BORN: St-HiLaire, Quebec • 1 November 1905
DIED: Paris, France • 22 February 1960
Dreak permanently with the customs of society, disassociate yourself from its utilitarian values,” the pamphlet shouted. “Refuse to live know¬ ingly beneath the level of our psychic potential. Refuse to close your eyes to the vices, the frauds perpetrated under the guise of knowledge, of services rendered, of favours repaid.”
These words are from Refusglobal,the 1948 manifesto written by Paul-Emile Borduas and signed by him and his artist friends. Refusglobal hit like a hurricane, angering the clergy, the Quebec government of Maurice Duplessis, the press, and artists who reacted against modernism.
Within a few months Paul Sauve, the otherwise progressive minister of social welfare and youth, fired Borduas from his teaching post at the Ecole du Meuble, and in Duplessis’ Quebec almost no one objected. Even the editor ofLe Devoir rejected Borduas’ position and lent him not a whit of support. The firebrand of Quebec art was on his own.
Born to pious parents of modest circumstances, Borduas had intended to be a religious artist. He trained with the great Ozias Leduc in St-Hilaire, studied in Montreal and Paris, and returned to Canada in 1930 just as the Depression dried up church finances and work. To survive, Borduas taught drawing, and in 1937 found a post at the Ecole du Meuble, a provincial art and crafts school.
A natural teacher, he began to gather disciples around him. He soon fell under the influence of surrealism and his style of painting changed dramatically. To Borduas, a man who had turned away from the Catholicism of his youth, surrealism became his new faith, an idea best expressed through what he called Automatisme, spontaneous painting inspired by stream-of- consciousness writing.
His students and friends followed him, and Les Automatistes, a group that included Jean-Paul Riopelle, were born. Borduas and friends argued and fought about Marxism, psychoanalysis, and art, and their exhibitions began to draw notice by 1946 in New York, Paris, and Montreal. “At last,” one critic cheered after a Montreal exhi¬ bition, “at last Canadian painting exists.”
The Refus global in 1948, a mimeographed pamphlet printed in only 400 copies, turned the cultural group into a revolutionary movement— in the eyes of the Quebec establishment.Borduas’ manifesto, ostensibly about aesthetics, was one of the first challenges to the traditional values of French-Canadian society.
Quebeckers were “a little people huddled to the skirts of a priesthood viewed as sole trustee of faith, knowledge, truth and national wealth,” he wrote, “shielded from the broader evolution of thought as too risky and dangerous.” The influence of church and state had to be toppled, replaced by freedom, spontaneity, and “creative anarchy”; only then was hope possible.
Scorned as a madman by some, a radical and atheist by others, Borduas was driven into poverty, a martyr to liberty but one almost completely unable to support his wife and three children. His art continued to draw increasing interest, however, and he won prizes in Montreal if few sales.
Soon he was working, living, and exhibiting in the United States, a freer society where painters like de Kooning, Rothko, Motherwell, and Pollock became influences on him, though his lack of English hampered direct communication. His work was almost completely abstract now, featuring textured paint ofmany colours exploding on the canvas.
He found buyers in New York, and the great public institutions began to buy.In 1955 he returned to live and work in Paris.His Parisian final years were not happy. He missed Montreal and Canada, pronouncing himself ready to give up Paris “and everything good in the world for a comfortable little corner, if it was in Canada.”
But he continued to paint furiously, and his paintings were purchased by the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York and the Dominion Gallery in Montreal. No one doubted his place now, but Paris was not home. “I belonged first to my village,” he wrote in 1959,“then to my province; next, I considered myself French- Canadian, and after my first trip to Europe, more Canadian than French; Canadian (simply Canadian, no different from my compatriots) in New York, and lately North American.
From now on, I hope to ‘possess’ the whole world.” It was not to be, for Borduas died in his studio in Paris at the age of fifty-four. A great painter, his work still prized, Borduas the man is remembered above all for his 1948 manifesto. Fifteen years after its publication, the ideas in Refus global were accepted everywhere in Quebec and the influence of Roman Catholicism had collapsed.
To some, “modern French Canada began” with Borduas, and the great shove he gave to the traditional Quebec values and virtues helped topple the old ways. The Quiet Revolution and the development of the Quebecois nation, to some, truly began with Borduas and his Refus global.