Having entered into a cool and rainy Spring after a particularly difficult Winter, it would seem a good time to take a moment to reflect upon our relationship to our northern locale and the realities that attend it. In today’s installment we do so by reflecting upon the fine artwork of Canadian artist Claude Langevin. Sometimes the best time to revisit a challenge is immediately after having conquered it. It has been said, too, that if we have a challenge, it is wiser to move towards it, rather than away from it. In the North, we talk about hockey even in the Summer.
The idea of the North in the Canadian imagination is as large as the expanses that stretch upwards from the American border. The idea reaches across prairie and tundra, across mountains, hills and forests. It reaches across vast bodies of water and rivers, the grand St Lawrence being one of them. In the artwork of Claude Langevin, for example, one finds ideas of the Canadian North expressed in the meeting of sky, cloud and light over the region of the St Lawrence River, in the rutted snow-covered unpaved streets of a Quebec village in the age when the horse was the primary means of transportation. Langevin impresses upon his viewer this fundamental, even, at least in part, defining, Canadian reality: we live in a northern land. The importance of this reality of Canada as a place of the North is reflected in the sheer number of Langevin’s works which portray winter moments of bitter cold and sunlight.
Still, to those who have the eyes to see it, the North is as beautiful as it is dangerous.
Still, to those who have the eyes to see it, the North is as beautiful as it is dangerous. And perhaps it is in this dance of beauty and danger where we find our love affair with the North born. We know that the beauty of the north demands our rising to challenge it. It at times demands everything we have to deal with its extremities of distance, cold, ice and snow. It demands everything we have to embrace it and move on. But it also insists that its beauty triumphs. It is a beauty suspended in cold, clean air.
While our northland can be a challenging place at any time of year, with floods swelling rivers with the waters of the Spring, and the incessant activity of mosquitos and blackflies and other insects in the Summer, it is by this idea of extreme winter cold that the idea of the North is perhaps most often defined. It is an unforgiving, even dangerously cold climate. It is a climate that at times makes human existence itself precarious.
Perhaps the work of Claude Langevin that best represents this struggle is his Vents du nord. The bundled figure seems to stand still momentarily, bracing against the north wind, arms around his or her head in an attempt to protect the undefined face, hanging onto his or her hat, while moving slowly forward against the north wind.
Langevin captures artfully this contest between movement and stillness.
Indeed, Langevin captures artfully this contest between movement and stillness. The human spirit moves deliberately, resolutely, however slowly. The human spirit remains determined, in spite of the weather, to complete its tasks of daily life, to reach a neighbour or loved one, to visit, to interact, to overcome the threat of isolation, the silence of being alone. Often in Langevin’s work there are at least one or two inhabitants determined enough to step away from the warmth of their wood burning hearths to venture outdoors. In the midst of La Maison Ancestrale, for example, we find the smoke rising from the ancestral chimney. It is a sign of comfort, a sign of hope. Someone is home, someone is waiting for visitors. There is in this house the comfort of family, of children and grandparents. La Visite (see picture above) also conveys this determination to live life fully in the presence of family.
Claude Langevin’s work suggests, then, a celebration not only of the life of Quebec but also a celebration of the idea of life in the North itself. It is a celebration of life in this northern climate which asks each of les habitants to not only accept and deal with the extremes of cold and snow on their own terms, but to celebrate them as an essential element, even an essential source, of their joie de vivre.
Here in Langevin’s work the cold and snow of the village are the stage in which northern lives are lived in the theatre of the world. (Le long du fleuve) This small village of horse-drawn sleighs finds itself situated at the shoreline past which commercial ocean-going vessels navigate. In this sense, it suggests the meeting of the village, the meeting of the North, with the rest of the world.
It is the world of both adult and child. It is the world of the family.
It is, to be sure, an impressionistic portrayal of rural Quebec life. The villagers, the habitants, are faceless, rendering them universal characters. They could be me, they could be you. They are everyman and everywoman, every child. It is neither an exclusively adult world, however, nor a child’s world, as in the case of the work of Pauline Paquin. It is the world of both adult and child. It is the world of the family. It is the world of the village. It is a world in which there are obligations and work to fulfill, often by the employment of the horse. There is love here. There is a love for the land, for the village, for the mountains and for life itself.
It is, in one sense, the essence of what it means to belong to the North to contend with the snow and cold. But to truly belong to the North, the landscape demands that we understand not only it, but ourselves as well.
Our northern landscape demands that we recognize, too, as part of our self-understanding, our need of the village, our need of community. Neighbours stop to chat and update one another, neighbours wave from the porch, all in spite of the cold. They know they need each other.
In the work of Claude Langevin one finds portrayed such moments of understanding. His works demonstrate not only the beauty and challenge of the North, but our need of it as the landscape of our northern “village.” It is the context in which we lead northern lives.
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WHO IS DOUGLAS ALLEN?
Douglas Allen is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. His historical studies are of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is interested in using the lens of identity to explore and understand history, human motivation and action. Douglas is also a writer who is currently writing a novel set in the City of Winnipeg in the 1980’s, which explores the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations.