The Man Who Planted Trees, 1987, The Death of Elzéard's Wife and Daughter, Coloured pencil on frosted acetates mounted in sequence on wove paper, Frédéric Back Trust, © Atelier Frédéric Back inc.

The Mighty River, 1993, Harpooning a Polar Bear, Coloured pencil on frosted acetates mounted in sequence on wove paper, Société Radio-Canada, On deposit, Cinémathéque québécoise, ©Alelier Frédéric Back inc.

Frédéric Back: Angry Artist, Angry Man, Servant of Nature

Frédéric Back, Photo MBAM/MMFA, Christine Guest.

Quebec Notebook, 1948-49, Otter Lake House in Winter and House under the Snow, In a notebook bound by the artist, India ink and gouache on wobe paper, Frédéric Back Trust, © Atelier Frédéric Back inc.

Frédéric Back, Photo MBAM/MMFA, Christine Guest.

Frédéric Back, Photo MBAM/MMFA, Christine Guest.


Montreal Museum
of Fine Arts
1380 Sherbrooke West
Michal and Renata
Hornstein Pavilion
Frédéric Back: One with Nature
June 18-September 27, 2009

In the galleries at the same time as the exhibition Expanding Horizons, the exhibition Frédéric Back: One with Nature presents exceptional works of art bearing a message of paramount importance to a man who creates from the heart out of his concern for people, animals, the natural environment and the relationships between them. The artist plies his pencil to defend his convictions; nature suffers from humankind’s abuse of power, which erodes the respectful attitude towards nature that enabled us to live in balance with its natural resources. Frédéric Back is both an angry artist and an angry man. Through the gentle power of his work, he delivers an urgent message.

Back’s childhood in Alsace was filled with the music of his musician father; drawing nevertheless played a central role in his early life. From childhood holidays spent on relatives’ farms, Back developed a deep love for animals. The family moved to Paris, and Frédéric’s studies led to a meeting with a teacher, Mathurin Méheut, who would prove to be a major influence. Then, it was wartime. As he would continue to do throughout his life, Back’s pencil bore witness to his experiences and his surroundings by faithfully capturing things as they were.

Frédéric Back was attracted to Canada by the works of Clarence Gagnon, which inspired him to plan a trip there to paint rural life. Freshly arrived in North America, he met a young teacher, Ghylaine Paquin, with whom he would start a family and settle in Quebec. His honeymoon across Canada provided him the opportunity to capture unique images of this country, for the most part still untouched wilderness. The First Nations interested him, so he launched a project to illustrate First Nations legends and Quebec rural life. Throughout his work, the connection between man and nature has been a constant source of inspiration.

First a teacher at the École du Meuble, run by Jean-Marie Gauvreau, he was hired in 1952 by the then-nascent Radio-Canada television network. Frédéric Back worked in the titling department, and soon lively drawings brightened up the lettering. The demand for his illustrations grew. The great output of drawings led him to experiment by introducing cut-outs and trompe l’oeil drawings, creating illusions for the new television audience: “I had to do a lot of illustrations, but television does not like motionless images, so I invented many ways to introduce action in my drawings. I also had to synchronize them with the music, because in studio, everything was live broadcast.” This was the beginning of a love affair with animation that would garner him the highest honours, including two Oscars, and lead to a prestigious career with the Radio-Canada animation studio, where he would create his films without abandoning the causes close to his heart. All the artist’s work, of which the animated films are best known, has been dedicated to transmitting these messages. More than a filmmaker, Frédéric Back is an artist who has travelled many roads, which have included drawing, caricature, illustration and interior design.

Film production swept him up. In 1975, ¿Illusion? and Taratata denounced progress, the major cause of the devastation of the natural world. Everything, Nothing in 1977 presented a world that confused happiness with possessions. Frédéric Back used his drawings to take a stand. The causes he supported, at the time little known, are now international preoccupations: pollution, water, forests, endangered species, ecosystems and the negative impact humankind has on the environment: “I was very strongly affected and upset by… industrialization, pollution and massive destruction of natural treasures… I felt animation was an occasion to illustrate some situations but in a way acceptable for exchange.”

Frédéric Back’s commitment to nature is only equalled by his passion for art. While defending these causes, the artist was developing his artistic practice. He experimented, enriching his range of skills by relying on his pencil to craft techniques that would make up his signature style.

In 1981, the film Crac! brought him international success and recognition, a first Oscar and more than 20 awards. Back’s career seemed to have reached its peak, but six years later, The Man Who Planted Trees propelled him back into the limelight with a second Oscar, grand prizes from the Festival d’Annecy and Hiroshima and some 30 other international awards. Since then, Frédéric Back has become renowned both in Quebec and abroad. The story of Elzéard Bouffier is at the heart of this film, based on a text by Jean Giono and narrated by Philippe Noiret. In it Back’s drawings create forceful images of infinite gentleness with the strength of sweet persuasion. At the height of his powers and fame, Back was true to his convictions: profits from the film were donated to organizations that protect the environment. In 1993, his last film, The Mighty River, alerted the public to the preciousness of water, the natural resource essential to life. Continuous, subtle variations in colour illuminate the film; the original drawings are themselves works of art.

Frédéric Back is an exceptional filmmaker who figured out how to cultivate his artistic talent while employing a universally accessible medium: “Animation is a wonderful and unlimited way to express feelings. Fun, fantasy or drama, as well as art and poetry, can find their way into it.” Of his films, he says, “I never expected so much. I just made them to be… tools for motivation in favour of beneficial action to help our beautiful and fragile planet in its great need.”

Frédéric Back is helping us to present Frédéric Back. Deeply convinced of the importance of his message, he is once again taking up the pencil, the tool of a lifetime, to pursue his art. Faster than any one of us, he visualized and designed the exhibition we will present to you. Between eighty and a hundred works, including gouaches, drawings and films, can be viewed at the Museum. The commitment is now urgent; he reminds us that it can no longer be ignored. We all have a duty to join our voices with his. Thus, the power of art combines with the will of those who respond to it.

Quebec Notebook, 1948-49, Otter Lake House in Winter and House under the Snow, In a notebook bound by the artist, India ink and gouache on wobe paper, Frédéric Back Trust, © Atelier Frédéric Back inc.