Reluctant Nationalistic Hero

One of Quebec’s greatest painters sought artistic but not political fame

Paul-Émile Borduas was anything but a quitter. Like all good artists, he constantly tried to push the boundaries, and when he hit a dead end, he looked for a different way forward. Forebears like Renoir, Degas and Manet, he later wrote, had closed “the cycle of naturalism.” Soon afterwards, he felt, the Cubists had slammed the doors of individual expression shut. Eventually, he discovered André Breton and realized that Surrealism might offer an exit, perhaps the only one. He kept reading, thinking, experimenting, discussing, further prying open the doors to “a vast domain hitherto unexplored, taboo, reserved for angels and devils,” the own inner world of the artist. By late 1941, Borduas was on the cusp of a major breakthrough.

If his production at that time is anything to go by, it must have been an exhilarating moment. As François-Marc Gagnon describes it in his authoritative Paul-Émile Borduas: A Critical Biography, in a very short period—legend has it that it happened overnight—Borduas created some 60 abstract gouaches (a kind of thick, opaque watercolour), the core of his first solo show, which he presented at the Théâtre de l’Ermitage in Montreal in the spring of 1942. For Borduas, a temperamental man “given to fits of ‘destructive rage’ directed towards any of his paintings that did not satisfy him,” this vast and coherent output was a seminal development. At 36, he had become one of the most important and daring cultural figures in what was still a very conservative and inward-looking Quebec.

None of this had been preordained. Born in 1905, Borduas hailed from a working class family of St. Hilaire, then a quaint village located approximately 50 kilometres east of Montreal. It was his good fortune however that, as a teenager, he met Ozias Leduc, a renowned artist and church decorator from the same village. Leduc took Borduas under his wing and made it possible for him to gain practical experience and further his training at art schools in Sherbrooke and Montreal.

For the most part, the artistic world which Borduas discovered was French, conservative, Catholic and very académique. The director of the École des beaux-arts in Montreal, which Borduas joined in 1923, just as it was being established, was a Frenchman, Emmanuel Fougerat, who had developed a curriculum based on that of a similar school he had headed in Nantes. For Fougerat, the most important aspect of an arts education was “drawing, more drawing, and still more drawing.” What of the Fauvists, Cubists and Dadaists? All “charlatans”! There was no room for them at Fougerat’s respectable, no-nonsense art school, which aimed to provide students with marketable, industrial skills. After all, artists have to eat as well.

Soon after graduating, Borduas managed, again with the help of Leduc, to secure a scholarship to study in Paris, at the Atelier d’art sacré. He would also spend time at the Atelier Hébert-Stevens, where he was able to pursue his interest in stained glass. In total, Borduas spent 18 months in France, between 1928 and 1930, and there is no denying that this was a rewarding, pleasurable and highly formative period for him. In what was then the centre of the arts world, he discovered Renoir, who would remain a life-long influence, as well as Gauguin and Cézanne. Given his future role as a leader of the Automatiste movement, however, it is surprising—and highly ironic—that Borduas seems to have been utterly unconcerned with the Surrealists, even though, by that time, the movement was in full swing; Breton had published his famous Manifeste in 1924. As it turns out, “Borduas awakened slowly to contemporary painting,” in marked contrast with another Quebecer, Alfred Pellan, also in Paris at the time, “whose omnivorous gallery visiting took in Cubism, Surrealism, and all the avant-garde currents.” Like his master and mentor, Ozias Leduc, Borduas was preparing for a career as a church decorator, and that is where his focus lay.

When his scholarship ran out, Borduas tried to remain in France, but the economic environment was deteriorating fast and employment prospects were uncertain at best. He returned to Montreal in 1930 to face a situation that was not much better. Fortunately, Leduc was there to help, again, and for a while, the aging master provided Borduas with religious commissions. But even that did not last and, eventually, Borduas was forced to fall back on teaching drawing skills to children in primary schools in Montreal. Prospects for a full-fledged artistic career were beginning to look remote.

By the late 1930s, however, some things began to change that would facilitate his emergence as a figure of historical proportion. In 1937, he started teaching at the École du meuble, an arts, design and woodcarving school in Montreal. This helped stabilize his financial situation, but, crucially, it also allowed him to gravitate to the city’s intelligentsia. Perhaps even more importantly, it enabled him to connect with a younger generation of adult creators, some of whom would eventually coalesce around him as the Automatistes. Then, in 1939, he became the first vice-president of the Contemporary Art Society, a group that would “play an important role in spreading the renown of Borduas’s work.” Last but not least: Alfred Pellan returned from France. After 14 years in Europe, the war had forced Quebec’s leading representative of the avant-garde to come back home and he lost no time organizing a large and audacious retrospective of his work. Borduas visited the show and, although his thoughts are not recorded, Gagnon surmises that “it must have strongly impressed him.”

Around the fall of 1941, Borduas began experimenting with abstraction and soon produced his remarkable gouaches. He described his approach, which drew heavily from Breton’s écriture automatique, in the following way: “I begin with no preconceived idea. Faced with the white sheet, my mind free of any literary ideas, I respond to my first impulse … Once the first line is drawn, the page has been divided and that division starts a whole series of thoughts which proceed automatically.”

The moniker had not yet been coined, but this was the beginning of the Automatiste movement, which would go on to revolutionize pictorial art in Quebec. To take the historical measure of this development, it is worth remembering that it would be another five years before Abstract Expressionism appeared in New York.

As the leader of the Automatistes, Borduas now took it upon himself to advocate, vocally, for a new way of looking at art, one that was free of the -cultural and religious blinkers then imposed by the clergy and the bien-pensant. But his intransigence, which, at times bordered on the messianic, became a growing source of tension within his social circle. It reached a climax in 1948 with the publication of Refus Global, a poorly written and somewhat rambling manifesto that nonetheless had a very clear gist: tradition and the church can both go to hell. In their place, Borduas and his collaborators encouraged readers to “Make way for magic! Make way for objective mysteries! Make way for love!” Today, this may sound a little funny, but in 1948, it was revolutionary stuff.

The reaction was swift: only a few weeks after the manifesto hit the press, Borduas was denounced in the media and dismissed from the École du meuble, at the personal request of no less than the Quebec deputy minister of social welfare and youth. In the run-up to the publication of Refus Global, Borduas’s activism had led to a painful break with several friends and collaborators, including with John Lyman, the founder and first president of the CAS. But now Borduas was without a job; he also lost his pension since he had refused to resign voluntarily. Until his death in 1960, he would have to rely on his art alone to survive. It would not be easy.

Despite the kerfuffle, the political impact of Refus Global was, at first, extremely limited. It was only several years later that the manifesto acquired a much broader significance and that it came to represent the first salvo of the Quiet Revolution. In the process, Borduas also became a kind of nationalist hero. The irony is that this is not what the painter from St. Hilaire had envisaged. In fact, Borduas saw himself as completely “apolitical” and had very little sympathy for nationalism, whatever its kind. He consistently refused to see his art as politically committed and had nothing but contempt, Gagnon writes, for Mexican muralism, American social realism and Russian realism. Still, Borduas could not ignore the political consequences of his acts and he paid a very high price for his convictions: he died in Paris, in exile, alone and bitter, his artistic expectations unfulfilled.

It is difficult to imagine a scholar more knowledgeable and more qualified to write about Borduas than François-Marc Gagnon. The founding director of the Institute for Studies in Canadian Art at Concordia University, Gagnon spent much of his career writing about Borduas and the Automatiste movement. In fact, this vocation appears to run in the family: his father, Maurice, was an art critic and, until 1948, a close friend of Borduas—it was he who had made possible the ground-breaking exhibition at the Théâtre de l’Ermitage in 1942—and Gagnon met the artist on several occasions as a child. His book, however, adopts a resolutely academic approach, one that focuses squarely on the artist’s pictorial and aesthetic evolution, and this will unfortunately limit its appeal. Many aspects of Borduas’s personal life such as his rocky relationship with his former student Jean-Paul Riopelle, his daughter’s mental illness, the tension in—and subsequent break-up of—his marriage, the anguish and frustration of his last years in exile, all these are merely glossed over, when they are mentioned at all. Gagnon, for instance, does not even state the cause of Borduas’s death, a heart attack. Those already familiar with the painter will find much food for thought in this well-illustrated volume. But those approaching Borduas’ life and work for the first time may prefer to use Gagnon’s book as a companion to a more standard biography.