Marrying the Muse with Politics: Paul-Emile Borduas, Canada and Québec's Most Renowned Painter
Category: Contemporary
Written by G. Tod Slone, Ed.
Editor: Kellie A. Hanna

The American Dissident:
Les amis du regime nous soupconnent de favoriser la . Les amis de la de n'etre que des revoltes... (Friends of the regime suspect us of being revolutionaries, while friends of the Revolution suspect us of being mere rebels...)
-Refus Global (1948)

The Museum of Modern Art (Musée des beaux-arts) of Montreal marked the 50th anniversary of Refus Global (Global Refusal), the manifesto drawn up by the Quebec painter Paul-Emile Borduas (1905-1960). The museum presented a retrospective of the manifesto and of the artist's entire oeuvre, and maintains a permanent collection of Borduas' paintings and sculpture. Borduas' black and white photos were exhibited at the Bibliotheque nationale du Quebec in Montréal. I attended both exhibits, being a frequent traveler to Montreal and avid Francophile. The photo exhibit was presented in a single large room. Many of the prints were of the Gaspé peninsula north of Maine and New Brunswick, famous for the Rocher Percé, a massive pierced rock island quite close to the shore. They were beautiful photos.

In his controversial Atlantic Monthly article, kept in permanence on the magazine's Web site, Dana Gioia excused the lack of criticism and social commentary in modern writing because it was "a difficult task to marry the Muse happily to politics." The academic poet further noted that "consequently, most contemporary poets, knowing that they are virtually invisible in the larger culture, focus on the more intimate forms of lyric and meditative verse."

The marriage between the Muse and social commentary seems even more difficult in the visual arts, especially where words are not employed. Indeed, only a handful of great works come to mind where this occurs, including Picasso's "Guernica," Goya's "The 2nd of May, 1808", and Munch's "The Howl."

Borduas, in his courageous manifesto Refus Global, sought such a marriage, denouncing the religious and political establishment entrenched in Québec, which kept the Québécois people in a state of subservience, poverty, and exploitation, especially by American and Canadian corporations. The manifesto itself is a very interesting document. In fact, for me it is far more interesting than even Borduas' paintings. Refus Global aspired to break definitively from the restrictive and prevailing values of Québec society and its spirit of utility. ("Rompre définitivement avec toutes les habitudes de la société, se désolidariser de son esprit utilitaire.") The signatories of the manifesto declared their REFUS or refusal to close eyes to the vices--the deceit--perpetrated under the guise of wisdom, loyalty and self-aggrandizement. ("Refus de fermer les yeux sur les vices, les duperies perpétrées sous le couvert du savoir, du service rendu, de la reconnaissance due.")

The manifesto is unique in that it marked the beginning of modern-day Québec. Because of it, Borduas was fired from his job at the Ecole des arts et des métiers, where he was an art teacher, proof of the utter lack of free speech in Québec at the time. Needless to say, the manifesto provoked much brouhaha, though only for several months after its publication. Later it was republished in 1960, the year of Borduas' death at the very dawn of Québec's Révolution tranquille, or Tranquil Revolution, in which Québec intellectuals eventually appropriated the power of the state from the Catholic church.

Refus Global also announced a new artistic movement, the Automatists, who in accord with the manifesto sought to eschew the rigid structure imposed by Montréal society upon art at the time and espouse new forms dictated by the irrationality of automatic and spontaneous mental processes. Borduas, who spent time in exile in both New York and Paris was inspired by the French surrealists, especially André Breton, who himself had drawn up an artistic manifesto. Indeed, Borduas' painting is especially characterized by the so-called surrealist gouaches and gestural, expressionistic abstraction of pictorial modernism. It is easy to see by his work that he was also influenced by Jackson Pollack during his sojourn in New York.

Personally (and I am not a visual artist per se), I was not overly impressed by Borduas' paintings at the Musée des beaux-arts in Montréal. Many--if not most--of them depicted what looked like technical experimentations in form and texture. Clearly, today Borduas' work has lost its nonconformist shock value. Unfortunately for me, much of his paintings appeared all too similar one to the next; and for the most part, reminded me of expensive wallpaper. The banal description of "The Red Veils" would seem to fit many of the works today: "The Red Veils stands out from the rest of Borduas' paintings in that the paint surface is much thinner and more economically applied than usual, especially for a work from 1955."

Indeed and unfortunately, in opposition to those masterpieces by Picasso, Goya, and Munch mentioned above, Borduas' paintings are more described by the thickness of the paint and pattern of the [strokes] than by the actual subject matter. For this reason, the impact of any political or social commentary intended by Refus Global is so diminished as to have become negligible. The political message of Goya's "The 2nd of May,1808" will soon be 200 years old and will still have a powerful impact upon the observer. Today, a 50 year old Borduas painting has no such impact.

-To view some of Borduas' paintings, as well as those of other Automatists
and manifesto signatories, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Fernand Leduc, go to
the Automatists Paintings site.

-The Montreal Museum of Modern Art (Musée des beaux-arts)

-Paul-Emile Borduas. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1988.

-Le Devoir (May 10, 1998). "Les 50 ans de Refus global."
The French-language Montreal-based daily devoted about 50 pages to Borduas
and his Refus Global in a special edition distributed for free at the museum.
It contains a reprodcution of the manifesto.

-"Les Enfants de Refus Global." 1999. National Film Board of Canada just released
an interesting film about the children of the Québec Automatists, most of whom
expressed discontentment with their Automatist parents.
The movie can be seen at the NFB on rue St-Jean in Montréal.

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