical closeness and reconciliation sharply contrasts with the distance Miller puts between Trudeau and the isolated Lévesque, suggesting their irreconcilability.  Psychologically perceptive as well as socially conscious, Miller ingeniously places Trudeau between Bouchard and Lévesque, suggesting the difference a change in heart as well as ideology can make, while epitomizing the emotional as well as political conflict at the core of Quebec.   

Following the diagonal trajectory upward from the Pieta-like couple in the right hand corner of Miller’s painting through the figures of Miller and Lévesque to Bouchard and Trudeau (Bouchard seems to embrace Trudeau as the young woman embraces the dead rebel warrior) and through them to the couple formed by Justin Trudeau, the new Prime Minister of Canada, and Bernard Landry, the leader of the old Parti Québécois, one rises from the violent past of Quebec to its peaceful future.  The pairing of Bouchard and Pierre Trudeau and Landry and Justin Trudeau--leaders of Quebec separatist parties and leaders of united Canada--suggests that Quebec accepts its place in Canada.  Dare are one say this union of antagonists is the coupling of the murderous Cain and the peaceful Abel?  Bouchard and Landry are in effect Cain, for murder was committed in the name of the anti-Canadian cause of Quebec nationhood they advocated.  The pro-Canadian Pierre Trudeau is in effect a peace-making Abel (his son following in his judicious steps).  In the biblical story Cain murders Abel, but in the happier Canadian story Cain submits to Abel, with both living to tell the tale.  Mythically reconciled by Miller’s art, they both represent Canada.   (The diagonal trajectory is one side of a grand triangle, the geometrical form frequently used to structure the scene and contain its complexity in grand old masterworks.  The other side is hidden by—indeed, dissolves in--the messy masses in the lower realm.  But it is recovered in the diagonal flag pole in the painting’s lower left corner, where it runs parallel to the ascending diagonal, ironically running out of the picture—off the canvas—as though to suggest that the structure of Canada is unstable, or at least haphazard, that Canada remains a tower of Babel that could crumble, as the tower of Babel the figures form suggests.  The builders of the biblical tower of Babel also wanted it to rise to heaven, as though human beings wanted to become or replace the gods, but the builders spoke different tongues—French and English?—and thus could not understand each other.)  

Quebec, Fresco (Detail), 9 x 10 foot oil canvas, 2017.

Lévesque is a peculiarly contradictory figure, a split political personality, as it were, the abandoned Liberal part of him suggested by his lowered arms, the aspiring Quebec  part of him suggested by his hopeful gaze upward.  Peculiarly forlorn and isolated—unlike Bouchard and Landry, who have re-united with Canada, as it were, for they stand together with the Trudeaus—he nonetheless conveys the strength of character and willful fortitude of Quebec.  That will power has been lost in Bouchard and Landry, less spectacular figures, yet more important, for they came to realize that the grandeur of Canada is greater than Quebec’s.  Lévesque seems forward-looking, but he is backward-looking, for he wants to go back to the supposedly good old pre-conquest days.  Bouchard and Landry realize that being a colony of New France was not as good a deal as being a province of Canada.    

Trudeau is implicitly the unmoved mover around which the vivid scene moves, the stabilizing center around which all the destabilizing action, heavenly as well as hellish, occurs.  However physically off-center he is the spiritual center of the picture, for he held Canada together, to allude to W. B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming.”  “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/…the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,” Yeats wrote.  From his perspective, the passionate intensity of the anarchistic separatists on the lower register of Miller’s painting are the worst Quebec had to offer, while Trudeau is the best Quebec had to offer, for he maintained Canada’s integrity even as he maintained his.  

Crucially, the militant young woman—orphaned by the Quebec troubles, her youth nonetheless suggests she is the future of Quebec--holds a pole with the flag of Quebec.  The flagpole is not raised upright, but tilted diagonally, almost touching the edge of the canvas.  The flag itself is half obscured—cut by the edge of the canvas.  With casual brilliance, Miller reminds us that Quebec is incompletely independent.  His ingenious rendering of the flag is characteristic:  every element in Miller’s painting has a subliminal meaning, a sort of inner meaning, adding to its auratic presence—the luminosity that pervades Miller’s painting, insinuating itself into the shadows, forms a kind of auratic atmosphere that adds to the figures ghostly presence--alluding to the tragic condition of Quebec.  Panoramically dramatic, not to say grandly theatrical--it has a peculiar affinity with Hugo von Hofmansthal’s Great World Theater--Miller’s painting invites thoughtful contemplation, rewarding us with sudden insight into the inner lives—the spirit—of the figures it depicts.      

Completing the lower level is another young woman—as noted, she holds down the right corner, as the young woman with the flag holds down the left corner—cradling a young man in battle clothing, as its camouflage design indicates.  Like a Madonna in a Pieta, she supports the fallen warrior as though he was the dead Christ.  He holds his left hand on his right side, as though to cover a wound.   The young women are implicitly allegorical figures, like the female Liberty Leading the People in Delacroix’s 1830 masterpiece, but with a more negative import.  The young woman with the flag represents the hope of Quebec; the young woman with the dead rebel represents its despair.  Both are realistic, and remain contemporary.  The two young women are the cornerstones of the painting, as it were, and as such call attention to its architectural character:  the three levels of Miller’s “classical” painting reflect the three “classical” orders of the Renaissance palace.  They indicate the painting’s “palatial” character, that is, its grandeur and grand manner, and remind us that in the Renaissance the arts complemented and reflected each other.  Miller’s painting is neo-Renaissance in principle and structure, neo-Baroque in its splendor and detail, as its crowded cast of characters—it is a sort of survey of human types--and technical embellishments, perhaps above all its Caravaggesque tenebrism, indicates.

In the background above the Pieta-like couple, but on the same lower level of the picture, a group of small, anonymous, shadowy figures appear.  They represent the Mohawk people—all but disenfranchised second class Canadians—involved in the so-called Oka Crisis, “a land dispute between a group of Mohawk people and the town of Oka, Quebec, Canada, which began on July 11, 1990 and lasted until September 26, 1990.  Sûreté du Québec (SQ) Corporal Marcel Lemay was killed by a bullet whose source has never been officially determined….The dispute was the first well-publicized violent conflict between First Nations and the Canadian government in the late 20th century.”  It seems no accident that the tragic event happened in conflict-ridden Quebec.  “The crisis developed from a local dispute between the town of Oka and the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, Quebec.  The town of Oka was developing plans to expand a golf course and residential development onto land which had been traditionally used by the Mohawk.  It included pineland and a burial ground, marked by standing tombstones of their ancestors.  The Mohawks had filed a land claim for the allegedly sacred grove and burial ground near Kanesatake, but their claim had been rejected in 1986 on technical grounds.”  They have been shunted to the side and placed in the far distance in Miller’s picture, suggesting they are almost out of the picture that is Canada, and as such not true Canadians let alone Quebecois.  

Standing alone between the dead Laporte, shrouded in black, and the Pieta couple—shrouded in earth-brown shadow, as though half-buried in a grave--is the artist himself, wearing a fashionable white jacket and an elegant long scarf, wrapped around his neck and dangling loosely to his waist.  It seems significant that Miller places himself in the lower depths among the failed rebels, suggesting that he has sympathy for their cause and identifies with them.  Painting when painting is supposed to be obsolete and dead, as various theorists have argued, and painting the human figure in an art world that regards it as a tired cliché—an art world that is dominated by institutionalized avant-garde art, not to say conventionalized abstract, conceptual, and performance art--Miller is undoubtedly a rebel, going his own artistic way as Quebec wants to go its own political way.  Noteworthily, he stands upright between a policeman arresting a protester—an activist rebel, dressed and illumined more or less as Miller is, suggesting that he regards his art as a protest against the authoritarian artworld—and the Pieta couple.  The policeman represents social authority, and polices society to enforce the existing laws and rules, just as museums of modern art represent art authority, and police the art world to enforce the existing laws and rules.  Courageously painting in the manner of the Old Masters—resurrecting traditional representation, once déclassé now a lost paradise of art compared to shopworn modernism—Miller goes against the avant-garde grain.  Miller’s New Old Master painting is an example of the inevitable return of the repressed.  But his disobedience is a breakthrough, for it rescues contemporary art from avant-garde staleness, breathing fresh new life and meaningfulness into it.  More to the emotional than artistic point, Miller stands upright between the dead Laporte and the dead rebel held by the young woman, suggesting that he fears for his life—might become a victim of the rebels as well as the police. Caught between both sides—the policeman and the protester are set back between Miller and Laporte, suggesting their secondary, “incidental,” transitional import--Miller is in a dangerous position, painting a dangerous picture.  The scarf around his neck suggests that he may be hanging himself by his own petard.  

Miller’s face is illumined—glows with inner light--as though in a eureka moment of vision:  the creative moment when he envisioned his visionary painting.  He looks upward and into the distance, as though for inspiration, perhaps also in agitated astonishment at the magnitude of the task he has undertaken in painting the picture.  Perhaps he feels he may fail at the task, as the rebels around him have failed.  But his painter’s hands are poised and tensed, as though ready to go to work, confirming that he’s equal to the task.  His self-portrait is a brilliant conceit—another traditional device.  Again, Botticelli’s Del Lame Adoration of the Magi affords a precedent:  Botticelli himself appears, standing on the extreme right, staring intensely at the spectator.  Del Lame, his patron, is high above him, but is no more than a snippet of a figure in the middle ground, while Botticelli, the artist, is full-figured and in the foreground, where he stares us down with a certain confrontational arrogance.  Miller seems more desperate and uncertain—less self-assured--in his self-portrait, if also insistently present and alert.  Nor does he look the spectator in the eye, as Del Lame, Botticelli and the young woman with the Quebec flag do.  But Milller has the same bold presence as Botticelli—the presence of a grand master, if one ready to undertake a task rather than one who has completed it.    

The upper level of Miller’s painting is oddly anti-climactic:  it occupies a narrow band of heavenly space compared to the purgatorial middle and hellish lower levels, with their seemingly ever expanding spaces.   All the levels are crowded, even claustrophobically—oppressively—crowded, but the individuals on the middle and lower levels are distinctive and recognizable, more particular secular  persons than general sacred symbols, like the figures on the upper level, and more of the recent present than the remote past, more contemporary than historical.  But however distant from the figures in the lower depths, where the troubled history of modern Quebec is acted out, the otherworldly figures on Miller’s heavenly heights are inseparable from the worldly figures below them, for they are their distant ancestors, idealized and worshipped, above it all yet as influential as gods.  They are not there for their own glorious sake, but because they presided over the birth of Quebec.  Thus Jacques Cartier appears:  he planted a cross on the Gaspé Peninsula in 1534, claiming the land for Francis I, the Catholic king of France.  Quebec became the first province of New France, as it were, and as such the cornerstone of what later became Canada, allowing it to claim a privileged place in and special importance for Canada—acquire, at least in its imagination, a significance and prestige it has never forgotten nor been willing to forfeit.  It clings to its originary position, demanding a respect that is out of proportion to its current position in Canada--one of many provinces, not the one and only true Canada, its raison d’etre and essence, as it were.  This “mythical” conception of itself as the “original” Canada is perhaps why Quebec has become, and is likely to remain, however implicitly rather than explicitly, as was the case during the sovereignty movement, a problem for Canada.  It is now a heterogeneous continental country rather than a limited homogeneous country.  Quebec is the largest province in Canada by area, but it is only a small part of the second largest country by total area in the world and the second largest by land area.  Canada extends from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, rather than only from the Atlantic Ocean to the Hudson Bay, as Quebec does.  It wants power and prestige out of proportion to its size and place in Canada, suggesting that it is unrealistically fixated on what it once was—or rather imagined it was—than what it now is.

Quebec, Fresco. 9 x 10 foot oil canvas, 2017.

Samuel de Champlain, another seminal figure in Quebec’s history—he founded Quebec City in 1608, intending to make Quebec part of the French colonial empire—makes an appearance in Miller’s heaven, along with the coureurs des bois who came to trade and explore the territory, and the Catholic missionaries who came to convert the heathen natives to the one true faith.  Under the French King Louis XIV New France finally became a Royal Province with a Sovereign Council in 1663.  Most of the French were farmers (“Canadiens” or “Habitants”), 800 young French women were imported by Louis XIV (hence les filles du roi) to encourage population growth—they ascended to Miller’s heaven after they have done their nation-building duty—and British traders and settlers began moving in, leading the French authorities to build forts to protect the area, and efforts were made to expel the British intruders from the Ohio Valley.  What French Canadians call La Guerre de la Conquete or The War of Conquest and is generally called The Seven Years War erupted between France and Britain in 1756.  In 1758 the British attacked New France by sea and took the French fort at Louisbourg.  “On September 13, 1759, the British forces of General James Wolfe defeated the French forces of General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City.”  Both generals were killed in the battle—they are resurrected in Miller’s heaven—and “France ceded its North American possessions to Great Britain through the Treaty of Paris,” signed in 1763.  That same year a “British Royal Proclamation renamed Canada (part of New France) as the Province of Quebec.”  

Quebec has been trying to undo that treaty ever since.  It was the beginning of “the problem of Quebec.”  The difference between “a nation of shopkeepers,” as Hitler called Great Britain, and France, with its cultural superiority complex—in the seventeenth century it was the center of high culture in Europe, and since then in the world—complicates and informs the problem.  It is ostensibly the difference between English speaking and French speaking Canadians, but attitudinal and character differences are embedded in languages.  They are harder to resolve.  Canadian bilingualism masks rather than resolves them even as it acknowledges them.  The French Academy’s determination to maintain the purity of the French language—to keep it closed to pernicious outside influences—contrasts sharply with the “impurity” and openness of the English language—it has made more foreign words its own than the French language has—suggests as much.  Bilingualism does not resolve the identity crisis—a subjective crisis—of modern Quebec but confirms and reifies it, suggesting that it is emotionally unresolvable however much Quebecois have learned to live with it and Canada to sidestep and repress it.  But the fact that both English and French are the official languages of Canada suggests that it also remains uncertain, not to say inwardly conflicted, about its identity.       

One might say that Pierre Trudeau was the Abraham Lincoln of Canada, for he preserved the union of provinces that is Canada just as Lincoln preserved the union of states that is the United States—and Trudeau did so without having to manage a war between the states, as Lincoln did, although he did have to deal with the Quebec sovereignty movement, a kind of civil war, as emotionally charged and sometimes as brutal as the American Civil War.  Trudeau suppressed it without destroying and demoralizing Quebec, while Lincoln’s Union forces, all from the Northern states, all but completely demoralized and destroyed the rebellious states of the Southern Confederacy, also determined to achieve sovereignty.  He also successfully dealt with a terrorist crisis, and, more important in the long term, Trudeau fostered a pan-Canadian identity, implemented official bilingualism—French became a national language, as it were, rather than merely the local or provincial language of Quebec, an elevation in status that suggested the new esteem in which Quebec was held—and established a Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Also, important culturally as well as politically, in 1982, halfway through his second term as Prime Minister, he completed the process of patriation of the Constitution, culminating in Canadian sovereignity.  “Until that date, Canada was governed by a constitution composed of British laws that could be changed only by acts of the British parliament, albeit only with the consent of the Canadian government.”  The provinces became influential in constitutional matters, and the constitution could be amended only by Canada, with no role for the British Parliament, which lost the power and right to administer Canada.  It is ironic to realize that Canada successfully achieved complete sovereignty—total separation from Great Britain--when Quebec was unsuccessfully struggling to achieve complete sovereignty—total separation from Canada.   

These accomplishments were more than enough to make Trudeau a national hero, and thus the most important personage in Miller’s painting.  He was a visionary intellectual—he seems to be seeing with his mind’s eye as he looks up into the sky, where the founding figures of Quebec’s collective history have their sacred place, riding on the wings of the snowy owl that is a symbol of Quebec—an appropriate symbol for Trudeau, considering that the owl is a wise bird—as well as, by reason of its placement and luminous whiteness, indicating its purity, a surrogate for the dove that represents the Holy Ghost.  It is as though Trudeau is ready to ascend into Catholic as well as Quebec heaven—not clearly separable for many Quebecois.  Trudeau’s brilliance was matched by his charisma, adding to his saintly aura—the magical light that outlines the right side of his figure, as though confirming that he was on the “right side” in the civil war that was Quebec, for it was a war between the French language and culture and English language and culture, and Catholic authoritarianism and close-mindedness and Protestant liberalism and open-mindedness, as well as a political civil war.  The paradox of Trudeau is that he was a Liberal Catholic, which is perhaps why he understood both sides.  After attending the largely Catholic University of Montreal, he took a master’s degree in political economy at the predominantly Protestant American Harvard University, writing his dissertation on Communism and Christianity.  He was brought up in a family that spoke both French and English.  Clearly he had a gift for integrating opposites, or at least finding their common ground.    

On the same middle level as Trudeau, although clearly peripheral to him—he stands apart, in a space of his own, however nominally paired with Bouchard (facing away from him, Trudeau seems indifferent to him), while they are more or less crowded together—are other prominent political personages, many former Prime Ministers.  Trudeau was a member of the Liberal Party of Canada, suggesting that the most important one among them, at least for the purpose of understanding Trudeau, is Jean Lesage, another member of the Liberal Party, and, crucially, instrumental in carrying out the so-called Quiet Revolution in Canada.  One might say that Trudeau’s more celebrated, not to say noisy, history-making making revolution completed the Quiet Revolution carried out under the auspices of Lesage, and just as history-making.  “The conservative government of Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale dominated Quebec politics from 1944 to 1959 with the support of the Catholic Church.  Pierre Trudeau and other liberals formed an intellectual opposition to Duplessis’s regime, setting the groundwork for the Quiet Revolution under Jean Lesage’s Liberals.  The Quiet Revolution was a period of dramatic social and political change that saw the decline of Anglo supremacy in the Quebec economy, the decline of the Roman Catholic Church’s influence, the formation of hydroelectric companies under Hydro-Québec.”   If the viewer of Miller’s painting looks carefully, he can see Justin Trudeau, Pierre’s son, almost on top of the heap of politicians, and in the distant background.  As noted, he stands next to Bernard Landry.  The elderly Landry’s full face is illuminated, and his left arm is raised, while we see the young Justin Trudeau in profile, his head turned to the left, as though refusing to look at Landry—as Pierre Trudeau doesn’t look at Bouchard--suggesting that Bouchard and Landry are now followers of Trudeau rather than leaders in their own right.  He seems to be literally in the shadow of Landry, as his shadowy face suggests, but he is ready to lead Canada as his father once did, for he was recently elected to the high office of Prime Minister, which is why he stands on the heights.  The juxtaposition of Landry, a relic of the past, and Justin Trudeau, the promise of the future—the radical difference between them, indeed, their incommensurateness and irreconcilability—parallels the juxtaposition of Pierre Trudeau and Lévesque.  Both epitomize the message of Miller’s painting.  

Reviewing the Paris Salon of 1859 Edmond and Jules Goncourt wrote:  “Religious painting having therefore died, historical painting remains for nineteenth-century painters; but, frustrated and limited by the conformity of costume, the economical use of accessories, the monotony and monochrome of contemporary scenes, this painting has been forced to take refuge in the past and veers off into imitation.”  There is no conformity of costume among the non-conformists in Miller’s painting, nor does it take refuge in Old Master painting by mechanically imitating it but rather transforms it by giving it organic life—the troubled life of Quebec.   There is nothing monotonous about the history of Quebec, especially the history of its futile pursuit of independence from Canada, with its violent episodes and electoral battles.  They continue to haunt Quebec.  Their emotional effect lingers.  It can be felt in the disruptive difference—irreconcilability--between the three conflicting levels of Miller’s masterpiece, the subtle tension between light and shadow, insinuating itself into the figures, and the dramatic differences between them, as well as the deftness with which he conveys their different bodies and faces, all distinctive.  The figures suffering in rebel hell twist or turn, their balance precarious, those in ministerial purgatory are poised and static, as though posing for posterity—the posterity that is Miller’s picture.  Paradoxically, those in heaven are dark, however tinted in light—some are pitch black, as though mirroring the depressing black shroud on Laporte far below them (the guilty black stain on Quebec that can never be washed out)--suggesting they are in mourning for the tragic conflict played out below them.  The colors in the rainbow beyond them have faded.  The figures do not make common cause, however much they belong to the same narrative of Quebec.  

Quebec, Fresco (Studio). 9 x 10 foot oil canvas, 2017.

Miller’s work is a sublime painting, in the grand manner and in the grand tradition, yet down to existential earth, for it deals with social and life-shaping events and serious personages that have acquired everlasting meaning beyond their occurrence—events and individuals that endure in memory because they are emotionally compelling as well as historically important.  Miller’s work is also a deeply humanistic painting, not only because it deals with the inescapability of human and social conflict, but because it re-humanizes art.  Its modernization dehumanized it, as Ortega y Gasset famously argued; the early 20th century movements of Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism, Expressionism, Surrealism distorted—misrepresented--the human figure, and Abstraction eliminated it, implying that it is beside the point of art, supposedly existing only for its own formal and expressive self.  But without the human figure art eventually collapsed in on itself, becoming a hollow aesthetics.  The splitting off of aesthetic experience from human experience that occurs in abstract art eventually trivializes both.  The abundance of figures, aesthetically adumbrated and energized—rather than eliminated for the sake of pure aesthetics—in Miller’s picture, conveying what the modernist art critic Clement Greenberg dismissed as the “all too human,” rescues art from its self-destructive self-absorption, that is, its self-defeating narcissism.   

The particular history of Quebec is an object lesson in universal history, for it suggests the seemingly endless power struggle between the death instinct, manifesting itself in aggression, hatred,  and chaotic disintegration—evident in Miller’s hell--and the life instinct, manifesting itself in serenity, love, and harmonious integration—nominally evident in Miller’s heaven.  (I am using Freud’s terms and distinction, which seem fundamental and elemental.)   Miller’s painting suggests that a noble hero will miraculously arise to somehow make peace between the opposites, or at least establish a truce between them, however temporary.  Miller’s picture is finally about the triumph of Pierre Trudeau, a triumph of the life instinct over the death instinct.  For he is a representative of the life instinct as the Quebec rebels are of the death instinct, no doubt unwittingly, for they think violence will bring them the freedom they want.   Such a Canadian hero as Trudeau could only arise from the native soil of Quebec, for only he could experience its suffering in his own conflicted identity.  Only he could solve the riddle of Quebec’s paradoxical tendency to self-destruction in the name of its self-love.  Trudeau has managed to tame the dragon that is Quebec, which is not exactly to slay it.  It may still have angry life in it.  Quebec’s discontents may erupt once again:  the troubled times suggest that it may not give up its struggle to separate from and thus undo Canada.  Yet the reconciliation between Quebec and Canada that Trudeau has forged echoes in the synthesis of religious and historical painting that Miller has forged.  He has revived both, showing they have a future in the 21st century, as an integrated Canada does.          

The historical information in the essay, including the quotations, comes from the entry on Quebec in Wikipedia. WM

 

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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