Visual Stories

The Creation of a new Visual Language

Evolution of his visual language


Morrisseau created a new visual language, one artists and audiences had never seen before. Many people called him Picasso of the North because of this. Picasso helped to create Cubism and Morrisseau created an artistic language based on Anishinaabe ways of knowing–through-story that some call “Woodland Art.” 

During the 1950s, Morrisseau experimented with the ways he wanted to share his visual stories. Using knowledge and ideas gained through aadizookaanag, Morrisseau began to experiment with a form of visual storytelling that began to take shape as a visual language.

Often done on birchbark, hide, and plywood, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he played with line, divided circles, and subject themes. At times he painted with oil and ink on paper, and at other times he used tempera.

Throughout the 1960s, he continued to paint on different mediums and experiment with colour, though he mostly used board and paper, rather than canvas, for his early works.

It was in the early 1970s that Morrisseau’s visual language was fully formed through line, colour, and symbolism. With the use of acrylic paints, Morrisseau began to use more and more colours in his art. Some were connected to spiritual understandings and others became part of his repertoire.

By the late 1970s, his visual storytelling had shifted again to incorporate his interest in Eckankar. For Eckists, the colour yellow was important and Morrisseau begins to use more yellow in his paintings.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, colour and scale pushed Morrisseau in new directions. Still, he used line and returned often to symbolic imagery as he painted an expanded array of visual stories.

Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird (Two Birds) | Untitled (Man Transforming into Thunderbird), 1958.

Morrisseau’s early technique of conveying story through black line and divided circles.

Although this version of Man Changing into Thunderbird uses lines emitted from each of the Thunder beings, Morrisseau does not yet use line to interconnect the divided circles and the figures. This early work is done in watercolour with ink on birchbark. It contains elements of the visual stories Morrisseau would adapt, change, and experiment with, off and on, throughout his career as an artist.

In this work created in 1958, the artist uses birchbark as a readily available medium. Birchbark or wiigwaas provides a natural background colour and also makes a direct connection to interconnections between all living things, all layers of the interconnected worlds that Morrisseau conveys.

The work explores the subject of ceremonial transformation. Here, Morrisseau provides the beginnings of his visual explorations to articulate how man changes into Thunderbird, a topic he fully expresses twenty years later when he paints his six-panel masterwork, Man Changing into Thunderbird (1976).

This work was included in Morrisseau’s first exhibition at the Pollock Gallery and it pictures the horned medicine snake or serpent, who is giving a group of medicine men powers. All the beings in the painting are linked through line and the use of jagged lines show the transmission and receiving of power.

Morrisseau uses the colour white to convey the spiritual nature of this story and also includes several decorative elements within the medicine snake to convey its power.

Norval Morrisseau, Serpent Legend, 1962.

Norval Morrisseau, Bear and Lake Trout, 1962.

This painting was included in the 1962 exhibition at the Pollock Gallery and is an excellent example of an early formulation of Morrisseau’s storytelling vocabulary.

Morrisseau paints the interior body cavities of the bear and fish in a white ground to signal their sacredness. Both the fish and the bear are connected from their mouths through to their rears with a line that also articulates their relational sacred significance. Morrisseau includes a divided circle/sun motif, that is attached to the bear’s back. Morrisseau adds a series of short lines on the bear and fish to further convey their spiritual energy.

    Norval Morrisseau, Ancestral Figure, 1964.

    Norval Morrisseau with his paintings, 1965.

    Two years after Morrisseau’s exhibition at the Pollock Gallery, he began to settle on his visual language conventions. First, the figure is in profile and the composition is painted in the center of the paper. Throughout his career, the artist mostly painted representations of humans in profile. He also mostly laid out his compositions centred in the frame of his work, as he does with Ancestral Figure. Morrisseau uses vibrant colour along with black line to express the spiritual importance of this figure. Morrisseau was gifted two shades of blue in a medicine dream. Here he uses a darker blue that means this figure is being protected by the night.

    Morrisseau painted this work while living in Cochenour. He painted it as a form of exchange, giving the painting to the grocer at F. Reid and Sons to pay for his groceries.

    Morrisseau often painted self-representations throughout his career. Some of these were made obvious in their titles and others less so, as in this untitled work.

    Norval Morrisseau, Untitled (Shaman), 1964.

    Anishinaabe artist and Knowledge Keeper Saul Williams discusses Morrisseau’s Untitled (Shaman).

    Norval Morrisseau, Portrait of the Artist as Jesus Christ, 1966.

    Norval Morrisseau, Indian Jesus Christ, 1974.

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