Edmund Alleyn

The works of Quebec multidisciplinary artist Edmund Alleyn (1931-2004) stand apart from one another in periods of strongly differentiated styles, from abstraction to figuration. It was between 1962 and 1964 in Paris that he painted the canvases of what is known as his “Indian” period, to which The Tribe Launches Itself into Orbit (1964) belongs. Executed at the very end of this aesthetic exploration inspired by the First Nations of North America, this work marks a turning point in Alleyn’s career: it is the grandiose conclusion of his “Indian” period and heralds, in its shapes and title, the “technological” works that are to follow.

In 1955, when Alleyn left Quebec to settle in France, his abstract paintings were characterized by earthy colours composed of heavy impasto. In about 1962-1963, his palette became brighter and he began applying the pigment in thin layers that revealed his gestuality. On the canvas, he gradually developed a kind of Surrealist figuration with an unusual formal vocabulary incorporating feathers, ribbons, arrows, hearts and sperm cells. He explained his interest in the imagery of the First Nations in his art as follows: “I saw an opportunity to discover in my work an affirmation that referred directly to the geography of my country and in a sense to its history.”1 This was for him a kind of personal quest for his own hybrid identity, that of an English Canadian from the Anglo-Irish community of the Quebec City region who had lived in France for a number of years.

The complex composition of The Tribe Launches Itself into Orbit is composed of elements that seem to float in an underwater fantasy world. On the central canvas we see a sceptre crowned with an artist’s palette, and to its right a figure in sumptuous regalia. All around the edges is a series of ten small paintings that echo the images in the main work: gears, arrows, coloured discs and curving lines. These satellites continue the composition beyond the painting and underscore the whirling effects of the coloured shapes. The various formal elements of the work refer to the iconography of the First Nations of the West Coast and to different biomorphic symbols that Alleyn puts together so felicitously.

The Museum now has major works from various important periods in Alleyn’s work.


1. “Un artiste et son milieu,” interview at the Société Radio-Canada with Guy Robert in 1976. Quotation from Mona Hakim, “Figures de résistance” in Edmund Alleyn : Hommage aux Indiens d’Amérique (Montreal: Éditions Simon Blais, 2009), p. 12.

Edmund Alleyn (1931-2004), The Tribe Launches Itself into Orbit, 1964, Oil on canvas (11 elements), 234.3 x 374.3 cm. MMFA, gift of Jennifer Alleyn.