The name Besner, painted on the building as though done by graffiti artist, points me to the studio at the top of the stairs. Besner turns to greet me with a smile, about 20 of his latest works hanging on the walls around him. He gives his time generously for our interview, which is punctuated by his thoughtful, eloquent comments.
An enormous canvas stands to the side. The iconography is unmistakably Besner: the regally posed figures with their intense gaze, the explosion of colour, the acrylic planes, the structured, ornate spaces, the theatrical feel. It is a magnificent painting, but it will not be in the show. “I just felt the need to stop,” he says. “I had to replenish my imagination, and make my way to a whole new atmosphere.”
“Over these last two years, I have been experimenting with new techniques – etching, aquatint and stone lithography – which have allowed me to stop thinking about colour for a while and rediscover the fascinating world of line. It has enriched my pictorial vocabulary and helped me approach my work differently.”
A new series of smaller, more intimate and extremely moving works emerged when he began reconnecting with childhood memories and forgotten words. His images have morphed into uncluttered moors reminiscent of the green landscapes of his youth. The brilliant colours have given way to carefully nuanced tones, sometimes almost monochromatic, in oil impasto.
It calls for contemplation. The central figure has abandoned spectacular finery in favour of humanized simplicity. It is the artist, the child with the prodigious imagination, inventing sentinels to combat his loneliness. Each painting, like a square of sand, contains pieces that tell some of his story, his truth of imagined memories, bits of childhood soothed by a soaring kite, a wriggling fish, the gentle rocking of a drifting boat. Barely sketched church steeples create the kind of calm serenity one feels upon entering a monastery. Little herons, looking like wind-filled umbrellas, evoke all things light – vaporous and ephemeral.
Besner’s return to exhibiting marks the end of a two-year hiatus, preceded by 20 years of work and 2,000 paintings sewn together by the thread of the passing seasons. Such productivity is no doubt connected to his awareness of the fragility of being, and the pressing need to leave his mark. He remembers his first solo show in Quebec City in 1998. “At the opening, I was so surprised to see the room so full, to feel all the excitement around my work. All these people had made the effort to come … it was so overwhelming, I almost fainted. And then came all the big shows. In 2004, La démesure des convoités (The excess of the coveted), which drew 1,200 people. Then there was Mora, my urban tale, which Diane Dufresne helped bring to life by playing one of the characters who awakened time. It was magical and very moving. There were also all those exhibits outside the country, including one at the Suzhou Museum in China, which ran for two months. When 400,000 people come to view your work, it is incredibly stimulating.”
Besner thanks his long-time associate Micheal Mensi, who has been his agent from the beginning, for having had the wisdom to shield him from outside concerns, which allowed him to devote himself entirely to painting. He admits that, without Mensi, he could never have dreamed of an international career of such repute.