Jennifer Alleyn walks into the first room of a retrospective of her father's career, which opened this week at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art.

She is surrounded by the abstract paintings that define Edmund Alleyn's early work; big swaths of black parceling out the canvas, as in La Crevasse of 1960.

"People will be so surprised about what comes next," she says, smiling.

What comes next are the techno-figurative pieces of the late 1960s; a virtual reality prototype from 1970; a series of works from the 1970s that combine melancholy, kitsch and Plexiglas.

Then comes the tremendous stillness of the Indigo series, which give way to the surreal explorations of objects that occupy his canvases in the years before his death.

By the time visitors reach the final paintings of the 60-work exhibit, they've received not only an overview of the development of an artist, but of history itself.

Edmund Alleyn's daughter discusses her favourite paintings, part 10:50

A career reconsidered

One of the goals of the retrospective is to return Edmund Alleyn's work to the spotlight. Alleyn, who died in 2004, was a critical darling at different points in his career.

But he has yet to take a place in the pantheon of contemporary Quebec art, alongside such established luminaries as Jean-Paul Riopelle, Guido Molinari and Yves Gaucher.

"His position is kind of ambivalent in the history of art," said Mark Lanctôt, the exhibit's curator.  

When Riopelle and the Automistes were all the rage in the 1950s, Alleyn was poking fun at them. When non-figurative minimalism was popular in the 1970s, Alleyn turned to figuration. And when the End of Painting was being declared in the early 1980s, Alleyn was churning out ambitious canvases.

This insistence on reinvention and iconoclasm made it difficult for the art world to classify Alleyn's work, as it runs against the conventional expectation that artists develop an distinct style and stick with it.

"Being stylistically heterogeneous is considered career suicide," said Lanctôt. "But the biggest archetypes of 20th century art are heterogeneous ... like Picasso."

The Paris years

Edmund Alleyn, Mondrian au coucher, 1973 – 1974

Edmund Alleyn's Mondrian au coucher, from the series he produced shortly after returning to Quebec. (Collection of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal )

Edmund Alleyn was born in Quebec City in 1931. He was raised in an anglophone household but lived most of his professional and personal life in French. 

Like many other avant-garde Quebec artists of his generation, who felt the province's conservative social climate didn't foster creativity, Alleyn left for Paris in his 20s. 

His work there came to be infused with concerns about the dehumanizing effects of modern capitalism. It culminates with the Introscaphe, an egg-shaped chamber where visitors would be subject to an experimental anti-capitalist film.

The work was a hit when it was shown in Paris in 1970. At that juncture, Lanctôt says, Alleyn could have branched off into filmmaking.      

But Alleyn, hearing that Quebec had changed in the wake of the Quiet Revolution, returned the following year. 

"It was a very different place and that created a moment of crisis of sorts," Lanctôt said. "It was like he was overwhelmed by how much people had changed and how crazy it had become."

Edmund Alleyn's daughter discusses her favourite paintings, part 21:03

Coming home

His response is to return to painting. He delivers the Suite québécoise: photographs of anonymous Quebecers rendered in paint on Plexiglas screens with deliberately cheesy sunsets as backdrop.

Edmund Alleyn, Introscaphe I

The Introscaphe charged visitors two francs to experience the experimental anti-capitalist film. (Collection of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec)

A related series, Iceberg Blues, is currently on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

With time, though, Alleyn's work ceases to explicitly engage the world around him. In an interview, he describes his work at the time as "a return to the individual, the private individual."

An empty tennis court, discarded deck chairs at a cottage, an unmoored speedboat; it's such moody images that Alleyn uses to evoke inner states of being in his later years.

"It's this kind of relationship between what's around you and who you are that is throughout his whole work," said Lanctôt.

But fundamentally, it is Alleyn's chosen medium — painting — that is perhaps the only true constant in his career.

"He came back to painting in the end … it was his country," his daughter said.

Having that constant was important for someone who was constantly transitioning, transgressing and questioning his membership to the social groups around him.

It anchored his identity in a society in flux.      

"Because he had a language battle being [an] anglophone who was then was brought up in French school, I think images really became his language and his country."


In My Studio, I Am Many runs until Sept. 25 at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art.