February 28, 2019 on News by steve

“The Automatists were landscape painters in the great sense of the word, conveying the relationship of man with his geographical environment, with his light. – Marcelle Ferron

Our last article was about Canadian art, but today we would like to focus on an essential movement in the country’s art history and particularly in Quebec.

Founded in the early 1940s by Paul-Émile Borduas, the Automatistes is a group of artists from Quebec, gathered around Borduas who was then a professor at the École du Meuble in Montreal.

The movement includes the painters Marcel Barbeau, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Pierre Gauvreau, Fernand Leduc, Jean-Paul Mousseau, and Marcelle Ferron; writers Claude Gauvreau and Thérèse Renaud; dancers and choreographers Françoise Sullivan, Françoise Riopelle and Jeanne Renaud; designer Madeleine Arbor; actress Muriel Guilbault and photographer Maurice Perron, as well as psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Bruno Cormier.

Totally in tune with the art of the time, the movement bases its principles on the writings of André Breton, the pope of surrealism, and philosophical and aesthetic reflections to which members of the different surrealist factions arrived. On the other hand, the approach advocated by the Automatists is much more intuitive than that of the surrealists who often base the artistic work on an almost anecdotal refection of subjects as opposed to purely plastic work. In fact, the initial work of the Automatists could, plastically speaking, resemble American abstract expressionism even if there is little or no connection between the two schools of thought.

It is generally recognized that the exhibition of forty-five gouaches of Paul-Émile Borduas, in April 1942, at the Foyer de l’Ermitage, in Montreal, is the starting point of the movement. An enthusiastic youth then joins this teacher, adopting his ideas and his project.

It is the journalist and communicator, Tancrède Marsil Jr., who first named the group “Les Automatistes” in his critique of their second exhibition in Montreal (February 15 to March 1, 1947). This article is published in Le Quartier Latin, the student newspaper of the University of Montreal. This name was inspired by the aesthetic discourse of the exhibitors themselves during the opening, including that of its leader, Paul-Émile Borduas, and that of the poet Claude Gauvreau, who advocated the use of automatic writing inspired practices surrealists. The same Gauvreau also reports that this journalistic title was adopted by the group: “The word used by Marcil was very successful and we soon surprised ourselves to brandish it as a flag“.

First strictly a movement in visual arts, different creators from other backgrounds – dance, theater, and literature – would soon join the movement that rapidly became a political and social phenomenon.

Thus appeared on August 9, 1948, the document which will, from then on, represent the movement and which, for more than seventy years now, is generally considered as the spark that will trigger the thought that will lead to the Quiet Revolution in Quebec.

Published at a time when the clergy, supported by the government of Maurice Duplessis, holds  social and cultural hegemony over Quebec, Refus Global comes to question the very foundations of Quebec society fundamentally Catholic, family and rural life.

Paul-Émile Borduas, the author of the manifesto, challenges the traditional values ​​of Quebec society such as the Catholic faith and the attachment to ancestral values, rejects its immobility and seeks to establish a new ideology of openness to universal thought. He considers that surrealism cannot coexist with religious dogma and desires more than anything to remove moral constraints in order to develop individual freedom.

As Borduas writes, “A small people close to the cassocks remained the sole depositories of faith, knowledge, truth and national wealth. Held away from the universal evolution of thought full of risks and dangers, educated without ill-will, but without control, in the false judgment of the great facts of history when complete ignorance is impracticable. ”

With a mere four hundred copies and containing, in addition to Borduas’ texts, illustrations of other participants in the Movement, Refus Global is countersigned by fifteen artists, including eight men and seven women, making it an unusual document for its time,  boasting of an almost perfect gender parity.

Considered as anarchist and antisocial, Borduas’ text strikes the Quebec authorities with full force and is condemned by both religious and political authorities. Refus Global scandalizes the authorities and the press who condemn and censor much of the manifesto. Borduas lost his job as a teacher at the École du Meuble, which he had held since 1937, and had to go into exile in the United States and then in Europe.

Despite this outcry from the authorities, Refus Global will have a fairly limited contemporary impact, the media of the time choosing not to broadcast it exhaustively.

It was not until the sixties and the Quiet Revolution that Quebec accepted the importance of the document. Refus global will soon be associated with the Parti Québécois, being social democrat and neo-nationalist. Indeed, in the 1960s, as Quebec is trying to assert its identity and political autonomy, Borduas will be seen as a hero saving the cultural integrity of the French Canadian people.

Since then, Refus global has become an oft quoted reference pointing out that the “Great Darkness” had not stifled all intellectual life in Quebec, thus being presented as a precursor to the Quiet Revolution and the Quebec Model.


Le Balcon d’art

February 2019