Olindo Gratton (1855-1941) - Religion et sculpture

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Couverture du livre Olindo Gratton.


For over sixty years, Joseph-Olindo Gratton (1855-1941) made his career in the Montreal area, first as an ornamental sculptor and wood-worker, then as a statuary. He saw himself as an artist-sculptor. His works were executed in clay, plaster, cement, wood (sometimes covered in metal). He also conceived works in stone and bronze. In total, over three-hundred works, produced between 1877 and 1939, are attributed to him.

Olindo Gratton was one of the first French-Canadian sculptors who attempted to establish a clientele for secular commemorative pieces, however, circumstances were such that his talents were best used in the service of religion. For the most part, his works decorated places of worship. His most notable works are the imposing statues that decorate the facade of the Marie-Reine-du-Monde et Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur Cathedral-Basilica in Montreal. From this grouping, produced between 1892 and 1900, Gratton attained a kind of status as unofficial diocesan sculptor.

Gratton's reputation brought him important commissions until the end of the 1920's. As a result, he was able to be as prolific in his later years as he had been earlier in his career. During this period of his life, he produced two life-size oak Christ en croix pieces for Sainte- Catherine-d'Alexandrie Church in Montreal (1929) and Sainte-Madeleine Church in Outremont (1930) — these are among his most accomplished works.

In the 1930's, Olindo Gratton was already losing prominence on the artistic scene, and after his death he was quickly forgotten. Quebec was discovering abstract art at this time — consequently Gratton's statuary preoccupations were seen as stemming from a distant past.

Art historian Gérard Morisset's evaluation of Gratton in Coup d'œil sur les arts en Nouvelle-France, (1941) plunged him even further into obscurity. For reasons which will be discussed later, Morisset divided Quebec sculpture into two categories: "decorative," which was connected to the atelier apprenticeship system; and "academic," which was learned in a school. The historian placed Gratton in the older "decorative" category, classing him among the "ornemanistes de la vieille école, consciencieux, amoureux de leur métier, vrais héritiers des sculpteurs-paysans de l'âge héroïque." This judgement (which will be later questioned) was nuanced when Morisset affirmed "Mais le métier n'est plus ce qu'il était jadis," and at least took into account Gratton's role in the history of Quebec sculpture. However, with Modernity asserting its presence, this did little to keep the sculptor from being relegated to a by-gone age.

Forty years later, Professor Robert Derome was to refer to the sculptor as the "fantôme énigmatique des oubliettes de l'histoire de la sculpture québécoise." Gratton's downfall was especially surprising given that, during his very long career, he succeeded not only in gaining the support of religious authorities, but in holding a real position in Montreal's art scene.
Recent studies have examined the role of Montreal institutions in the areas of teaching and exhibiting art. These include the Council of Arts and Manufactures' school, the Institut National (commonly known as the Institution Nationale) des Beaux-Arts (founded by Abbé Joseph Chabert), and the Bibliothèque Saint-Sulpice. Gratton frequented these institutions as a student and/or professor and as an exhibiting artist.

In addition, new research bas familiarized us with the work of several of the principal Montreal artists of the period, most notably: painter, sculptor, architect and art critic Napoléon Bourassa (1827-1916); sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert (1850-1917); painter Maurice Cullen (1866-1934); and sculptor Alfred Laliberté (1878-1953). Gratton had close contact with these artists, having been the disciple of the first, the student and employee of the second, and the teacher of the remaining two. Even the Carlis and Petruccis, sculptors who worked in plaster, have been studied — Gratton ceded his teaching position at the Council of Arts and Manufactures to Alexandre Carli (1861-1937). Furthermore, it seems he provided prototypes for statues for the T. Carli atelier, directed by Alexandre Carli at the time. Research on these institutions and artists has thus paved the way for a new appreciation of Olindo Gratton.

Early Quebec sculpture bas long been recognized as a major art form, as distinctive as any other practice in Quebec, be it architecture, painting or the goldsmith trade. In 1920, the first monograph on sculpture was published, which was Émile Vaillancourt's study on the atelier of Louis Quévillon (1749-1823). This work constitutes the first study on Quebec art based on primary material. Quévillon, a native of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, was an important figure in the evolution of sculpture in Quebec.

Quebec sculpture has since continued to attract the attention of researchers. Historians Marius Barbeau and E.R. Adair were among the pioneers in this field, the latter having even corrected the writings of ground-breaker Gérard Morisset. The 1946 exhibition The Arts of French Canada 1613-1870, presented by R.H. Hubbard and Marius Barbeau at the Detroit Institute of Arts, introduced both foreign and Canadian audiences to the richness of Quebec's artistic heritage, especially with regards to its sculpture.

Subsequently, other art historians have increased our awareness of the medium. Gérard Lavallée, at the Musée d'art de Saint-Laurent, created a privileged place for the appreciation of early Quebec art, while Jean Trudel featured Quebec sculpture in major exhibitions at the Musée du Québec. In 1984, Trudel headed a group which produced Le Grand Héritage : L'Église catholique et les arts au Québec, an exhibition accompanied by a superb catalogue. This show underlined the undeniable contribution that Quebec sculptors have made to the artistic heritage of the province.

In 1986, two events revived the interest of early Quebec sculpture devotees. First there was the Musée du Québec's exhibition on sculptor Louis Jobin (1845-1928), organized by Mario Béland. Never before had an exhibition of such scope focused on a Québécois sculptor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An important catalogue accompagnied the show. This was followed by the publication of John R. Porter and Jean Bélisle's, La sculpture ancienne au Québec, Trois siècles d'art religieux et profane. This book was the first exhaustive overview of the subject and was intended as response to, in the authors' own words: "un engouement généralisé pour les témoins matériels de notre passé" (p. 13). Olindo Gratton was among the artists singled out, about whom Porter rightly indicated the lack of information (p. 392): "S'il est révélateur à plus d'un point de vue, le bref aperçu que nous venons de donner de la production religieuse d'Olindo Gratton n'en demeure pas moins nettement insuffisant. En effet, à défaut d'une bonne monographie, nous devons aujourd'hui nous résigner à une connaissance superficielle de la carrière et de l'œuvre de ce statuaire sur bois et modeleur naguère célèbre." Our study sets out to correct this deficiency.

Finally, when considering the state of research on early Quebec sculpture we cannot ignore the retrospectives presently being organized by Montreal Museum of Fine Art curators Nicole Cloutier and Yves Lacasse on Alfred Laliberté and Louis-Philippe Hébert.

The present exhibition, Olindo Gratton (1855-1941): Religion et sculpture, and its catalogue, take their place alongside these efforts to increase awareness about Quebec sculpture from the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. The intent here is to foster a greater understanding of the context in which art was being produced at the time, not only in the hope of establishing the importance that religious subject matter held, but also to determine the specific role played by Gratton.

To give coherence to the exhibition, only examples of Gratton's work inspired by religion, that is, his principal œuvre, have been selected. Despite the limitations imposed in borrowing objects of this genre, the thirty-five works assembled can be considered representative of almost the entirety of the sculptor's active period. They illustrate the different types of sculptural practice (low relief, high relief, free-standing) and almost all the various media the artist employed.

The Introductory Notes to this catalogue give a general overview of religious statuary in Quebec and Europe, providing the context for our study of Olindo Gratton's career. Personalities with whom the sculptor had frequent contact are then presented within the framework of the important cultural and religious institutions of the time. The chronology of events and the evolution of ideas remain a constant preoccupation throughout.

We should also mention that each work in the exhibition is reproduced and that detailed technical information is provided. As well, the reader will find appended individual bibliographies for each of these works, with coded entries that refer to a general bibliography which is reserved exclusively for the works exhibited.

© Éditions Fides, 1989

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