Paul-Émile Borduas, an artist with revolutionary ideas

Paul-Émile Borduas in 1946. © Library and Archives Canada / Ronny Jaques

For the week of August 3, 2020.

On August 1948, Paul-Émile Borduas and 15 other artists who were members of the Automatistes published the manifesto Refus Global, which became a key reference during Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.

Borduas was born in Saint-Hilaire, Quebec, in 1905. He was interested in art from a young age and trained with the church painter Ozias Leduc in the 1920s before continuing his education at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal, where he refined his artistic style. He later taught drawing at Collège André Grasset from 1933 to 1937 and then at École du meuble de Montréal from 1937 to 1948.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Borduas moved away from the Symbolism style of art he had developed under Leduc’s influence, and explored cubism, fauvism, and surrealism. His surrealist approach was influenced, in part, by the French poet André Breton, who suggested the idea of spontaneous art, without preconceived ideas. Borduas also believed in the idea that the artist should not imitate but rather create, explore, and experiment: he wanted to make “living” art. His first Automatiste painting, Green Abstraction (Abstraction verte) (1941), was based on these ideas.

Starting in 1941, Borduas mentored young artists from Montréal’s École du meuble and École des beaux-arts. He created the Automatistes group, building on Breton’s ideas. The group organized exhibits and discussions that were free of censorship, and encouraged artists to become socially and politically engaged. Borduas was the lead author of the Refus Global, the manifesto of the Automatistes, published in 1948. Its rejection of French‑Canadian society, which at the time was deeply associated with the Catholic faith, was not well received in Quebec, where it was viewed as an attack on the authority of the clergy and the conservative nationalism of Premier Maurice Duplessis.

Borduas lost his job at the École du meuble and left Canada for New York in 1953. He later went into exile in Paris, France, in 1955. It was only after his death, in 1960, that ideas put forward by Borduas in Refus Global started to take hold in Quebec, where they influenced the transformation of society during the Quiet Revolution.

Ozias Leduc (1864-1955) is designated a national historic person.The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

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