Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Aislin celebrates 50 years of cartoons

Marian Scott in the Montreal Gazette.

Who can recall former Parti Québécois minister Louise Beaudoin without picturing her as a leather-clad dominatrix, complete with spurs, cattle prod and a Nazi cap?

Or remember the night the PQ swept to victory in 1976 without conjuring up Aislin’s caricature of late premier René Lévesque counselling everybody to take a Valium?

And when you think of Mayor Denis Coderre, do you ever visualize a bespectacled Fred Flintstone – perhaps with a dog peeing on his leg?

Over the last 50 years, Aislin – the nom de plume of Montreal Gazette editorial cartoonist Terry Mosher – has so shaped the collective consciousness of English-speaking Montrealers that it’s hard to know what we’d make of this city, province or country without him.

He has portrayed our ups and downs, our hopes and fears, our victories and frustrations, from dreams of Stanley Cup glory to the orange cones that litter our streets.

He has skewered our politicians and celebrated our heroes; punctured pomposity and shattered taboos.

And he’s made us laugh – most of all at ourselves.

“His Montreal, his Canada, his world, over 50 years, is the world we live in,” said Dominic Hardy, a professor of art history and specialist in editorial cartoons at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

“It’s just one drawing a day, but if you could look at them all, thousands upon thousands of them in a row, you would have this evolving kaleidoscope of what it was that bothered us or that amused us, that we found ridiculous,” he said.

“And I think that when we look back in 20, in 30 years, we’ll be able to say: ‘This was how we lived, this was how we had the experience of Montreal.’ It was this fabulous, goofy, infuriating, thrilling city to live in, and this one person made it his life’s work to document it,” Hardy said.

It was not for lack of opportunities elsewhere that Mosher chose Montreal as his ever changing canvas.

Raised in Toronto and Montreal by creative and unconventional parents – his babysitters included journalist June Callwood and future hockey agent Alan Eagleson – he honed his skills at capturing quick likenesses while hitchhiking across North America and setting up his easel as a street artist in Quebec City.


By the 1970s, his unique style was catching the eye of editors in Canada and the U.S., and bringing regular assignments for the New York Times, TIME Magazine, Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly.

“I was offered a job in Amsterdam in 1974 but I didn’t do it. I could have gone to New York in 1976 but I didn’t do it,” recalled Mosher, 74.

“I fell in love with the place,” says the confirmed “Quebecaholic.”

Still basking in the afterglow of Expo 67, the city boasted bards including Leonard Cohen, Jesse Winchester and Quebec rock icon Robert Charlebois.

And what better time and place to be a political cartoonist than while Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau was transforming politics in staid Ottawa, while his nemesis, René Lévesque, fanned separatist flames back home in Quebec?

Mosher worried the two gladiators’ retirement in 1984-85 would end his own career, for lack of satire-worthy subjects.

But the arrival of Progressive Conservative PM Brian Mulroney – with his prominent chin and pesky scandals – soon put those fears to rest.

“One of the things that’s admirable about any cartoonist who’s worth their salt is that they have a unflinching capacity to go head to head with any public figure,” Hardy said. “By and large our politicians are good-natured enough to recognize what’s going on and to appreciate it, because they recognize that it’s part of the healthy exchange we have in a democratic society.”

But politics is just one aspect of Mosher’s world, where weather, hockey and potholes vie for equal billing.

“I get more sports cartoons on the editorial page than any other cartoonist in North America,” said Mosher, who once depicted hockey as Quebec’s new religion by garbing the cross on Mount Royal in a Habs jersey.

A stint of dividing his time between the Gazette and the Toronto Star in the early 1990s reaffirmed Mosher’s decision to stay in Montreal.

“The Toronto Star killed seven cartoons. The Gazette only killed one,” he said.

“I came home and I’m glad I did.”

Mosher frequently makes public appearances with longtime friend and La Presse cartoonist Serge Chapleau, with whom he won the Hyman Solomon Award for Excellence in Public Policy Journalism last year and was featured in the 2003 NFB documentary Nothing Sacred.

Hardy, 56, an Aislin fan since age 10, says Mosher is not only one of Canada’s greatest cartoonists, but ranks with its best fine artists.

“I think that for me Aislin is one of the most distinctive voices in Canadian art, period, since the 1960s,” said Hardy, who puts Mosher in the same league as realist painter Alex Colville, conceptual-art collective General Idea, painter and sculptor Françoise Sullivan and multimedia artist Irene Whittome.

Like his late friend, the author Mordecai Richler, Mosher said he would “like to be remembered for recording my place in time – and for getting it right.”

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