Ojibwa painter Norval Morrisseau, one of Canada’s most celebrated artists, died at Toronto General Hospital on Tuesday morning, at the age of 75.
Morrisseau was the creator and spiritual leader of the Woodland Indian art movement, both in Canada and in the northeast United States, inspiring generations of native artists. He developed his style independent of the influence of any other artist, and he was the first to depict Ojibwa legends and history for the non-indigenous world. His art triumphed over a life of abuse, poverty, and alcoholism, and he spearheaded a cultural renaissance in indigenous arts and culture.
Above all, Morrisseau was a shaman who communicated his shamanic vision through his paintings. “I transmit astral plane harmonies through my brushes into the physical plane,” he said. “These otherworld colours are reflected in the alphabet of nature, a grammar in which the symbols are plants, animals, birds, fishes, earth and sky. I am merely a channel for the spirit to utilize, and it is needed by a spirit starved society.” He described his paintings as icons — “images which help focus on spiritual powers, generated by traditional belief and wisdom.”
In its announcement of an exhibit last year entitled Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist, the National Gallery said that Morrisseau “reveals something of the soul of humanity … Sinewy black spirit lines emanate, surround, and link animal and human figures, and skeletal elements and internal organs are visible within their brightly coloured segments.” Globe and Mail art critic John Bentley Mays noted that what Morrisseau painted “are not ordinary forests, ponds and people. Morrisseau’s art transports us into a shadowy archetypal realm where ordinary things are wonderful. In his visionary lakes swim mighty fish, armed with bolts of spiritual lightening. A bear spirit — a dragon-like chimera spangled with bright eyes and brilliant colours — suddenly stands in your path.”
His art is paradigmatically visionary — direct, intense, expressive, formally inventive, with bright non-naturalistic colors and two-dimensional perspective. The paintings reveal to us the essential shamanic vision — the interpenetration of all beings, the mysterious wonder of the world. Reality in a Morrisseau painting is surprising, magical, filled with meaning; under his flat surfaces is a significant dimension of depth. If you want to see what the world looks like to a shaman, look at a Morrisseau painting.