I was at a recent meeting of the Borough Council for my neighbourhood of Côte-des-neiges/Notre-dame-de-Grâce, at which the council approved a new mural for a building up in the northern wastelands of Snowdon (at least I think that’s where it is). The counsellor for that district, Marvin Rotrand, made a point of saying that he would approve the mural since the building owner had approved it, but that he didn’t think much of it as a piece of art.
Rotrand went on to say something to this effect: “It’s kind of like that mural on Sherbrooke Street west – I don’t think it’s too impressive. I’m not sure why people call it art.” Here’s the mural that Rotrand was referring to – just three blocks over from Kensington church:
As with the graffiti art (word art) on the side wall of the Akhavan market, the group that completed this mural has very real artistic skill. It is a carefully executed urban-art variation on the works of Alphonse Mucha, a Czech artist from the first part of the last century who inspired the art nouveau movement. Mucha’s own style is almost immediately recognizable, and is recognizable in this mural. Much of his work has a definite ‘decorative arts’ feel – as if it belongs on a large panel in a living room or in lobby of a theatre in the early to mid 1900’s. The team that created the mural (the A’Shop) did their research and went successfully beyond what was a natural fit for them in terms of style and content.
The birds and produce in this mural are consistent with the art nouveau interest in the natural world – and the artists have tried to create a greater link to NDG by way of the apartment buildings (with skylights) that are imbedded in the mural. (The farm produce also fits the history of the neighbourhood, since this whole area was farmland not too long ago.) The artists have also attempted to make a link with the neighbourhood by giving the mural the name “Our lady of grace” – which, of course, is the meaning of Notre-dame-de-Grâce.
In fact, at the Borough council meeting that I attended, Peter McQueen, who is a counsellor in NDG, defended the beauty of the mural against Marvin Rotrand and referred to it by that title, “our lady of grace.”
It is on precisely the name given to the mural, however, that the attempted link to the neighbourhood fails from my point of view. Why not just have a Mucha-inspired mural brightening a formerly less than bland corner of the neighbourhood – even if the mural is not exactly to the taste of some (Mr. Rotrand!). Why attempt to give a deeper, spiritual meaning to it? Why forcefully appropriate the substance of another tradition without acknowledgment or explanation.
“Our lady of grace”, of course, is none other that Mary within the Roman Catholic tradition – with this title flowing loosely from the words of the angel to Mary in Luke 1:28: “Greetings favoured one, the Lord is with you.” Without taking sides in the long history of protestant and Roman Catholic debate on the identity of Mary, it is evident that Mary the mother of Jesus has had a significant place within the history of God with us – and has had an appropriate place of prominence within the history of faith and theology. The name of the neighbourhood itself owes to Mary’s place within the Christian tradition, and to the Christian faith that has shaped the neighbourhood and city.
It seems to me that the appropriation of Mary for vague spiritual purpose reflects the rather empty nature of modern culture. There is a reaching, not toward a meaningful synthesis of what we understand to be true about the human, about community, about God, and about creation, but a reaching toward anything that gives an of impression of depth and substance. This is not to say that Mucha didn’t have his own clear (platonist? spiritualist?) understanding of the world and of the arts – and the woman in this piece reflects these tendencies (she looks up, and away, into some otherworldly reality, largely losing touch with the concrete that surrounds her). In fact, given Mucha’s own spiritual assumptions, one is left to wonder whether this mural doesn’t represents a kind of escapism – which does not take the neighbourhood, Mary, daily life, or community existence as seriously as they need to be taken.
The mural remains a bright and very-well executed piece of urban art. Of that there is little doubt – and as I have said above, it much improves the blank, five-story wall that used to stare at us. It is also much preferable to a five-story advertisement for Pizza Pizza or Air Canada. But the question that needs to be answered, and remains unanswered, is as follows: “What’s the narrative?” Or, “What does it mean?”