« I am but an artisan, not an artist » Albert Gilles (1895-1979)
The repoussé metalworks of Albert Gilles that can be found in Moncton’s Our Lady of Assumption cathedral share the humility of their ‘’artisan’’. By the subtility of their placement and the tone of their colors, they seem to say : ‘’We are only ornaments, not works of art’’. Indeed, these pieces integrated themselves so seamlessly in the decor that their origin was forgotten to the erosion of time. However, when we realize the richness of the details of these metal sheets, we understand that their value is too important to stay unknown. Hence, the MR21 interpretation center has been reconnecting with the Albert Gilles Copper Art Museum, in Québec. Three generations of Gilles still conserve the artistic heritage of this Paris born man who lived his life in North America. Decorator and metalworker specialist of the repoussé technique, artisan or artist depending on the perspective, Gilles gave the Assumption cathedral the sixteen plates of the communion table, the eight plates and the cover of the baptistery, the beautiful central lamp of the sanctuary and probably many other pieces that are impossible to identify with certainty. Let’s take a look at the exceptional know-how that they display.
In the field of metalworking, the repoussé technique consists in creating a three dimensional image on the front of a sheet of metal by applying a pressure – with or without heat – on the back of it with the help of different tools. The metal sheet may be worked on a specialized surface that offers a certain resistance, but not too much, or with no support at all. Practiced on malleable metals such as gold, silver or copper, this technique may be combined with others to create a multitude of esthetic or common objects. Among these other techniques, repoussé is not to be confused with repoussage, which is practiced on a rotating piece of metal, a bit like pottery. In itself, it is strictly manual and does not take away any material from the worked piece. In this sense, repoussé is similar to a technique called chasing, but chasing works the metal from the front, not the back. While they are often used together, metalworkers agree that repoussé is much harder. On top of patience and precision, repoussé requires great spatial visualization abilities to work from the back, without directly seeing the side that is exposed to the public. Maybe that’s partly why so few artists practice it despite the technique being at least 5000 years old.
Indeed, vestiges of this technique were found in most of Antiquity’s cultures. For example, the funerary mask of the famous pharaoh Tuthankamun was almost entirely crafted of a single sheet of repoussé gold. Although it is usually a precision technique for small/medium scale projects, the largest structure ever built of repoussé was the Statue of Liberty, in 1878. It consists of 300 large sheets of 2,37-millimeter-thick copper, all formed by hand. In the middle of the age of steel, sky-scrapers, the Eiffel Tower and International Expositions, metalworking in general was having one of its finest hours when Albert Gilles was born in Paris in 1895.
It was his aunt that first introduced Gilles to metalworking and the repoussé technique when he was barely twelve. He continued to perfect his talents with art courses while taking business classes by day. Injured to his right hand by a bombshell during World War I, he was lucky enough to heal and take up metalworking again as a hobby while he became a professional interior decorator/designer. Nonetheless, planning the layout of private and public spaces allowed him to easily highlight his talents and create artworks for his clients’ decors. By doing so, Albert Gilles was able to slowly leave his profession behind and his metalworking became a true artistic vocation. Indeed, after distinguishing himself at the Salon des artistes décorateurs de Paris in 1925/26, he decided to continue his career in North America.
In 1927, he arrived in Québec city, but moved to Detroit two years later. Taking advantage of this city’s still booming automotive industry, Gilles worked for some of Chrysler’s and General Motor’s top directors. He then moved to California in 1933 and worked in the Hollywood community. Decorator and metal sculptor for Universal Studios, he also took up contracts with cinema stars such as Mae West, Fredrich March and none other than Walt Disney. After a detour in La Habana to restore the main doors of Cuba’s National Capitol, Albert Gilles set up shop in Cowansville, in the south of Québec, in 1937. It is from here that he dedicated himself to repoussé and he specialized in the creation of religious artworks for more than thirty churches, including the famous Saint-Anne-de-Beaupré Shrine, for which he fabricated the tabernacle and the two imposing copper doors of the main entrance. In 1942, Gilles even received an order from Pope Pius XII for a golden chalice. In 1953, he moved his workshop to Château-Richer, between Notre-Dame-de-Beaupré and Québec city, where the Copper Art Museum still operates today. From the 1960s until his death in 1979, he diversified his themes again, participated in a few expositions and opened boutiques in Montreal, Ottawa, New York and Vergennes.
At the Our Lady of the Assumption cathedral of Moncton, Albert Gilles’s artworks were installed during the construction in 1940, in the beginning of his ‘’religious phase’’. As mentioned above, their location makes it hard for us to appreciate them fully, as if they were intentionally trying to go unnoticed. Entirely made by hand in the Cowansville workshop, these pieces have, despite their ‘’humility’’, an invaluable artistic and heritage value.
Firstly, the sixteen plates at the base of the communion table and on the movable altar are made of tin, a very soft metal, and are about 40cm high and 65cm large. Their frame is made of brass, a copper and tin alloy often used for frames due to its solidity. These plates represent the first fifteen mysteries of the Rosary and the apparition of the Virgin Mary to Saint Bernadette Soubirous. Sadly, on top of being placed right next to the colorful and alluring stained glass windows, these plates are near ground level, and you must bend down exceptionally low to get a clear look at them.
Next, Gilles also produced eight smaller five-sided plates that embellish each side of the marble baptistery. Measuring about 32cm high and 20cm large, they are also made of tin with a brass frame. They represent the seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church and the baptism of Jesus Christ. Brass was also used to make the cover of the baptistery. More ‘’accessible’’ since people gather around it closely, it is understandable that attention would be focused on the baby being baptized and not the metalwork of the baptistery.
Finally, the most seen of Gilles’s works in the cathedral is certainly the magnificent lamp of the sanctuary. It consists of many tin plates on a frame made of brass and iron. Christograms and other traditional symbols are represented on them. Sadly, despite its central position, it is difficult to really appreciate its details because of its height. The only person who has that chance is the one who changes the candle every Thursday.
Add to that the fact that Albert Gilles didn’t sign all of his pieces - he didn’t see the importance of it - and we begin to understand why the origin of these artworks might have been forgotten. It was, in fact, a subtle signature that permitted MR21 to reconnect with their creator. It is also because of the Copper Art Museum which maintains this ‘’artisan’s’’ memory and even still practices his craft. Indeed, from his aunt to his granddaughters, the Gilles family’s repoussé know-how is now more than a hundred years old. A heritage surely worth the look, at Moncton’s Assumption cathedral or Château-Richer’s Museum!