In 1965, in an improvised exhibition space in the entrance to the Lefebvre residence on the campus of the University of Moncton, I saw for the first time works by Roméo Savoie which impressed me beyond anything I had seen before in the art of painting. Of course I had seen a considerable number of paintings, but my culture was much more bookish than real. These works had the advantage of being close, of being abstract, and of manifesting a rebellious and uncompromising modernity.
Roméo Savoie, who died on October 14, is, with Claude Roussel, one of the most influential artists of the new consciousness that emerged in Acadie during the 1960s. That decade is also marked by Louis J. Robichaud who, as New Brunswick’s Premier, brought the province into an era of modernity with his “Equal Opportunities” program. It is also the beginning of the University of Moncton, an institution which gave Acadie a vision other than that of tradition and folklore with which it had until then been identified.
Roméo Savoie and Claude Roussel were born two years apart, 1928 for Savoie and 1930 for Roussel. They both enrolled in 1950 at Montreal’s now defunct École des Beaux-Arts — Savoie in architecture and Roussel in sculpture. 1950, two years after the Refus Global, the manifesto of Québec modernity which caused such a stir and was signed by many artists, including Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Coming back home, it became obvious that the two Acadian artists found themselves faced with the dilemma of imposing these new ideas without making too many compromises.
Between 1959 and 1970, the year he abandoned architecture, Savoie created or collaborated on the creation of around fifty buildings. John Leroux, architectural historian, believes that Savoie is undoubtedly one of the best architects to have worked in New Brunswick. It was during a two-year stay in Europe that he took his decision to abandon a successful career and to concentrate his artistic activity on painting. His first works were influenced by abstract expressionism, a school of painting which favored a highly emotional, often improvised approach, using gestures. which in the long run became a style and almost a form of writing.
His early influences were painters such as Karel Appel and Pierre Soulages. There would be many others because Savoie was an avid reader of art magazines, visitor to exhibitions, and traveller, both here and abroad, in order to satisfy his desire to keep up to date and keep in touch with the art world.
On this subject it is fair to say that Savoie was a self-taught painter, but one whose eclecticism would also benefit from several other forms of art, notably music and jazz in particular. He was a very talented improviser, an admirer of musicians such as Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk. And jazz, with its emphasis on emotion and its penchant for improvisation, is undoubtedly the form of music that comes closest to abstract expressionism. Another of his contributions, where we often find the presence of painting, is poetry. He published six poetry collections and a novel. He would be the first of the multidisciplinary artists in Acadie, an approach to the arts present at the beginning of Acadian modernity and which became a particularity of several visual artists here.
At the end of the 1980s he enrolled at the University of Quebec in Montréal, from which he obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree in visual arts in 1988. His painting then became increasingly dark. His influences would then be much more oriented towards European painters and creators such as Anselm Kiefer, Josef Beuys, Antoni Tapies or Cy Twombly,. In fact, these artists reflect a bit of a return to abstract expressionism and neo-dadaism, but with an added philosophical and historical consciousness. For Savoie, this translated into an elimination of color to favor texture, notably through the use of beeswax, and the inclusion of objects that he often found on his walks by the water. He lived near the sea in Grand Barachois where we were neighbours. In fact, it’s a bit because of him if I chose to move there, in the middle of the country, abandoning the city and its distractions.
Our proximity meant that we often met to take stock of several subjects related to our environment, to Acadie, to our practices and to the arts in general. It was during one of these conversations that he told me something that remained with me as a sort of conclusion: “We did everything.” He meant this in the sense that we made the works, but we also created institutions and circumstances so that these works could circulate and reach a public that was often incredulous, insecure, or indifferent to what was offered to them. It is undoubtedly in community, a community to which he greatly contributed, that Roméo Savoie found the strength and courage to continue the work in which he invested a lot, in fact his whole life. This “we did everything” also referred to the fact that he helped set up institutions like La Galerie Sans Nom or Galerie 12, institutions that we managed and that we encouraged in the implementation of a cultural scene that he largely helped to inspire, assert, and define. In this sense he will remain as an originary figure of Acadian art.
The return of Claude Roussel and Roméo Savoie to Acadie in the sixties constituted a decisive turning point in the fact that today there are four generations of Acadian artists whose provenance and evolution have given rise to multiple positions and schools of thought. If Roussel had a significant influence through his teaching at the University of Moncton, Savoie would have a marked influence through the example he gave of a rigorous artist, for whom the aesthetic experience of art is coupled with a practice that often resembled a mystical quest. There is no doubt that his departure leaves a huge void, but he leaves us his works, an advantage that many other forms of art do not have, and which makes us think that artists, the visual ones at least, never really disappear.