Paul-Émile Borduas

Paul-Émile Borduas

1905 - 1960

In 1948 Paul-Émile Borduas stunned Quebec with his radical manifesto, the Refus global. The manifesto was a complete rejection of the social norms and values of the era in Quebec at the time, especially under the oppressive rule of Maurice Duplessis. The Refus global called for uncensored thought and the separation of the church and the state. The manifesto is considered to have been one of the fundamental causes of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec. There were fifteen signatories to the Refus global, many of whom were members of the artistic group the Automatists.

The Automatists were a group of non-figurative Québécois artists which was founded by Borduas in the early 1940s; they were influenced by Surrealism and its theory of automatism. The Automatists would meet in Borduas’s studio to discuss Marxism, Surrealism and psychoanalysis, all subjects that were condemned by the Catholic Church in Quebec. The Automatists held a number of exhibitions, notably in New York in 1946 and in Paris in 1947. What had begun as a dissident student group became an important cultural movement.

Quebec artist Ozias Leduc recognized Borduas’s talent early in his life, and hired him as his assistant in 1920, when Borduas was only 15. In 1923 Borduas entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Montreal, enabling him to teach in Quebec elementary schools, beginning in 1927. In 1937 Borduas became a Professor at the École du Meuble in Montreal; however, the publication of the Refus global in 1948 resulted in his dismissal.

In the early 1940s, Borduas's painting was figurative, but soon became increasingly abstract. By the late 1940s, the influence of automatism was present in his abstract works, which often took the form of shapes floating in space over colour field backdrops. Borduas left for the United States in 1953, first to Provincetown, then to New York, and prepared for his first solo show in that city at the Passedoit Gallery. Here he encountered the New York School of Abstract Expressionists, and light and space increasingly became the focus of his oil paintings. In 1954, he also produced a remarkable body of work in watercolour. Borduas moved from New York to Paris in 1955, where he produced his remarkable black and white paintings, which are classical and pure in their simplicity. Borduas died in Paris in 1960.

Some of the highlights from his exhibition history include a 1962 retrospective that originated at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and traveled to the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Toronto. In 1977, the Vancouver Art Gallery held an exhibition of his New York period works entitled Borduas and America, and in 1988 a major retrospective was held at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. His work is in the collections of the Guggenheim Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, among many others.