Past Exhibitions / Destinies: Louis Boudreault
DESTINIES | Louis Boudreault
By Edward Lucie-Smith
In contemporary art we are now well accustomed to images that celebrate equally contemporary heroes and heroines of all kinds. Andy Warhol’s images of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Chairman Mao are cases in point. So too are Chuck Close’s giant portraits of some of his contemporaries – the composer Philip Glass, for example – though he insists that he paints them simply because he happens to know and be known to them.
We are also familiar with the fascination of old photographs. We tend to find old photographs of children particularly touching, for several reasons. Both the clothes and the actual physical attitudes of their small subjects evoke past epochs more powerfully than any description in words. The photographs of the seven year old Alice Liddell, made in 1860 by Charles Dodgson, summon up an image of Victorian childhood that is reinforced, but not in essentially changed, by the fact that we know that the Alice portrayed by the camera is the eponymous heroine of the children’s classics written by Dodgson and published under the pseudonym ‘Lewis Carroll’.
Photographs of children from bygone epochs also lead us to think about the adults they became.
Sometimes, when the subject is famous, we think we know the full story. On other occasions, when the child is anonymous, we have to speculate. Did this clear-eyed young boy, photographed in Britain c. 1900, go on to become one of the millions of young soldiers who died in the First World War? Or did he survive to live through the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps dying in the mid-1970s as a respected father and grandfather?
Louis Boudreault, with great originality, turns these speculations upside down. Time flows, not forwards, but directly backwards. How, he asks, did familiar culture heroes and major political figures look when they were very young? Here is the infant Picasso, the infant Chairman Mao, the infant John F. Kennedy, even the infant Edith Piaf. The portraits are derived from photographic originals. It reminds me of some sentences by Vladimir Nabokov, in Speak, Memory, his volume of memoirs. “I witness with pleasure [Nabokov says] the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.” And then, in the next paragraph: “Through a tremulous prism, I distinguish the features of relatives and familiars, mute lips serenely moving in forgotten speech.”
Technically the images are extremely elaborate – layer after layer of paper collage, with additions in
graphite, charcoal and pastel, laid on a wooden panel. The finished works are often quite large – as much as 6 or 7 feet tall, thus very much larger than the snapshots or small cabinet photographs they seem to evoke. This huge enlargement of a photographic portrait image seems to link them to the work of Chuck Close, a celebrated North American artist of an earlier generation. Close has often asserted that the images he makes, though recognizable likenesses, both of himself and of people he knows, are not to be thought of as portraits in any conventional sense, but simply as images of heads – something which raises issue I will try to discuss a little later in this essay.
First, I think, it is useful to discuss the ambiguity of Boudreault’s actual technique. Collage is, much more so perhaps than painting or drawing, a directly additive process. Yet Boudreault would also like it to be seen as a method of stripping away – removing layers, to reach a long buried image. This impression is reinforced by a piece of sleight of hand. The sides of the panels are bound with paper strips. These suggest that the image manifests itself from layer on layer of paper – that is, if we peeled off the image we see, then there would be another one beneath it, then yet another, but in this case progressing into the future rather than into the past. Peel away enough layers, and you would find the subject of the portrait as he or she was in maturity, or even in extreme old age. The fiction is that more layers you take away, the closer you get to the celebrated individual, as the whole world knew him or her.
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