Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of participating in an Antiques Road-show event to benefit a local public art gallery. Among the many items I looked at was a coloured silkscreen signed L. Bellefleur in the plate.
The work was in excellent condition, however, there was no indication of edition number, triage (total number of multiples) or artists signature (other than in the plate). This led me to surmise that the work was probably not artist-made, but rather a commercially produced limited-edition silkscreen.
Leon Bellefleur, Red Fish with Blue Breasts (Poissons rouge aux seins bleu
I recognized the work as a facsimile silkscreen of Canadian artist Leon Bellefleurs 1949 oil on canvas painting entitled Red Fish with Blue Breasts (Poissons rouge aux seins bleus). It was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1953 from the Galerie Agnes Lefort, Montreal and has been in the national collection ever since. The work was exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery in the winter of 1951 as part of a touring show entitled Contemporary Painters of Quebec, which included examples of younger Quebec artists such as Riopelle, Gauvreau and Dumouchel.
Bellefleur was heavily influenced by the work of the contemporary German/Swiss artist, Paul Klee, who was an avid fisherman and juxtaposed scientific and mystic imagery in his works Golden Fish, Fish Magic and Around the Fish. The similarity of Bellefleurs titles in the paintings Red Fish with Blue Breasts and Fish in the City suggest an homage to the master.
The imagery in Red Fish with Blue Breasts is suggestive of a collection of strange, otherworldly, and as yet undiscovered sea creatures, each isolated and placed in adjacent holding trays pending further study. The creatures appear to have suggestions of eyes, fins, wings, rudimentary skeletal systems, external bladders, mouths and teeth. The title may refer to humanities need to describe, categorize and understand the unknown.
This silkscreen was probably produced circa 1966 by the Markgraf brothers, who had immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1957 and set up printing facilities in Quebec. Over the course of several years, they were engaged by the National Gallery to reproduce Canadian works in the national collection. The work was a continuation of a project, initiated some years earlier by the gallerys involvement with the Sampson-Matthews printing company that included silkscreen reproductions of many Group of Seven painters (some of whom had worked at Sampson-Matthews), and their contemporaries. In 1966 the National Gallery listed the price of Cat. No. NG41-99, the Poissons rouge aux seins bleus silkscreen, at $14.
In a 2004 essay in the Journal of Canadian Art History, Joyce Zemans wrote: In 1969 Anthony Emery, Director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, described the Markgraf prints of contemporary art which had been created in partnership with the Canada Council. He praised their fidelity and compared their brilliance to what he deemed the porridge and mashed-turnip-coloured [Sampson-Matthews] masterpieces squeegeed desperately through the silk-screens of the National Gallery during World War II to give the nations defenders something to fight for or against.
In December 2004, a Vancouver auction house conducted a sale of silkscreens of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries produced by Sampson-Matthews, realizing prices upwards of $2,500 each. Perhaps in the not too distant future similar prices for this far superior silkscreen might also be realized.