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An Artist with a Powerful Message Exhibits at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Mount Royal, Montreal, 1949. Gouache on wove paper, Atelier Frederic Black. ©Atelier Frederic Black Inc.

MONTREAL.- In connection with the exhibition Expanding Horizons: Painting and Photography of American and Canadian Landscape 1860-1918, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is presenting Frédéric Back: One with Nature, from June 18 to September 27, 2009. The Museum believes it is the ideal time to present the outstanding work of this artist, painter, illustrator and filmmaker who, through his images and his films, tirelessly endeavours to make the public aware of the beauty of nature and the importance of protecting it. “By its very theme, the exhibition Frédéric Back: One with Nature, has provided our organization with an opportunity to underscore our commitment to protecting the environment and making our contribution to the Montreal community’s efforts in that direction,” points out Nathalie Bondil, Museum Director.

An environmental activist before it became fashionable, Back is concerned with people, animals and the environment and their interconnectedness. His whole life, he has used his art to deliver an urgent message, that of respecting and preserving nature. “I was very strongly affected and upset by industrialization, pollution and the massive destruction of our planet’s natural treasures, animals. I illustrated these themes in a way that was easy to understand and acceptable…”

This retrospective exhibition features two sketchbooks, fifty-four original drawings and nineteen original sequences of cels from the films The Man Who Planted Trees and The Mighty River. Many works are being exhibited for the first time.

Back was enthusiastic about the idea of an exhibition. He created a work especially for the exhibition, L’horreur boréale [The Boreal Horror], a large dreary, denuded landscape that bears witness to the dramatic consequences of uncontrolled deforestation. The goal of this work is to encourage people to denounce the abuse of logging companies around the world. It depicts the boreal forest as seen by Frédéric Back on a flight from Vancouver to Montreal in 1998. This nightmarish vision has haunted him ever since. The artist incorporated an emblematic statement in his work:

From east to west and from north to south, millions of square kilometres of Canada's boreal forest have been clear cut! All that's left is a fringe of trees around lakes . . . as far as the eye can see the land is bare, marked by bulldozer tracks, burned by the sun, eroded by wind and ice . . .

The rapaciousness of our governments and industries, of forest engineers and people prepared to do anything! They have stripped away the land's protective coat, full of life, which tempered the climate and supplied the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River with nutritive water for centuries! This is a crime against life and against future generations!

“Destroyers of the forest are enemies of the public weal!”– Cicero (106 B.C.)

The Themes
The exhibition is organized around three major themes: “The Engaged Artist” reveals Back’s social engagement through the posters he created for organizations like the SOS Water coalition and the satirical drawings that deal with the mistreatment of animals or the effects of industrial pollution. “Bearing Witness to Nature” presents – for the first time – Back’s gouaches of Quebec landscapes (executed since 1948), an inexhaustible source of fascination for the artist, as well as ink drawings of Quebec animals and a book of sketches executed during a stay at Lac-à-la-Loutre in the Laurentians. Another sketchbook, from 1949, chronicles his trip to the Canadian West coast as far as the Queen Charlotte Islands. Several watercolours and an oil on canvas evoke vast forests of sequoias and cedars and the Haïda culture; other works, in coloured pencil and pastel on acetate are original cels from the film Memories of the Earth (2002), which is one of the focal points in the section on the “Filmmaker with a Message.” The theme of water and the precariousness of the world’s fauna is examined through original sequenced cels – never before exhibited – from the film The Mighty River(1993). The demonstration is backed up by four illustrated plates from the essay “A Farewell to Whales”by biologist Pierre Béland, as well as some ink drawings and pastel sketches of Nova Scotia and the Gaspé, which served as references for the artist. The original sequenced cels of The Man Who Planted Trees (1987)illustrate the artist’s commitment to environmental causes. The presentation concludes with a montage of short excerpts from these three films and Everything, Nothing (1978).

Born in Saarbrücken on April 8, 1924, Back spent his childhood in Strasbourg and his summers on the farm, where he developed a deep love for animals. He studied in Paris at the École Estienne and then enrolled at the École des beaux-arts de Rennes, where he studied under Mathurin Méheut, a renowned painter and illustrator who would prove to be a major influence in Back’s life, both on the human level and artistically. He began his career as a painter and exhibited his works at the Salon de la Marine, Paris, in 1946 and 1947. In 1948, Back left for Canada and settled in Montreal, where he taught at the École du Meuble and the École des Beaux-arts de Montréal. In 1952, he was hired by the then-nascent Radio-Canada network as an illustrator and a creator of visual effects, scenery and models. Through his work in film animation, he found another way to present his convictions, a practice that he pursued in Radio-Canada’s animation studios from 1968 to 1993. Back has won innumerable awards, including two Oscars for his animated films Crac! and The Man Who Planted Trees. He used his poetic and global approach to deal with environmental questions, sound the alarm and suggest ways we can change our behaviour and compensate for the disastrous effects of our thoughtlessness, as seen in his early films, Illusion (1975) and Everything, Nothing (1978), some scenes from Crac! (1981) and his iconic work The Man Who Planted Trees (1987), which was inspired by a short story by Jean Giono, and even The Mighty River (1993). Back said of his films, “Without being able to foresee their journey, I made them to motivate people to take the actions that our fragile planet so desperately needs.”

Back’s commitment to nature is equalled only by his passion for art. While expressing his message, he continues to develop his creative vision. He experiments and enriches his artistic vocabulary by developing personal techniques that have become his signature.

Richard Gagnier, Head of the Museum’s Conservation Department, is the curator of the exhibition.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts | Frédéric Back | Nathalie Bondil | Paris | École des Beaux-arts de Montréal |

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