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Renowned photographer Monianne took a painterly approach to her art – The Globe and Mail



Monianne in front of what used to be part of the Holt Renfrew building on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal on May 31, 2017.


Bob Oré likes to recount a fight he lost with the photographer Monianne in the 1980s, when she was preparing one of Mr. Oré’s catalogues of fashion imports in Montreal. She would shoot the Jean-Claude raincoats from Paris, she announced, in Mount Royal Cemetery.

“I said: ‘Are you crazy? Absolutely not; it’s sacrilegious,’” Mr. Oré recalled from his home in Los Angeles. But Monianne stood her ground. The result – a complicated shot involving numerous models with umbrellas – was “like a Manet painting,” he said. “It was perfect! I still love that picture, because it has such a joy of humanity. We have such a short life, and this is the proof that you can be happy even in a graveyard; even in rain; that life is bigger than all that.”

That story captures much of what made Monianne a revered figure in Canada’s fashion world and beyond: her painterly approach to photography – the French impressionists, with their soft edges, were a particular inspiration; her uncompromising fidelity to her vision; her storyteller’s imagination; and her insistence on photographing outdoors, trading the control and convenience of a studio for the thrill of “chasing the wandering light,” as a 1989 cover story on her in Applied Arts Quarterly phrased it.

The ability to find beauty, creativity and joy in dark places that Mr. Oré perceived in the cemetery photo is also emblematic of Monianne herself – not only a brilliant artist, but also a woman who struggled with depression for most of her life, and from her mid-30s, a single mother with a disability.

“She was like a heroine out of a Dickens novel, with a gift for surmounting the odds, and a genuine flair for the dramatic,” said director Jon Michaelson, who was romantically involved with Monianne in the late 1970s. “An aristocrat of the spirit who attracted other free spirits to her.”

Monianne died at her home in Toronto on June 25, at age 79. She chose a medically assisted death.

“She was a phenomenal artist,” said Montreal make-up artist Jacques-Lee Pelletier, who worked with Monianne in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “She had a gift to be able to compose incredible pictures in circumstances that for everybody else were a constraint. For most people, shooting outside was hell, because you don’t control the light, the clouds, the rain. But she would be like a fish in water. She did magic. She had a gift for translating the feelings of the soul.”

Monianne told the Applied Arts Quarterly in 1989, “I like a photograph to be like a still from a movie that tells a story, to which the background gives intelligence.” In unpublished memoirs, excerpts of which her son, Jonathan Monianne Barratt, shared over the phone, she wrote, “Just as I have always loved working with the subtlety of light, I searched for subjects that have subtlety of character, models with more than one dimension. […] If, as they say, a photograph is worth 1,000 words, you’d better have something to say.”

For this reason, she would seek out dancers and actors for her models; one of her favourites, ballerina Linda Dagenais, went on to become a top European fashion model and a favourite of Paris photographer Sarah Moon, with whose work Monianne’s is often compared. Monianne was also known to approach interesting-looking women on the street and invite them to do test shots; some of them, she wrote, would go on to have major modelling careers.

Women also appreciated the female gaze that Monianne brought to a patriarchal industry. In a conversation last month, she told this writer that she did not give her models verbal cues that would steer them into clichés of male desire and sexual objectification. Likewise, in her memoirs she wrote that as a woman, she was incensed by the way “so many magazines and fashion shows use women to pose like plastic mannequins in a store window. They are just clotheshorses.”

The actor Anthony Forrest became another of Monianne’s modelling discoveries around 1970, and the two became lifelong friends. “She was all about the light,” Mr. Forrest said over the phone from Berlin. “This was her classic old-school training in photography: learning how to light and how light affects photography. Today’s [digital] photographers can shoot and shoot and shoot. She was using a Hasselblad in those days. She had her own darkroom, and did all her own black and white processing. Her work was really meticulous, painstaking. … She would bring out the best in people.”

Linda Dagenais for Antonella-Oré (1977).


Monianne was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Sept. 22, 1941, but Manchester, England, was the setting for most of what she later described as “a very gloomy childhood”– gloomy enough that she declined to use a family name for the rest of her life, Mr. Barratt said.

At 17, after graduating from high school, she became a reporter with the Salford City Reporter. But she soon realized she lacked the requisite toughness. She had, however, been inspired by the photographer who accompanied her on assignments, and moved to the steel town of Sheffield in hopes of learning that trade. Seeing a shop sign for “J.A. Coulthard, photographer” one day, she walked in and asked the proprietor to take her on as an apprentice. He said yes.

James Coulthard turned out to be “one of the best industrial photographers, and the greatest teacher you could ever have,” Monianne wrote in her memoirs. Her three-year apprenticeship opened up “a whole new world. […] I have never been bored since.”

In Sheffield, Monianne honed her craft largely through industrial photography. When she returned to Manchester in 1964, her work expanded to include photographing the Beatles and other bands, Mr. Barratt said.

In 1969, she immigrated to Canada, hoping to establish herself in Montreal as a fashion photographer. By 1973 she was the one being cold-called, as when Mr. Oré showed up unannounced one evening at her studio, asking to see her work and hiring her on the spot.

Her clients would eventually include Eaton’s, Air Canada and Israel’s tourism board, as well as such magazines as Votre Beauté, Nous, Clin d’Oeil, and Élan.

She was always larger than the commission – basing an assignment for Eaton’s on paintings by Degas; turning a catalogue shoot in Sardinia into a ravishing carnet de voyage, on one occasion hauling Ms. Dagenais out of bed at sunrise to catch a fleeting shadow effect that matched a black and white dress that Monianne had previously deemed unpromising. When Montreal’s Nous magazine commissioned a male nude photograph, she produced a stunning winged Icarus figure. Her work for Votre Beauté included a series of portraits of well-known Quebec women, each photo inspired by and paired with a painting by Quebec artist Christiane Frenay.

Monianne was unstoppable once she had an idea, routinely paying out of pocket for whatever she felt was needed – props, locations, drivers, Mr. Barratt said in an e-mail exchange. “When she had to get the shot she was a dictator issuing martial law, recognizing no limits in the pursuit of her artistic vision.”

Monianne’s live-in studio on Sherbrooke Street West, above a Holt Renfrew fashion store, was close to the Ritz-Carlton, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and “the city’s best bars, clubs and restaurants,” Mr. Forrest said. “So if you were in Montreal, whether you were working with her or not, she was a port of call.”

She was in her mid-30s when signs of neurological problems appeared. At first Mr. Forrest attributed her walking problems to her stiletto-heeled Charles Jourdan shoes. But by 1977 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That same year she gave birth to her son, whom she would raise as a single mother after her romance with his father, Mr. Michaelson, ended.

A long, relentless progression of adaptations began as the disease took its course. When her right hand became paralyzed, she tried using a tripod with cable and release. But when people suggested that she abandon the outdoors for studio portraiture, she replied, “That’s not what I do.” When her beloved Hasselblads became too heavy for her to use, she switched to 35 mm. When she could no longer nimbly manoeuvre into position for shots, she replaced her fixed lens with a zoom.

In 1980, using the proceeds of the sale of her cameras, she took her young son to Scotland for what would be a five-year stay in the picturesque towns of Dunbar, then Gifford.

“Even though she was already bound to a scooter, she used to lead me on wonderful walks through the countryside by following abandoned railroad tracks,” Mr. Barratt recalled. “She never let her disability disable her, because she always found another way to go.”

Monianne credited experimental DNA treatments in Paris, paid for by Mr. Oré, with remissions that enabled her to work, albeit on a reduced scale. In 1985 she returned to Montreal, and thanks to financial support from friends and clients was able to enroll her gifted son in Lower Canada College.

In 1994 she moved to Toronto, initially sharing a house with Mr. Forrest and his young family. In her motorized scooter she explored the city’s waterfront, pouring her creative energies into nature photography.

When she could no longer hold a 35 mm camera, she reluctantly switched to digital; eventually she had to hold that upside down, using the weight of the camera on her thumb to operate the shutter. By the mid-2000s, she required physical assistance from her caregivers to take photos. When even the digital camera became too much for her to hold, she made a final switch to an iPhone. Despite her initial resistance, she avidly embraced digital editing technology.

In 2007 she was featured on the CBC television series Moving On. At the time, Monianne was trying to establish a greeting card business for her nature photography, but she confronted what she called the “disability ghetto,” where “you’re not treated as a serious businessperson.”

For the past five years or so of her life, Mr. Barratt said, she had been unable to operate even an iPhone, but would issue precise instructions to her assistant for each shot on their outdoor explorations.

The final scene of the Moving On episode shows Monianne at the launch of a self-published book of her nature photography, at a lakeshore café in Toronto. Butterflies, she tells the gathering of friends, are her “metaphor for life. This one,” she says, pointing to a stunning photograph, “was taken in the little garbage heap outside the back of the café.” The wind was ferocious that day, she says, and she had spotted some monarchs “clinging for dear life,” and took “three or four hundred pictures” of one of them.

“So you can be standing in an ant-infested garbage heap but you can look at beautiful butterflies. Or you can stand in a garbage heap and complain about how ugly and horrible everything and everybody is around you. And I think it’s up to all of us to just look for beauty.”

Monianne leaves her son, Mr. Barratt; brothers, Roman Solecki and Alec Hamilton; and many friends.

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Greenpoint This Week: Art Fair, Staycations and More –



Happy Weekend Greenpoint!

This weekend, The Other Art Fair is back in town, with affordable artworks ready for your post-quarantine redecorating plans.

If you’re eager to get out, plan a staycation in the neighborhood, for a change of scenery, without a sink full of dirty dishes. If you prefer your own pillows, consider just spending a day at one of our local outdoor pools. The newly opened Le Doggie Cool also has open cafe hours this Saturday, for pups to play in their backyard pool.

This week, we reported that Brooklyn Bowl is reopening in early September! Get your tickets now for upcoming parties and shows. If you’re looking for a free event, Friday night brings a screening of Frozen to Transmitter Park.

We also reported that a new community fridge has opened on Greenpoint Ave. near Transmitter Park. And shared some unfortunate news about a Greenpoint resident arrested for recording his female roommates without their consent.

Make sure to fit in your last visit to the Leonard Library before it closes for renovations on Monday, August 2. Worry not – Greenpoint Library is still up and running, with computer service and open seating also now available.

Don’t forget to check out our summer 2021 fashion sundae roundup for this season’s best local looks.

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The art of the deal: empty storefronts become gallery space to lure shoppers back downtown – CTV News Montreal



With many Montreal storefront real estate lying empty, some landlords have turned to the arts in a bid to bring people back downtown.

Where some would see a crisis in the decimating effect that online shopping and the COVID-19 pandemic has had on brick-and-mortar stores, Frederic Loury, who runs the Art Sousterrain festival, saw an opportunity.

“During the pandemic, I noticed it was a necessity to build a bridge between real estate and emerging artists,” he said.

Loury convinced several downtown landlords to lend available spaces to artists.

One of those artists, Dana Edmonds, now has storefront space in Alexis Nihon Plaza.

“I thought it was a really cool idea because I got to expose art, which doesn’t get exposed a lot,” she said. “It’s hard to get into galleries in the first place, so at least we can show our work.”

Edmonds is sharing her space with fellow artist Florence Gagnon, who said the initiative is giving people who don’t normally go to art galleries a chance to see what local talent has to offer.

“I think it’s a beautiful way to integrate art into places that don’t usually have it,” she said.

For the landlords, it’s a smart marketing opportunity and a way to get people shopping again.

“They were kind of afraid of coming back to Montreal, so basically this will make them want to come back and shop and visit some emerging artists that we have with Art Sousterrain,” said Alexis Nihon general manager Danny Thery.

Edmonds says that while her work might be in a store, she isn’t giving a hard sell to curious window shoppers.

“My work is kind of political, It’s commentary about over-consumption, mental health, climate change. I like the dialogue,” she said. “If I sell something, that’s great. If people just look at garbage a little differently, then I’m happy.”

Thus far, there are 30 stores being lent to artists downtown. Loury said he believes mixing art and retail will become a trend.

“Others have to rethink the model if they want to survive.” 

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Art Gallery of Ontario reopens with blockbuster Andy Warhol exhibition – Toronto Star



The Art Gallery of Ontario is betting on a blockbuster Andy Warhol retrospective to entice audiences back following a nine-month pandemic induced closure.

The aptly titled “Andy Warhol” exhibition, which opened to AGO members Wednesday, aims to bring biographic and cultural context to one of the most recognizable and divisive iconoclasts of the 20th century. Through 250 art works and ephemera, including a trio of Warhol’s infamous wigs and the manifest from his mother’s arrival at Ellis Island, “Andy Warhol” makes the argument that its subject is, as Kenneth Brummel, the AGO’s Associate Curator of Modern Art puts it, “due for a reassessment.”

Pointedly, “Andy Warhol” casts its subject as a product of circumstance. The first half of the exhibition is devoted to establishing Warhol’s working-class bona-fides: his humble upbringing as a child of Eastern European immigrants in Pittsburgh, moving to New York to work on commercial and advertising art before establishing himself as a figurehead of the counterculture. In contrast, the latter half moves beyond the biographical into Warhol’s obsession with mortality and religion, a perspective made all the more visceral when he was shot in 1968 by the feminist author Valerie Solanas (Solanas also shot art critic Mario Amaya, who happened to be at Warhol’s studio at the time and would, the following year, become the chief curator at the AGO).

A detail from a Marilyn Monroe image at the AGO's blockbuster Andy Warhol exhibition.

Presented across a massive section of the Gallery (twice the typical floor space to allow for physical distancing), the exhibition reframes the Pop Art Svengali by spotlighting some of Warhol’s lesser-known works while postulating that, as the homosexual son of poor Catholic immigrants, he was uniquely positioned to become the eminent art world translator of American culture.

To achieve this vantage point, the exhibition fleshes out the artist’s work as pointedly flawed and acerbic rather than the sleek, machine-like superficial mirror that has become the artist’s modern caricature. As such, seminal pieces including 1962’s “Marilyn Diptych” and 1964’s “Jackie Triptych” are presented couched in Warhol’s macabre obsessions and Catholic guilt, while the lesser seen “Ladies and Gentlemen” series, in which Warhol was commissioned to create portraits of New York’s Latin and African-American drag queens and trans women, is given pride of place, bluntly asking the viewer to confront the necropolitics of the work, both of its time and of modern day.

“We want to take Warhol as we understand him and make him strange again,” Brummel, who curated the AGO presentation following its debut last year at the Tate Modern in London, explains. “Our goal is to enrich understanding of Warhol as this bifurcated figure; more than a myth with a past.”

Andy Warhol's Karen Kain portraits are featured at the Art Gallery of Ontario's new retrospective.

In parallel, the AGO presentation subtly points out Warhol’s ties to both the gallery and the city. This connection is brought to bear via a selection of works exclusive to the Toronto stop, including multiple commissioned portraits of the ballet superstar Karen Kain and, fetchingly, a neon Wayne Gretzky, whose placement in juxtaposition to “Oxidation Painting” (which Warhol created by coating a canvas with wet copper paint and getting his friends to urinate on it) serves as a commentary on the artist’s own fraught relationship with celebrity, commerce and the art world.

Moreover, by purposely positioning the retrospective in divergence with the polished colourful imagery and pithy quotables that have come to define Warhol as a pop culture figure, Brummel says he hopes it will help salvage the artist’s reputation as a precursor for the disposable nature and lavish absurdisms of modern art.

“The reality is every good painter has to reckon with the cult of admiration,” he says, pointing to the late-era series, “Stitched Photographs,” in which the artist toyed with his own authenticity by stitching a series of reprinted photographs together to form a repeated pattern. “And Warhol was a formidable precursor.”

In the works since 2017, “Andy Warhol” had been intended to debut at the AGO in March of 2021 and joined exhibitions across the sector and around the world which had been delayed or cancelled due to the pandemic.

Stephan Jost, CEO of the AGO, stands near a massive Andy Warhol self portrait.

According to CEO Stephan Jost, while it undoubtedly caused a number of logistical and financial headaches, the pandemic also allowed for something all too rare in the field: a moment to reflect.

Speaking during a brief interview under a posthumous self-portrait of Warhol, Jost explains that over the past year he “learned to stop talking and listen.”

“[The pandemic] allowed us to ask ourselves what are we actually doing and why are we actually doing this? That’s framed as an existential question, but it actually reminded people why they do what they do,” he says. “What I discovered was, on a basic level, we’re doing fine and that’s because everybody, from the night guards to our board, pulled their weight. That gives you a lot of confidence”

In addition, Jost says the break gave the heads of many of the city’s cultural organizations a chance to retrench and consider how best to reinvigorate what has been one of the hardest hit sectors.

“We used to meet maybe quarterly and now it’s every two weeks,” he says of the group, which includes representatives from the National Ballet, Harbourfront Centre, Canadian Opera Company and Soulpepper Theatre. “We’re all trying to figure it out and it’s actually been great to find a common learning.”

As for the near future, Jost says he’s excited for the gallery to come “roaring back,” beginning with the Warhol exhibition, which runs until Oct. 24, to be joined by, beginning Oct. 9, a blockbuster exhibition focusing on Picasso’s Blue Period.

“It’s the best exhibition schedule the AGO has ever had,” Jost exclaims. “We want to be all in on culture.”

Jonathan Dekel is a freelance contributor based in Toronto.


Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.

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