This year, in pursuit of my Art Ed. degree… For ARTH 370 – Montreal Metro Visit Report
Originally aiming to experience a different piece of art in the Lionel Groulx Metro, this piece jumped out at me while on-route. I had to stop and look at it, and realized that I was experiencing it spontaneously, so I recorded my observations. An overview of the transcript will be part of my Formal Description. Because I was experiencing the piece, I chose to incorporate my impressions in these observations, as opposed to separating them in another section of this paper. The observations were written as gathered; I entered the space and circled around the sculpture many times. I allowed impressions to come to me, and chose not to direct my observations chronologically.
“L’Arbre de Vie” by Joseph Rifesser was carved in 1965, stands 4.9 m high and 2.1 m wide. It’s carved from a single 150 year old walnut tree. According to the bios, it represented the five races of man from the five continents. Originally seen in Montreal in front of the United Nations Pavilion at Expo ’67. It was meant to add symbolism to the accomplishments and commitments of the UN. It was surrounded by the round pavilion and a ring of nation flags. It was moved to the Lionel-Groulx metro after the Expo was closed. As the Lionel-Groulx station connects two of our metro lines that give access to most of the city districts, and is in a very diverse and multi-ethnic neighbourhood, it feels right that it was placed there. The artist was known for his Gothic style of religious iconography, and I didn’t find a clear indication as to why he was chosen for this commission.
Formal Description, Observations, and Interpretations
- I entered the platform with the sculpture on my left and above on the next level. When I looked up, I was intrigued by how the lighting from that perspective cast shadows that slightly hid the faces, but drew me in to the whole structure to see more. This could be a comment on my curiosity more than an expression of the artists voice.
- From the bottom of the stairs, it first appeared as if the wood of the sculpture was burnt and twisted. It created an interesting tension and gave the feeling that some pain was emanating from the piece. As I got closer, I saw it could have been carved from a live tree then cut and mounted on the multilayered plywood base.
- It felt like the base was cut, the lower branches trimmed off, the roots severed, then the upper branches and the upper stumps carved while the wood was still very wet. I couldn’t say for sure in what order the carving and cutting took place, but there was evidence around the tree of different carving and sanding methods and from the roughness of many of the surfaces around the roots and faces, it appeared to have been carved by hatchet.
- The upper part had three stumps, upon which the faces were carved. As I walked around it quickly, I got the feeling that each stump had multiple faces on it, but in counting them, found only five in total, all facing and looking in different directions around the metro station.
- About midway up the sculpture, there were smoothed areas where lower branches may have been and I saw the branches’ tree rings in these smoothed areas. There was also a ring of dents around the tree at this level, possibly from the chain or cable that held it suspended during transportation.
- On closer inspection, I saw lots of graffiti carved into the trunk. Some must have been years old, as they are worn smooth to the touch and filled with the oily & dusty grime that seems to cover most of the structure. Possibly from a combination of air pollution and the touching of human hands.
- After walking around it, I stopped to put words to a feeling I was getting from the sculpture. At close proximity, looking up at the faces, it felt massively heavy, enormous, imposing, and looming. The darkened and aged surface added weight to this impression as well. It didn’t look dry, as I expected an old piece of wood to look. Rather it looked very dense with moisture, but not moisture exactly; more like it was filled with iron or oil. It also had a slight oily smell to it.
- The stern faces added to the feeling that it was more than just watching, it was trying to reminding us of something. There was a Russian Avant-Guard feel to their severe stares. Each face was distinct and I really noticed the differences after several circuits of the tree. There were representing different ethnic groups, but possibly not those making up the citizens of Montreal. To me they looked overly stereotypical. The Asian with long whiskers, chilled caucasian of germanic stock, the warrior African, the native American with grizzled wrinkles of wisdom, and an odd face that looked almost Aboriginal of Australia. Remarkably all are faces of men. It wasn’t clear as to any overt meaning given in the placing of each face, however, the white face did seem to stand higher than the others and appeared to be looking upwards. The Asian and Native American faces are both looking down and I felt a sadness from them. The other two faces are looking straight ahead of themselves and gave me the impression of pride and fear, as well as a curious feeling that they might be avoiding eye contact with the spectator. Could this be some bigotry from the artist, or a subtle comment on those who commissioned him to make it?
- A brief note on the plywood base, it seemed to be made of dozens of layers of plywood, laminated together and carved to imitate the form of a small mound for the tree to stand on, and smoothed and polished to highlight the appearance of the rings of a tree. It was very smooth to the touch, varnished, but disgustingly dirty. I saw where people have put their feet on it and dropped sticky liquids.
- The tree was moored to the base with massive iron screws that were equally dirty, but I assumed oiled to prevent rusting. One of these screws appeared to have been removed, possibly stolen . Their metal was also smooth to the touch and I guessed many people rubbed them like I did. There was some breakage near the base, as some cleaner wood was visible. I wonder if it was showing signs of drying out.
- As I touched the wood, there was a little warmth coming from it. I pulled my hand away and saw that there was a lot more sooty dirt on it than I saw with my eyes. The dirty surface adds an almost industrial feel to the whole image, and yet there was a distinctly African styling to it as well. That feeling may have come from my interest in the darkened wood used for Nigerian & Congolese masks and icons. The face carvings also show an influence from these African masks.
- Looking at the roots, I noticed at least one must have had some parasitic disease that caused the tumorous burl to form at the base of the sculpture. The base looks to be cut just above the majority of roots and I saw a few remnants of the major roots.
- The faces were racially distinct and I recorded how amazing it was to see such clear differences all together. In this, the sculpture reminded me of one of the many joys of Montreal, its diversity all joined together from the root source of the city. Each face had a similar hand carving style, mainly sanded smooth, but some rougher and less refined. The Native American face seemed to be looking down into the Metro station, the Asian face below it, looked down at the floor, the caucasian looked at the side wall. One of the faces seemed to have been damaged and its ear had fallen off.
- The trunk of the tree was twisting in a clockwise direction and gave me the impression it was trying to twist itself off the base. Some of the cracks formed by this twisting ran up through the faces, and in the case of the aboriginal face, added even more gravity to its expression, as if it were a scarred warrior who wore his pain very visibly.
- There weren’t a lot of people in the station when I went, but I noticed one couple stop to read the plaque and comment of the sculpture. They stopped for less than two minutes. Of all the other people who walked by, very, very few even glanced at the sculpture. Most appeared to not even notice it. I related to this phenomenon, because when I started to research all the different pieces in our Metro system, I was stuck at how many I actually remembered seeing, but I needed to push my memory to recall where I saw them and even more to remember how they felt. We were blessed with art all around us, but don’t always recognize it as such. I wondered why.
Joseph Rifesser in Metro de Montreal: https://www.metrodemontreal.com/art/rifesser/index.html
Joseph Rifesser Art Public: https://artpublicmontreal.ca/en/artiste/rifesser-joseph-2/
Statue In Metro Lionel-Groulx: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0hpA3pS7T8
Joseph Rifesser ArtInfo: https://www.blouinartinfo.com/artists/joseph-rifesser-154224
United Nations Pavililion: https://www.westland.net/expo67/map-docs/unitednations.htm
African Sculpture: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_sculpture