“Gaston Petit is a Quebec artist who has produced hundreds of paintings, lithographs and art objects. So why have many culture minded Quebecers never heard of him?
One obvious reason is that for the last 40-odd years, he has worked in Tokyo. He’s well enough known and admired in Japan that the emperor’s cousin commissioned him to design some stained-glass windows.
But Petit, who’s now 72, has another vocation as well. He’s a high ranking Roman Catholic Dominican priest. There’s probably not another Shawinigan-born boy who’s gone quite so far. (Well, maybe one.) Certainly no Shawinigonian who speaks better Japanese.
If the Dominican order ever needed a poster boy, Petit could fit the bill. He personifies the Dominicans’ philosophy, described by Petit in this book, of balance between meditation and action. Athletic and handsome as a teenager and, by his own account, popular with the girls, at 17 he freely chose the religious life.
Secular-minded people who despise rules of conduct of any kind might think that the constraints of a religious order limit one from living life to the full.
Petit’s case is a pretty good argument to the contrary. For a quick, perceptive mind like his, what could be more stimulating than the order’s classical education (Greek and Latin) and a chance to travel widely, not only to Japan–a destination he targeted early on–but to many fascinating parts of the world like INdia, Easter Island, and pre-Taliban Afghanistan.
His vocation opened doors to hundreds of friends (including a reunion with his former Shawinigan classmate, Jean Chretien) and scores of intriguing, famous people, like the Dalai Lama.
It’s evident from his words in the book that Petit has an engaging personality and likes to socialize (a trait shared with his father, a salesman). These qualities were confirmed by another long-time Tokyo resident from Quebec who knew Petit there and who recalled for his review that he was also adept at promoting himself and his artistic career.
Petit may be a priest, but he’s not unworldly. Certainly, the book shows evidence of his gift for diplomacy, a useful skill in Japan, where, as Petit explains, etiquette has a myriad nuances.
Natural-born iconoclasts will savour the moments, however, when Petit is outspoken and revisionist, as when he chides St. Augustine for being the culprit who mistakenly identified the evil in Eve’s apple as sex. Christianity, Petit admitted, as yet to survive that one.
At the same time, there are many instances when Petit scurries to act as a Christian apologist. Here his arguments sound forced, as though he’s trying hard to reconcile Christianity with the Far Eastern theologies, like Buddhism, that he so admires.
The reader senses–and Petit admits–that he could say much more on these subjects if he had the chance. This brings us to the book’s major weakness: it’s format. It’s simply a transcribed series of question-and-answer sections. Everything Petit said appears to get equal treatment, and a lot of banal information got left in. Weak editing has also left in long passages in which Petit sounds like an art lecturer (which he was) or like Joseph Campbell explaining the significance of mythological symbols. More than once Petit questioned whether what he’d just said was worth quoting. Smart man.
Judicious editing in the photo selection, too, might have given us fewer Gaston-here, Gaston-there snapshots. Better to have satisfied readers’ curiosity by showing the Dominican mission in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, where he has lived.
A small number of colour reproductions reveal some of his work’s obvious stylistic influences: fauvism, surrealism, abstract expressionism. On this evidence, his work, though intelligent and sensitive, apparently never achieved and unmistakably personal style. It takes nothing away from his accomplishments to say that he’s a derivative rather than a seminal artist. Although Petit speaks eloquently about contemporary aesthetics, his own approach to art is the medieval one in which art serves liturgical purposes. His art objects are intended for use rather than for isolated viewing, which explains his numerous commissions for churches: stained-glass windows, liturgical garments and murals like the 3,500-kilogram bronze made for a church in Nagasaki.
In recent years, Petit has spent summer months in Quebec. On May 25, an exhibition of his work opens in Trois-Rivieres. If you can’t make it there, you might catch his show in Tokyo in September.
In the meantime, this book, despite its flaws, lets us glimpse an unusual Quebecer of high culture and inspiring humanitarianism. How comforting to know that such people are among us.”
The Montreal Gazette