Métis vision hangs in Rideau Hall

Governor General David Johnston, left, and John Ralston Saul unveil artist Kent Monkman's portrait Saul. (Photos: Julie Oliver)

Those who wondered if the official portrait of John Ralston Saul would show him being spanked by an Aboriginal man will be disappointed. Or relieved.

The portrait of Saul, unveiled Monday at Rideau Hall, is by Métis Cree artist Kent Monkman, who is one of the more provocative names in Canadian art today. Monkman’s alter-ego on the performance side of his multi-disciplinary work is named Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.

Wolfe's Haircut

The commission raised eyebrows, as Monkman’s paintings are often toyful and mythological portrayals of gay sex, between Aboriginals and white soldiers. Wolfe’s Haircut, from 2011, shows a naked Aboriginal brave in hot-pink pumps trimming the golden locks of a naked, sleeping white officer — Wolfe, presumably. The portrait of Saul is not like that, and not just because he doesn’t have the hair.

Monkman set aside the strands of cubism and surrealism that he weaves into his paintings — no golden beavers ascending to the heavens here — and created what at first glance seems for him an atypically conventional portrait, though one that is still recognizably his. Even with John Ralston Saul as a subject for a portrait to hang on the hallowed walls of our vice-regal Rideau Hall, Monkman thwarts our expectations and, in doing so, exposes our preconceptions.

Most Canadians, if they think of Saul at all, probably imagine him as a vintage blueblood, a Rosedale intellectual forever fussing over book drafts between cocktails at swish fundraisers. In fact, when his wife Adrienne Clarkson was governor-general they traveled the north extensively, and they were adventurous. That’s why Monkman sets him high above the rocky shores of Pond Inlet on Baffin Island, confidently setting a kayak into the frozen waters like a heroic figure of romanticism.

John Ralston Saul, right, chats with Laureen Harper and the artist Kent Monkman. (Photo: Julie Oliver)

The portrait is “deeply ironic,” Saul says in his remarks during the unveiling, attended by the prime minister’s wife Laureen Harper, National Gallery director Marc Mayer and about 100 others. “There’s a bit of German romanticism in there somewhere.”

Most important, he says, is the Aboriginal perspective of Canada in the painting, this vast, vibrant and interconnected place revealed in the artist’s “new and old way of looking at the country, indigenous in every way.”

And no spanking, I note to Monkman in an interview after the ceremony. He laughs and says, “It’s a different price to spank, or be spanked.”

In his official remarks Monkman thanked Saul and Clarkson for seeing beyond the “often saucy and provocative layers” of his work to “dialogue between two cultures and two artistic traditions.”

Then, alluding to the 800-pound buffalo in the room, he revealed, “I pitched John a couple of other perhaps more saucy ideas that he graciously and politely declined. I won’t tell you exactly what they were but suffice to say I’ve had to reduce the mischief in those ideas.”

Though not too much reduced. Mischief is to art as spice is to food, and Monkman’s portrait will up the flavour among the portraits of vice-regal spouses in Rideau Hall’s lower level, where the thwarting of convention has been regrettably ignored since the tradition of spousal portraits was set a century ago. (The spouses, or at least somebody other than taxpayers, must pay for the portraits.)

The official portraits of governors-general upstairs have a few contemporary high points — Jean-Paul Lemieux’s Canadian Gothic portrait of Jules and Gabrielle Léger, and Cleeve Horne’s wonderfully icy, angular portrait of Jeanne Sauvé. The official portrait of Adrienne Clarkson, by Mary Pratt, also stands out, literally. The former governor-general is shown standing out in the snow, dressed in a long, fur-trimmed, cerulean parka, the embodiment of new and old Canada brought together.

“I believe very strongly that there’s another way of seeing the country, through Aboriginal eyes,” Saul said in an interview. Who better to show the way than Monkman, he said. “He has a very sharp and original eye.”

Now Monkman’s the first Métis artist to have a portrait in Rideau Hall, and it’s a painting of a white man from the south shown amongst the Aboriginal people of the north, the latest example of the artist’s peaceful, harmonious vision. A job well done, and nobody got spanked.

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