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January 25, 2022

A poetic meditation on nature and its representations

Nicolas Party (born in 1980), Sunset, 2021, soft pastel on linen, 109.2 x 99.1 cm. Long Museum, Shanghai. © Nicolas Party. Photo Adam Reich

A major artist of our time, Nicolas Party is known for his meticulously composed pastels, his painted sculptures and his installations drenched in saturated colours. In a dreamlike presentation themed on nature, he sheds a new light on a selection of works from the MMFA’s collection, which he showcases alongside his own creations, including four large murals realized in situ. Stéphane Aquin, Director of the MMFA, tells us about Nicolas Party, whom he has known and admired for a number of years, and about the exhibition he initiated to give the Montreal public a chance to discover this great talent, and experience the sense of wonder that art can bring us.

Stéphane Aquin

Director

Emmanuelle Christen

Head of Editorial Production and Content Development

Tell us about the artist Nicolas Party. Who is he?

Nicolas Party is a Swiss-born artist who divides his time between New York and Brussels. He studied at the École cantonale d’art de Lausanne – a school with a notably conceptual approach – and the Glasgow School of Art. He then spent several years in Brussels, where he maintains a home and studio. Over the last six years, he has lived and worked in New York. As an artist, Nicolas is anchored in the Swiss figurative tradition but also has a worldly perspective, as his cosmopolitan lifestyle would suggest.

Party à l'oeuvre

What can you tell us about his influences and preferred mediums?

Nicolas Party is known and celebrated around the world for having almost single-handedly re-established the place of the pastel medium in contemporary art. Some artists have used pastel in a regular albeit anecdotal fashion, whereas he has made it the primary medium of his practice. He is also known for his immersive installations whose architecture is inundated by colour, as well as for his murals in pastel and in oil, on which he displays his works. He thus creates impressive artistic environments that must be experienced first-hand. They are total works of art.

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Nicolas Party is also invested in reviving the “figurative Symbolist tradition.” In his practice, he completely skips over abstract art, instead gravitating towards Picasso’s early 1920s Neoclassical style as well as Swiss figurative Symbolists such as Félix Vallotton, Hans Emmenegger and Ferdinand Hodler. He also is clearly inspired by the Renaissance and antiquity... Nicolas is an immensely erudite painter, but his oeuvre cannot easily be reduced to a citation or snapshot: it is an all-encompassing continuation of the Symbolist tradition.

I would add too that his works – and perhaps it’s the influence of his years in Belgium – often exhibit a very mysterious, very Surrealist character. Interestingly, he did an exhibition at the Magritte Museum, titled Magritte Parti, in which he displayed his works in the empty spaces where Magritte paintings – temporarily away on loan to an exhibition in San Francisco – normally hung. In this context, you could see the similarity between their respective worlds in terms of this aura of mysteriousness that’s vaguely melancholic, very tranquil, very unique.

I could talk for hours about the historical relevance of Nicolas’ oeuvre and, on top of it, there’s the effect his works have – their extraordinarily magnetic, enigmatic and distinctive aura... He has a singular voice, an imagery that is uniquely his.

How did the exhibition at the MMFA come to be?

I wanted to invite Nicolas to the Museum and give him carte blanche to bring together our collection with his own creations. At the FLAG Art Foundation in New York, he curated an exhibition in which he displayed other artists’ pastels among his own in a colour-filled environment. I thought it would be wonderful if he could repeat this experience at the MMFA, with our collection, in the very Neoclassical galleries of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion, which date from a period of architecture and art history to which Nicolas is particularly attuned. The other reason I wanted to invite him to Montreal is his familiarity with Canadian art history: he’s a big fan, notably of Lawren S. Harris, who greatly influenced his manner of representing landscapes. The Swiss, much like the Canadians, have defined themselves in art history as having a strong connection to their landscapes. Nicolas Party is very aware of this aspect, and he understands it to be a truth shared among Quebec and Canadian artists. With all of this in mind, I thought I could maybe interest him in coming, and so we gave him carte blanche.

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More than just an exhibition, Nicolas Party proposes a veritable artistic experience. What does this experience consist of?

In actual fact, Nicolas Party : L’heure mauve (Mauve Twilight) is not an exhibition on the work of Nicolas Party; it is a work of art conceived by the artist out of our collections and his own creations. Nicolas is at once the artistic director, the curator who selected the MMFA works to be displayed, the visual artist who added his own works, and the exhibition designer, since he chose the colours for the walls.

Party à l'oeuvre
The exhibition is therefore an artwork in and of itself. I think this is a first in the history of the Museum – giving an artist total carte blanche and giving him permission to produce a complete work such as this.

The themes of nature and ecology are at the heart of the project. How are they addressed?

Nicolas selected works from our collections of Quebec and Canadian art, decorative arts and European art, and organized them into seven sections that highlight different aspects of the way we have envisioned and represented nature over the centuries.

In the first section, nature is treated as the setting of desire and temptation, a source of danger. Here one finds references to Adam and Eve and similar mythologies that present nature as a dark and bewitched place. We continue next to the section representing nature as conquered and tamed by industry – be it by mining, forestry or agriculture. This is followed by nature as a field of ruins, a battlefield, a conflict zone. In the fourth section, nature is portrayed as a pristine and untouched space. It is a nature that is grandiose, sublime and completely devoid of humans. In the section that follows, we see in nature an extension of our carnal passions. In this way, the human body becomes a legitimate manifestation of the same forces of desire that fuel nature. The exhibition then talks about disasters: it’s Sodom and Gomorrah, it’s nature on fire, destroyed. Lastly, the final section presents nature as a place of metamorphosis, resurrection and rebirth.

The exhibition as a whole reads as a kind of journey through the various representations of nature in the history of art. Moreover, nothing is spelled out for the viewer: it’s rather through the choices and combinations of works, together with the murals that we glean these different dimensions. What is wondrous about this project, beyond the way it is poetically and conceptually articulated, is the fact that the artist enables us to rediscover certain works we thought we knew from a completely new angle.

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Could you give us a few examples?

Mauve Twilight by Ozias Leduc, from which the title of the exhibition takes its name, is a good example. All sorts of Symbolist and Christian interpretations have been made of this 1921 painting: twilight is dusk, reflecting the passage from life to death; or the branches being an allusion to the thorny crown of Christ. A century later, we see other things depicted in it: the transition into the Anthropocene era (our time) and the impression that nature is approaching its twilight, brought on by the catastrophic effects of climate change. So, all at once, the work takes on new meaning.

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The striking Still Life with Shells and Coral by Jacques Linard is another example. We marvel at seeing these magnificent exotic shells in a 17th-century European painting, and to think that they might have been circulating in Europe since that time. But these shells have been studied: some of the species are nearing extinction, while others have already disappeared as a result of the exotic trade that dates back to the 17th century and that expanded at such a pace and scale that, in the end, nature could no longer keep up. And now, suddenly we see in this work not only beautiful shells, but a reminder that the state in which we find ourselves today was already being set in motion in the 1600s.

Jacques Linard (1597-1645), Still Life with Shells and Coral, 1640, oil on canvas. MMFA, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Michal Hornstein. Photo MMFA.
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It is this continuity over time, between actions taken long ago and our current state, this picture of nature that’s unfolding in dramatic fashion, which the work of Nicolas Party is depicting. It is a remarkable contribution. We often talk about having our collections dialogue with the present, creating artistic events around them. It’s precisely these kinds of initiatives that endow our historical collections with newfound relevance, as they reveal what these works of art tell us about our own era.

With the participation of singer-songwriter-composer Pierre Lapointe, Nicolas Party : L’heure mauve offers an intermingling of the visual arts and music. Tell us about the collaboration between the two artists.

It’s a new dimension of the project that makes it all the more endearing and unique to Montreal. It all started because we were hoping to commission a writer for plates sections of the catalogue. We asked Pierre Lapointe if he would be interested, and his response was, “I’m very flattered, however, I’m a writer of songs.” The idea appealed to us. We approached Pierre because his world, in the field of song, parallels that of Nicolas Party’s in the field of visual arts: he too creates works with a timeless character, that can’t be pinned down to a particular era. His songs are classical in form, and his world is very melancholic, mysterious, Symbolist even.

Appreciating the fact that Nicolas Party’s art is at once retrospective and prospective, in that it looks at art history and responds in kind with works that are of the present moment, Pierre had the brilliant idea of doing the same for each section of the exhibition. He mined the history of song to find a repertoire that speaks, in a very broad way, to the themes in the exhibition. He then added some of his own songs to the mix. Each section of the exhibition will be accompanied by two songs: one historical and the other contemporary, thus echoing the spirit of Nicolas’s project and his approach.

Fundamentally, these are catalogue texts, which Pierre Lapointe set to music. While the songs are not an integral part of the exhibition, they round out the artistic experience conceived by Nicolas Party. We are offering visitors the option to listen to the songs in the galleries on their phones with their headsets. A vinyl album compiling all of these songs is currently in production.

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What do you hope the public takes away from Nicolas Party’s works and this exhibition?

More than anything, I would like them to experience a feeling of wonderment. It’s a project that touches on very serious issues, but in a nuanced and delicate way, while immersing us in a fantasy world. I hope that this incomparable aesthetic experience will rekindle in visitors the sense of awe that art can ignite. It’s not an escape from reality; rather, it serves us to achieve a deeper understanding, by poetic means, of the reality in which we live.

I think they will also rediscover works that they believed they knew well, having perhaps seen them on their visits of the Museum’s permanent collections. But now, in this new context, the works will say something different, being exhibited in a way they never have been before. And, ultimately, the public is going to discover a great artist, assuredly one of the greatest of his generation.

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The great artists of our day are what the great artists of yesterday were to theirs. They have an extraordinary formal ability to speak to and connect with a very wide audience and take on big questions, the big questions... If you ask Nicolas Party if he makes political art, he will reply that there are other means of expression that are far better suited than art to addressing political issues. However, there are very few mediums that are as relevant when it comes to addressing existential concepts and the human condition. In fact, art is one of the few remaining spaces where we can reflect on, probe deeper into and be moved by these questions.

Party à l'oeuvre

Nicolas Party : L’heure mauve
Until October 16, 2022
Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion – Level 2

Credits and curatorial team This exhibition is organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and is curated by Nicolas Party, in collaboration with Stéphane Aquin, Director, MMFA, and Mary-Dailey Desmarais, Chief Curator, MMFA. Its presentation was made possible by the major contribution of Hydro-Québec, in collaboration with Hatch and Mirabaud.

The MMFA thanks the Consulate General of Switzerland in Montreal, the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, Tourisme Montréal, as well as the MMFA’s Angel Circle, proud supporter of the Museum’s major exhibitions. It further acknowledges the invaluable contributions of its official sponsor, Denalt Paints, and its media partners Bell, La Presse and the Montreal Gazette.

The MMFA is profoundly grateful to the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des arts de Montréal for their ongoing support.

Photos of the artist at work: © Nicolas Party. MMFA, Jean-François Brière

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