Bold voice from Quebec
NO one did more to draw the attention of the outside world to Canadian abstract art than Paul-Emile Borduas, who was born in the small community of St.-Hilaire, just east of Montreal, and began his working life as a church muralist and decorator. It all started traditionally enough, with Borduas apprenticed, at age 16, to Ozias Leduc, a church artist in St.-Hilaire. Leduc, an unassuming, quiet-living man, eventually was to become appreciated nationally for his artistic talent.
Borduas went on to graduate from the 'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montreal, and Leduc helped him to get to the Ateliers d' Art Sacre in Paris. The Ateliers had been founded by Maurice Denis in 1919 to advance symbolist use of color and form in contemporary church decoration.
After studying there from January to April 1928, Borduas, then 23 years old, worked on churches at Rambucourt in the Meuse, traveled to Brittany, then retraced his steps to Rambucourt and Paris. He was stone-broke by June of the following year, and Leduc paid his way back to Canada and St.-Hilaire.
Until 1938, when he appeared on the Montreal art scene, Borduas remained essentially a church decorator-muralist and teacher. However, gradually, from that point on, he immersed himself in Surrealism, which led to his first remarkably successful solo show of gouaches in Montreal in April 1942. Of the 45 paintings he exhibited, 37 were sold, and art critics contended he had made a breakthrough in Canadian art history.
Borduas was by no means the home front's first artist to paint nonrepresentationally. Abstract painting was being done in Canada as early as the mid-1920s, notably by Bertram Brooker, an immigrant from England. In 1927, its possibilities and potential were more widely revealed when an exhibition of works by, among others, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, and Joseph Stella was shown in Toronto.
Nevertheless, Borduas's artistic expression seemed to surface at a time when Quebec art urgently needed a clear, new voice, and it proved powerful enough to send out waves far and wide.
A group formed around Borduas, comprised mainly of students he had taught and their friends. Among them was Jean-Paul Riopelle, who was to move to Paris in 1946, there to remain.
The art of Borduas and his followers was exhibited with increasing frequency in Montreal and New York. In 1947, Borduas was invited to participate in Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme, Paris, organized by Andr'e Breton and Marcel Duchamp. He turned down the invitation. He was shaping his own, fundamentally Canadian, philosophy in art.
This materialized in 1948 in what has been described as the most important aesthetic statement a Canadian has ever made. It led one reviewer to conclude that, with Borduas, ``modern French Canada began.''
Borduas's statement took the form of a booklet titled ``Refus global.'' It was a cry for artistic freedom in the fullest sense imaginable. The manifesto shocked Quebec politicians and the clergy.
He moved to New York in 1953 but spent most of that summer in Provincetown, Mass., where Hans Hofmann ran a summer school. He returned to New York in September, with 40 new canvases of his work, and early the following year he was given his first solo exhibition in New York at the Passedoit Gallery.
In New York, Borduas came into contact with Robert Motherwell and other American Abstract Expressionist painters, and his own paintings underwent change, from dream images to ``transparent,'' more ``crystalline'' compositions, as he described them, using thick paint applied with a palette knife.
From New York, Borduas moved to Paris in 1955, but restlessness and exhibitions kept him continually on the move. Throughout the balance of the 1950s, and until his days ended in Paris early in 1960, he exhibited in London, D"usseldorf, New York, Montreal, and Toronto, and traveled to Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium, and Greece. Through it all his abiding hope had been to build a studio on the Richelieu River in the vicinity of St.-Hilaire.
``Sea Gull'' is one of a series of paintings with solid black shapes on marbly-hued white surfaces that he began to do around the mid-'50s. He was endeavoring to erase all traces of sentiment from his work.