Paul Émile Borduas




In his Paris studio, Paul-Émile Borduas, Québec's voice of the Quiet Revolution, reflects on the impact of his writing and his art.

Thirty years after the Group of Seven produced their symbols of Canada, French-speaking Montréalers began to seek an artistic language to convey the complex reality of their changing society. Under the leadership of painter Paul-Émile Borduas, this group of artists laid the foundations for a social and artistic revolution.

Following his training at the École des Beaux-Arts, Borduas led a sort of double career, teaching drawing when the opportunity arose while contributing, alone or with his former master, Ozias Leduc, to the decoration of churches. Art and religion were closely linked during this period: the Church commissioned or bought works from artists, as large corporations do today.

Through his encounters and travels, Borduas developed a theory of art diametrically opposed to the teachings of his contemporaries. Rejecting the very conformist concept of art prevailing in Québec, he preferred the spontaneity of the surrealists, their rejection of censorship and the importance they placed on primal human impulses.

This philosophy of art was described by Borduas in a manifesto entitled Refus global, published in 1948. In it, Borduas laid out the artist's "untamed need for liberation" and lamented the arrival of a period in which "intuition loses it primacy to reason." In Borduas' view, the reign of reason and progress was not well suited to creation. Mystical, though not necessarily religious, Borduas also denounced the "cassocks that have remained the sole repositories of faith, knowledge, truth and national wealth." To understand the shock waves triggered by Refus global, one must understand the very conservative nature of the Maurice Duplessis regime. A short time after Refus was published, progressive Catholics supported the miners' union, while the Duplessis government and the Catholic rear guard sided with an unscrupulous large corporation during the famous 1949 strike in Asbestos. In part, it was against this unbridled materialism that Borduas and his colleagues rebelled in Refus. In their view, free art could not thrive in a society in which "rational exploitation is slowly expanding to all social activities." In this setting, it is hardly surprising that Borduas, the eldest of the 14 who signed Refus global, became the scapegoat among this group of artists, later identified as the automatistes. Borduas was fired from his position at the École du meuble and never again held an official position in Québec. His work as a painter fully flowered in New York City and Paris. Borduas died in Paris in 1960, in the prime of life and at the height of his artistic career, just as the modern Québec, of which Refus global remains one of the symbols and founding acts, began to emerge.

  • Borduas – Jean Marchand
  • Additional Cast – Francine Laurendeau