Saul on a wall: John Ralston Saul’s portrait unveiling

The portrait was paid for by the subject, writes Paul Wells

by Paul Wells

Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson stands with her husband John Ralston Saul after his official portrait was unveiled at a ceremony at Rideau Hall on Dec. 17, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

David Johnston used the word “tradition” at least three times as he introduced the subject of Rideau Hall’s latest portrait this morning. The current Governor General is a voracious reader, an early advocate of the internet, and a stickler for propriety; he will not have been unaware that advance coverage of John Ralston Saul’s portrait unveiling generated not inconsiderable online umbrage over the fact that Saul, while he may have his charms, was never the Governor General of Canada, and why are my tax dollars etc., etc., etc.

Johnston said nothing to address the monetary question, but here’s the answer: portraits of former viceregal consorts that hang at Rideau Hall, such as this one of Gerda Hnatyshyn, are paid for by the subject. As for the who-does-he-think-he-is bit, the incumbent guarantor of the viceregal office’s propriety was quick to remind the little crowd that his predecessor Adrienne Clarkson had worked with Saul in continuation of “a tradition of governors general and their spouses working together for a better country.” He then mentioned the paintings and photos of previous spouses that line the august joint’s corridors. (Gabrielle Léger, who read portions of two Throne Speeches after Jules Léger suffered a stroke in office, stands with him in his official portrait.) “Today’s portrait unveiling is a continuation of this tradition.”

Populist dudgeon thus banished, Johnston moved on to what we may perhaps call the Clarkson-Saul legacy. “In many ways it was thanks to their efforts that Rideau Hall came into its own as Canada’s house,” Johnson said. They uprooted much of the international foliage in the gardens and on the grounds and replaced it with Canadian plants. They served Canadian food, Inuit tea, decent scotch from Nova Scotia. He advocated for Canadian wine and stocked it in the cellar. Saul, who writes books, was the first resident of Rideau Hall to have been a winner of a Governor General’s Literary Award. In June during breakfasts on the garden terrace, Johnston said, he and his wife Sharon “feel so guilty because we know that at that hour, John and Adrienne would already have been up digging in that garden.”

Then came the unveiling. The crowd, which included Laureen Harper, Beverley McLachlin, Charlotte Grey, Jeffrey Simpson and a bunch of former Rideau Hall staffers, leaned forward. Just about everyone there knew the artist was Kent Monkman, so there was a lot of anticipation in the room, because Monkman is a bit of a wild man. His paintings are almost always rich with historical allegory and references to his Cree ancestry, bloody violence, politics at its most brutal, and sexuality in an exuberant variety of geometries. Saul being who he is, anything was possible.

The work itself turned out to be relatively genteel, but of course still unorthodox. It shows Saul putting a kayak into the icy water at Pond Inlet. An Inuit kayak is barely visible on the rock in the distance behind him. Later Marc Mayer, the National Gallery director, remarked mournfully that Joseph Brant was not depicted in the corner somewhere doing something scandalous. But Monkman has done that; here he shows he can work what jazz musicians would call a society gig.

Why Monkman? He has “a new and old way of looking at the country,” Saul said. “An indigenous, in every sense of the word, way of looking at the country.” Saul told some old yarns about Arctic trips, many of which featured failed attempts to get to Pond Inlet and improvised landings at secondary targets. “It’s very Arctic,” Saul said. In 2001 he spent a month at Pond Inlet writing one of those books, during which he did daily semi-official what’s-the-status-of-a-viceregal-consort-anyway events, long trips with Arctic Rangers, visits to hunters and writers, sleeping on the floor of a cabin and so on.

Monkman, an elegantly dressed and softspoken man, took the podium. “I want to thank John and Adrienne for seeing beyond the often saucy and provocative layers of my work to the deeper layers,” he said, “which can be described as a back-and-forth dialogue between two cultures and two artistic traditions.” He had proposed a couple of “saucy options” to Saul, he said, which “he graciously refused.” He’d settled on two kayaks — you do have to look for the second one — which represent the parallel paths depicted in the two-row wampum.

The speeches done, the guests munched on munchies and mingled. “I wanted to see the saucy portraits!” Laureen Harper said. “I told the Chief Justice, ‘We’re here to be offended. Let’s stand right up at the front.’” She had not been invited to the unveiling — the guest list was very old-home week for a crowd that used to be at Rideau Hall frequently in the early ’00s, including authors Émile Martel and Daniel Poliquin — so she invited herself. “I said, ‘Do you need somebody to stand and cheer?’” She liked the painting. Everyone liked the painting. The National Gallery’s Mayer, grumbling aside, liked the painting. Saul shook the hand of a former aide de camp who now commands a tank squadron at CFB Gagetown. I can’t speak for the wine but I am sure it was Canadian.




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Saul on a wall: John Ralston Saul’s portrait unveiling

  1. Actually, the painting’s perfect. Thank you for showing us.

  2. Our heritage minister will not likely be among those who are disappointed the painting wasn’t more controversial then.

    I really have to give his book – Canada is a Metis nation – another go. It defeated me a part of the way through, even though i find it an intriguing and plausible notion myself.

  3. “who writes books” …

    • I wondered about that too…bit of snark, possibly?

      • I’ll permit myself snark about others’ book-writing after I’ve written four or five of the things. In the meantime, no way.

        • That’s good to know. Not everyone’s a fan of JRS. You may still not be. But writing a decent book’s likely no easy job no matter who you are.
          Personally I find him a bit of a slog. Don’t really know why?

          • I’m a great fan, though I haven’t read as much as others have. Reflections of a Siamese Twin (especially) and A Fair Country are books I’d assign (along with others that agree with almost nothing Saul wrote) to any course in Canadian political culture.

          • Thx for that…A Fair Country…that was it. I must try it again. The premise of Canada being a Metis nation is one I find fascinating. If I remember right I allowed an iffy review by Potter at the time to influence me unduly. But his style is a bit dense for me. Not to insult Saul, but that book might have faired better in the hands of someone like Boyden…for me anyway. What else would make your list? You”ve got me intrigued now.
            edit: silly of course. Given that book was a culmination of a period of long term thought and writing on Saul’s part, it could hardly have been written by Boyden and not been entirely different book.

          • Have you tried The Doubter’s Companion? It’s a quick (and amusing) read. Full disclosure; I’m a fan.

          • Never heard of it before BGL mentioned it.Is that all i need to google to bring it up?

      • Who really knows .. I just found it to be ever so cute..
        but I did look for Wells in the index of The Doubter’s
        Companion … wasn’t there.

  4. Twits

  5. A portrait of Saul Rahlston at Rideau Hall. Why. To feed his ego?

    • Methinks you didn’t even bother to read the article:

      “Johnston said nothing to address the monetary question, but here’s the
      answer: portraits of former viceregal consorts that hang at Rideau Hall,
      such as this one of Gerda Hnatyshyn,
      are paid for by the subject. As for the who-does-he-think-he-is bit,
      the incumbent guarantor of the viceregal office’s propriety was quick to
      remind the little crowd that his predecessor Adrienne Clarkson had
      worked with Saul in continuation of “a tradition of governors general
      and their spouses working together for a better country.” He then
      mentioned the paintings and photos of previous spouses that line the
      august joint’s corridors. (Gabrielle Léger, who read portions of two
      Throne Speeches after Jules Léger suffered a stroke in office, stands with him in his official portrait.) “Today’s portrait unveiling is a continuation of this tradition.””

      “Populist dudgeon thus banished, Johnston moved on to what we may perhaps call the Clarkson-Saul legacy.
      “In many ways it was thanks to their efforts that Rideau Hall came into
      its own as Canada’s house,” Johnson said. They uprooted much of the
      international foliage in the gardens and on the grounds and replaced it
      with Canadian plants. They served Canadian food, Inuit tea, decent
      scotch from Nova Scotia. He advocated for Canadian wine and stocked it
      in the cellar. Saul, who writes books, was the first resident of Rideau
      Hall to have been a winner of a Governor General’s Literary Award. In
      June during breakfasts on the garden terrace, Johnston said, he and his
      wife Sharon “feel so guilty because we know that at that hour, John and
      Adrienne would already have been up digging in that garden.””

      “Saul told some old yarns about Arctic trips, many of which featured
      failed attempts to get to Pond Inlet and improvised landings at
      secondary targets. “It’s very Arctic,” Saul said. In 2001 he spent a
      month at Pond Inlet writing one of those books, during which he did
      daily semi-official what’s-the-status-of-a-viceregal-consort-anyway
      events, long trips with Arctic Rangers, visits to hunters and writers,
      sleeping on the floor of a cabin and so on.”

  6. I like the fact that Laureen just showed up uninvited—pity she hadn`t brought along whatisname.

    Any chance any one of us can get in on this ” painting in the Hall thing “.

    I do have an old self-portrait of me out in the dory that I would be willing to share with the Nation—-for a fee.

    • Marry or become the viceroy.

      You could also become the speaker for the House of Commons or speaker for the Senate and get a portrait.

      Or, if that isn’t your style, become the prime minister or chief justice and you can also get a portrait hung someone good.

  7. Whoever paid for it, there is no reason for it. Scum!

  8. I’m disappointed that the painting isn’t racier. If they were true patrons of the arts, they would have allowed the artist free rein. I mean, really. You don’t interfere.

    • I take your point, but the other way to look at it is that portraits are always a conversation (read: negotiation) with the subject. “Working a society gig” sounds pejorative, but the musicians I respect usually put a lot of stock in the importance of approaching an assignment on its own terms and working within that. I chatted briefly with Monkman and he seemed to think he’d put in honest work.

      Also note that many on this comment board want Saul, an international best-selling author, strung up for having any kind of portrait in the house where he lived for six years. So apparently it’s more than racy enough for some.

  9. This comment was deleted.

    • Holy up the coliform creek Batman!

  10. The Scotch from Nova Scotia is not decent, unless you’ve never had the good stuff.

    • Happy to bow to others on that peaty note.

  11. J R Saul (Pronounced Sole)

  12. Since this is another episode in the left wing saga of Adrienne Clarkson there has to be a taxpayer cost attached to it somewhere.

    Even if the only taxpayer cost is the CRA deduction the Clarkson Saul Legacy Team will be claiming for having made a “donation” to the Nation, it’s too much; and away more than the rest of us should be asked to cough up.

    • The current GG travels the world and spends money. And there’s not an ounce of criticism. We don’t even hear about it.

      The difference is that the current GG is yer standard 1867-type issue….whereas the recent GGs have been female, non-white, and thus more glamourous to the media.

      • Well you’re wrong, “the current GG” as you refer to him, is pretty much a world travelling left wing tinker like the last two and everyone I know seems to be aware of it.

        The sad fact is, we haven’t had a Governor General we could admire and be thankful for since Roland Michener.

        But this incident isn’t without humorous value and I’m actually quite happy to have a “saucy” portrait of Ralston Solly and his pink kayak looking down on the unwashed tourists. In fact I’m going to take the public tour as soon as possible so I can go down there and laugh at the thing, and the crazed idea behind it.

        • Oh I see. Rightwing Harper appointed a left wing GG? LOL

          The portrait isn’t ‘saucy’….none of you seem able to read.

          Roland Michener….another ole white guy from Alberta.

          Do you folks have any idea how crackpot you sound?

          • Well the Monkman himself referred to the painting as “saucy” as did the Prime Minister’s wife who your left wing “GG” neglected to invite to the party. Monk also thinks the thing is “provocative.”

            So I don’t know what you’re smoking in your peace pipe there chief but I think you better change it.

          • The artist is noted for work that is ‘saucy’, but this portrait is not.

            Put your glasses on.

          • The artist must also be known for his spectacular lack of perspective. Poor old Mr. Clarkson there looks like he’s about to fall off a mountain top with his pink Kayak. A Canada Council grant doesn’t buy what it used to.

            But “saucy” and “provocative” is what he called it. You must be an ESL student.

          • Sorry, I don’t play silly Con games. Find something else to do. Ciao.

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