To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Jean McEwen (1923-1999), the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is paying homage to this Montreal great by presenting a selection of his works acquired mainly over the last two decades. The number and importance of these works donated by the artist’s family and various local collectors attest to the special connection between McEwen and the MMFA.

By displaying works that span McEwen’s near 50-year career, the exhibition underlines the understated monumentality, continuity and haunting beauty of his practice. The artist used his hands to apply paint directly on the canvas, yet his paintings nonetheless eschew the drama of gesture, exploiting instead the intensity and expressiveness of colour.

The numerous successive layers of paint simultaneously suggest a rugged and polished surface, renouncing the gesticulative character of impasto and the optical effects of colour juxtapositions. The paintings retain a geometric structure and potent symbolic form that eludes specific meaning.

A self-taught painter born in Montreal, Jean McEwen (1923-1999) exhibited his art for the first time in 1949 at the MMFA’s 66th Annual Spring Exhibition. His early development was shaped by a meeting with fellow Quebec painter Paul-Émile Borduas as well as a trip to Paris in 1951, where he met Jean-Paul Riopelle and was introduced to prominent avant-garde painters, including most significantly Sam Francis. His return to the Montreal scene coincided with a crucial moment in the history of abstract painting: in 1955, he was part of the Espace 55 exhibition at the MMFA as well as the first collective exhibition of the Galerie actuelle. McEwen would subsequently join the Association des artistes non figuratifs de Montréal (AANFM).