WONDERFUL WALL

It had to be eye-catching. It had to be big. It had to be portable, and tell visitors to the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair how Canadians live. Here’s how this Montreal sculptor created a unique work of art.

Louis Archambault's,BILL STEPHENSON January 18 1958

WONDERFUL WALL

It had to be eye-catching. It had to be big. It had to be portable, and tell visitors to the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair how Canadians live. Here’s how this Montreal sculptor created a unique work of art.

Louis Archambault's,BILL STEPHENSON January 18 1958

WONDERFUL WALL

It had to be eye-catching. It had to be big. It had to be portable, and tell visitors to the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair how Canadians live. Here’s how this Montreal sculptor created a unique work of art.

Louis Archambault's

BILL STEPHENSON

Walls, for defense or decoration, have never been the popular institution in Canada that they once were to the Romans, the Lowland Dutch or to modern Mexican muralists. Either we were too practical to erect walls against the enemy or elements when it was usually easier just to move to a safer site, or we preferred other surfaces on

which to record our art endeavors.

This indifference to walls is likely to vanish as a consequence of a wonderful structure-—not quite a wall, but not exactly a fence, mural, screen, barrier or guide rail either—that is currently being fashioned by a forty-two-year-old Montreal sculptor named Louis Archambault. It is an airy creation of gleaming aluminum and rough red tiles, on whose broad surfaces are carved, scratched and painted with masterful simplicity some of the most beautiful representations of life as it abounds in Canada today.

This structure will be seen first at the entrance to the modest, million-dollar Canadian Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Elere. it is confidently hoped, the wall will offset in eyecatching splendor the sheer bulk of the thirtyfive-million-dollar Russian exhibit next door.

After the fair closes in September the structure will be dismantled and returned to Canada, where its beauty will be on permanent display as a glassed-in section of the side of the new National Gallery on Elgin Street in Ottawa.

The expectations and plans for a work that is not yet finished illustrate some of the excitement in Canadian art circles over what has come to be known simply as “The Wall." Its scope and size (a hundred and twenty-five feet long by ten feet high) make it certainly the largest work of its kind ever produced in Canada, or anywhere else for that matter. Its ingenious matching of terra cotta (literally, baked earth) to anodized aluminum. representing the ideal marriage of art and engineering, seems peculiarly apt for a New World exhibit in this Old World capital.

The fact that it is the first mobile mural of this sort ever to be tackled either by Canada or sculptor Archambault is offset by another equally startling statistic: The Wall will be seen and judged by a goodly portion of the fair’s expected thirty million visitors, probably the largest audience ever to view any Canadian art work other than the beauteous Barbara Ann Scott.

The Wall was not Archambault’s idea. It originated one day in 1955 in the mind of Charles Greenberg, an Ottawa architect. He had been engaged by the Exhibition Branch of the Department of Trade and Commerce in Ottawa, which handles Canada's exhibition commitments abroad, to design the Canadian pavilion at Brussels, and though he had roughed out the general shape of the building itself, he felt there was still something lacking.

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What was needed was something to attract and direct the stream of guests to the wonders of the building's interior exhibits. Something glamorous like a Mountie, yet bigger, more impressive from a distance even to color-blind people, prettier if possible, and —oh yes—it must speak till languages. This paragon of all the graces must fulfil yet another function: discourage visitors from blundering into the administrative offices under the corner of the pavilion.

The specifications themselves dictated the nature of the required structure.

“What we need is a wall,” Greenberg told his superiors, "a big, beautiful wall.”

For various reasons, it was felt the wall must be designed and built in C anada, and shipped overseas in sections. The theme of the art work to adorn the front of the structure, when it was finally spelled out in November 1955, was as massive as the wall itself.

“ I he subject of the mural will portray the ten provinces of Canada, with a special section devoted to each province,” ran the specifications. “The treatment should be such as to convey to the audience (without words) some of the character of each province.”

There were other limitations imposed on the wall besides those of height, length, shape, portability. The outside third was to be in bas-relief and represent the people of Canada. The two thirds inside the building should be incised work, but must cover the resources of Canada.

It was Dr. Alan Jarvis, director of the National Gallery, who suggested that a closed competition be held to find the right man for the job. Closed competitions are those in which only a few artists of proven ability are invited to submit sketches, and are paid a fee (five hundred dollars in this case) for their efforts. Jarvis pointed out it was vital that contestants have not only the time and working space for the mammoth job. but a w ide experience with metals, concrete, plastics. waterproof paints and other materials likely to be needed. This narrowed the field tremendously.

Only men were invited to enter for two reasons: the arduous physical labor certain to be involved (“I found muscles I didn't know 1 had when I started hefting these tiles around,” says Archambault); and the only two women with the youth, flair and versatility considered prerequisites were sculptors in wood.

Each artist was asked to choose one or more collaborators to help him with the sketch and finished product, if necessary. Even these collaborators had to be of a competence acceptable to the judges. All the competitors would then be brought to Ottawa to study how their unborn masterpieces must fit into the pattern of the whole Canadian exhibit.

"This might sound pretty high-handed and autocratic,” explains Donald Buchanan, codirector of the National Gallery, “but we were under no illusions as to the difficulty of the job or the tough league in which it must be exhibited. We wanted the best possible wall, and this seemed the best way to get it.”

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One artist was the limit. "I'd have come to blows with another'

Thus it came about that almost a year later Louis Archambault, of St. Lambert, Que., found himself credited with twentyfive thousand dollars in federal funds. This sum, though seemingly substantial, must cover not only his fee and that of his collaborator, a brilliant, thirty-threey ear-old Montreal industrial designer named Norman Slater; it must also pay for all the materials to produce their great mural, which had been chosen over ihe submissions of teams headed by Bruno Bobak and B. C. Binning, both of Vancouver.

Charles Comfort, the Toronto paintersculptor, had withdrawn because he could not obtain the collaborator he wanted. Sculptor Julien Hebert, of Montreal. had to quit in mid-contest owing io ill-health.

A five-man jury of art experts had been captivated by the dynamic beauty that blazed even out of the twenty-foot paper model Archambault and Slater showed them. Besides, it was portable, and solid in spite of its slim lines, and would improve in beauty as time imparted a patina to the metal.

Archambault was the only one who had chosen an industrial designer to help him. Slater's flair, he felt, was apparent not only in his buildings, but in his hand-made furniture, his sensitive photo murals, the instinct for pattern and rhythm in everything he touched. Archambault gives another reason why 'íe chose the industrial designer:

“I’d have come to blows with another artist in a week,” he declares.

Whether he would have come to blows, or even harsh words, with another artist is doubtful. For though Archambault has the fire and temperament of his ancestors (his father is French-Canadian, his mother of Irish descent) he hoards it all for his work. To the world he is a picture of serenity, culture and neatness astounding in a profession where to be cluttered and untidy is considered normal.

Archambault’s studio, which doubles as the living room and kitchen of his home, is immaculate. His French and his English, though both flecked with the pleasant tang of Quebec, are very good. He winces at a grammatical error in French as he might at a slur on his w-ife’s superb cooking. His tidiness extends to his art; he loves drawing and water color but dislikes the “messiness” of oils. In spite of these seemingly austere characteristics, he is a charming host or guest, eloquent with ideas on everything from sculpture for children’s playgrounds to the best brand of local beer.

Archambault is a native Montrealer and a graduate of the University of Montreal, whose rigid Jesuit teachers—he is delighted to think—would be amazed to learn they had produced a free-wheeling artist. He holds a diploma in ceramics from L’Ecole des Beaux - Arts, Montreal. At the time of winning the commission for the wall, he was already well known in his native province and in England, though other Canadians probably knew little about him.

He had won top honors for sculpture

and applied arts respectively in the 1949 and 1951 Concours Artistique de la Province de Québec. The rules were later changed so that no one can win in two categories today. In 1953 Archambault had won a government fellowship for a

year’s study in Europe, with his wile and two sons. In 1956 the National Gallery recognized his worth by selecting six of his works for exhibition at the 28 Biennale (Exposition) in Venice. His big break however, undoubtedly came in 1950

when he alone, of all the sculptors in Canada, was asked to submit models for works suitable for showing outdoors in Battersea Park in London during the 1951 Festival of Britain Their choice was one of his favorite creations, a tenfoot, jaunty “Iron Bird” of a species never before glimpsed by any birdwatcher.

The Bird touched a responsive chord in austerity-gripped British hearts. They adored it. Children clambered up its powerful legs, old men contentedly read their newspapers with The Bird peering sightlessly over their shoulders. David Low. the famous British cartoonist, drew a satirical panel about it. Under the heading, “New Sculpture For an Anglo-American Park,” it showed The Bird’s oddly ostrich-like head buried in a pile of sand. It was easily the most popular bird in England.

The experience with The Bird, though rewarding, was of no use to him now with The Wall. For having committed himself to the terra cotta slabs, which had delighted the judging committee, he now had to find a way to make them. Regular terra cotta in the sizes he had indicated would buckle Slater’s aluminum struts. He had to find a formula for a new, lighter terra cotta that could be baked hard without cracking. And he had to find it quickly, for all else depended on it.

in this he was treading on ground untouched even by the ancient Chinese and Etruscan masters of terra cotta. Archambault undoubtedly had his moments of despair, his cries of triumph. But he speaks lightly of them.

“This period was a tense one because time was limited,” he explains. “In one load (of tiles) I had a moisture explosion. Two or three loads cracked owing to wrong proportions. Two or three loads warped excessively. Since each test was made in full scale (i.e., a preliminary drying of up to three weeks) it meant the loss of a certain number of panels."

Thus laconically does Archambault dismiss four months of intense toil.

The actual drawing and shaping of the new clay, worked out first on miles of paper, have also been accomplished with an absence of furore. In the last year he has had to do more than two hundred separate tiles.

In the outer sculptured section on the People of Canada, Archambault is working in his own field. But the Resources part is new to him. He must have sweated over how to express, sav. Communications, in a novel but artistic manner. He undoubtedly writhed over decorative expressions for drab factories and mines. The neat piles of fragments at the side of his home, or the back-yard walk literally paved with beautiful—but not quite beautiful enough — tiles, testify to bis inner turmoil.

His acquaintances are not surprised that he shows little effect of what must be the greatest strain ever put on him. They believe that this is not due to an inhuman isolation or lack of warmth, but

to lack of fear. To his sculpture students at the Beaux-Arts, or his close friends, painter Jacques de Tonnancour or art critic Robert Ayre, it is axiomatic that Louis will try anything, whether it is in his own field or not. ("Especially if it’s not in his field,” said one of his students.)

He can’t tell a canary from a gull, yet he is famous for his huge plaster and metal birds. One of his ceramic masks was presented as the Montreal Critics' Circle first annual award to Jean Gascon, director of Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, but Archambault is not above doing a couple of hundred others for sale as Christmas presents. His association with Slater has already given him the inspiration for an unusual aluminum fountain for the new Ottawa C ity Hall.

He believes that everybody benefits when an artist or sculptor turns his talents to other types of work, as for example Montreal painter Alfred Pellan designing perfume bottles or Picasso doing plates. “There would be less talk of not being able to make a living trom art if they did,” he has declared.

His neighbors know who Archambault is, from the iron moose, unique plaster fountain and other works he put out in his back yard to make room for The Wall. But they pay little attention to his present endeavors. He thinks the> have got over what he felt was their dislike of “that shack” he put up (and still inhabits) when he moved in six years ago. Last summer, a St. Lambert women’s group even asked it they might put his house on a guided-tour list they were planning. Though touched, he regretfully declined.

Archambault will go to Brussels to assemble The Wall, and may even be there to dismantle and ship it back when the fair is over. This is not due to any lack of confidence in the packing ability of the fair's staff, but to a caution engendered of experience. In late 1956 his large plaster work. “I.a Famille,’ returned from its Venice triumphs-—in several more pieces than when it had left. As Archambault and National Gallery director Jarvis stood there surveying the damage, Jarvis desperately tried to Lim of some word of apology or sympathy to offer. Archambault, however, seemed un perturbed.

“Well, well.” he observed, mild! “We’ve certainly learned something today. Never ship a big plaster work across the ocean. Thank goodness The Wall is made of sterner stuff.” ★