Fernande Saint-Martin, OC, visual arts theorist, semiologist, museologist, writer and art critic (born 28 March 1927 in Montréal, Québec). After stints as a journalist with La Presse and as editor-in-chief of Châtelaine magazine, Fernande Saint-Martin went on to teach at Université Laval and then Université du Québec à Montréal.

Early Life and Education

Fernande Saint-Martin is the daughter of Emelda Montbriand and Théo Saint-Martin, a medical officer of health, and the granddaughter of Albert Frédéric Saint-Martin (1865–1947), the Québec socialist who founded l’Université ouvrière. She studied at Université de Montréal, earning BAs in medieval studies (1947) and philosophy (1948), before attending McGill University, where she earned a BA in French studies in 1951 and an MA in French literature in 1952. In 1953, she met Montréal painter Guido Molinari (1933–2004), whom she married in 1958. In 1955, the couple opened the short-lived but important gallery L’Actuelle — the first Canadian art gallery devoted to non-figurative painting and sculpture — which they ran until in 1957. Saint-Martin went back to school in 1973, earning Ph.D. in literature from McGill University with a dissertation on the fictional world of Samuel Beckett.

Career

Fernande Saint-Martin started out as a women’s interest journalist with La Presse in 1954 before moving on to Châtelaine magazine in 1960. She subsequently became the mass-circulation magazine’s editor-in-chief, remaining in the position until 1972. During this tenure, she published poetry and art-related articles, which was unconventional for this type of women’s magazine at the time. Saint-Martin served as director of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal from 1972 to 1977 before going into teaching and research, first at Université Laval and then, starting in 1979, at Université du Québec à Montréal. An art and poetry critic, she contributed to numerous publications devoted to art criticism, among them Vie des arts, Les Herbes rouges, Art International, artscanada, RACAR and Liberté. In 1958, she was involved in founding Situations magazine, a forum for ideas and debate, which she ran alongside Jacques Ferron. She served as president of the International Association for Visual Semiotics from 1990 to 1994.

Activism

A feminist activist in the 1950s and 1960s, Fernande Saint-Martin focused mainly on student and union journalism, defending female intellectuals, and promoting contraception and all social rights related to the advancement of women’s equality in society.

Women have protested on all sides. They are demanding joint authority over their children.

They expect that their marital homes will be chosen by mutual agreement with their spouses and not simply be a personal decision of their husbands. They do not accept the indignity done to them by giving their husbands unilateral power when communal property is mismanaged or squandered. It is unacceptable to them that they can consent to surgery for their minor children only if their husbands are away. They are tired of having to carry around their marriage contracts in order to take out even the smallest bank loan and are demanding the separation of property as the legal matrimonial regime.

‒ Fernande Saint-Martin, “Un appel à tous les hommes,” Châtelaine (March 1964)

Saint-Martin was also one of 16 signatories to the Charter of the Fédération des femmes du Québec, a nondenominational feminist organization founded by Thérèse Casgrain in 1966. Her particular brand of feminism goes hand in hand with a generally progressive view of society, communication and the arts. Saint-Martin’s activism is also reflected in her tireless practical, descriptive and theoretical promotion of contemporary trends in art at a time when religious and figurative art, especially in painting and sculpture, were well established in Québec. She was instrumental in introducing the general public in Québec to the province’s most progressive and innovative artists. As she writes in Structures de l’espace pictural (1968; reprint 1989), “Every change in painting in Québec since 1940 can be viewed as an extremely sensitive and creative reflection on potential paths to a new spatial concept where figuration, perspective or the natural space, as well as spaces, would be redefined.”

Intellectual Legacy

As an art theorist, museologist and semiologist, Fernande Saint-Martin openly rebels against what she calls “absent-minded enjoyment.” She believes that a work of modernist art can become pseudo-modernist if one simply views it with curiosity but does not strive to understand all the changes it brings about. The conclusion she draws from her extensive art-related research is that we can no longer rely unconditionally on the univocal meaning of the aesthetic models of conventional figurative art: “The ambiguity and nonsense of the aesthetic object are analogous to those of a natural object. As Dada and found object have shown, any natural object can become aesthetic if viewed as a meaningful object that illustrates an experience of space” (Structures de l’espace pictural).

Drawing heavily on Jean Piaget and Hermann Rorschach, she has written a number of essays and articles on the sensory perception of the visual arts and modern poetry’s work on language. A poet herself, she spent over 20 years (1953–75) writing a work of free verse that stands as an essential complement to her thinking on modern art. “Poetry is meant to shed new light on and breathe new life into this energy form that has taken hold of certain sounds originating in verbal language, to modulate, connect and unite them, to intensify them in different ways in pliant rhythms that are better able to reflect an understanding of the real that is inaccessible to other language instruments” (“De la parole à l’écriture,” prologue to La fiction du réel, 1985). She is also credited with solid empirical and theoretical analyses of pictorial art, especially in L’immersion dans l’art (2010).

All of Saint-Martin’s work probes the attributes of the nonverbal thought that is triggered by perceptual explorations of contemporary visual and textual art. “One cause of language problems, as they have arisen in France since Bergson, is the rediscovery of an idea that had been forgotten in past highly intellectualized ages, namely that there is a nonverbal experience of the world and that it is most important” (La littérature et le non-verbal, 1958).

Although monumental and articulate, Saint-Martin’s theoretical and descriptive work does sometimes suffer from the effects of intellectual trends and tics associated with postmodern proclivities in the humanities and social sciences (under the influence of such thinkers as Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and René Thom). In attempting to be scientific, she incorrectly yokes together certain mathematical concepts. For example, in Les fondements topologiques de la peinture (1980), she links the topology and geometry of projective spaces, two branches of mathematics that really have nothing to do with each other. Similarly, in La littérature et le non-verbal and Structures de l’espace pictural, she calls the symbolism of perceptual forms “semantics” without really distinguishing it from the (real) semantics of natural languages, although the two operate very differently.

Notable Publications

Essays

La littérature et le non-verbal : essai sur la langue (1958; reprint 1994)

La femme et la société cléricale (1967)

Structures de l’espace pictural (1968; reprint 1989)

Samuel Beckett et l’univers de la fiction (1976)

Les fondements topologiques de la peinture. Essai sur les modes de représentation de l’espace à l’origine de l’art enfantin et de l’art abstrait (1980; reprint 1989)

Semiotics of Visual Language (1987)

La théorie de la Gestalt et l’art visuel. Essai sur les fondements de la sémiotique visuelle (1990)

Le sens du langage visuel. Essai de sémantique visuelle psychanalytique (2007)

L’immersion dans l’art. Comment donner sens aux œuvres de 7 artistes : le Maître de Flémalla, O. Leduc, Magritte, Mondrian, Lichtenstein, Rothko, Molinari (2010)

Poetry

La fiction du réel : poèmes 1953-1975 (1985)

Marouflée la langue, dessins et poèmes (1998)

Honours and Awards

Member of the Académie des lettres du Québec (1974)

Member of the Royal Society of Canada (1982)

Officer of the Order of Canada (1988)

André-Laurendeau Award (humanities), Association canadienne-française pour les sciences (1988)

Molson Prize (humanities), Canada Council for the Arts (1989)