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The « Refus Global » In Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: A Historical Consideration

Publié le 1 novembre, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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To mark the 60th anniversary of the publication of the Refus global manifesto, the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts has organized a survey of fifty-eight paintings and drawings made by some of the manifesto’s signatories and members of Quebec’s artistic collective “Mouvement Automatiste” (1). An historical evaluation of this movement and the circumstances that surrounded the 1947 publication of their Manifesto yields an appreciation that goes beyond these works’ artistic value. It shows their social and political force.

Author’s bio: Fred McSherry is a Canadian visual artist who lives and works in Montreal. He is preparing an exhibition titled ‘1916’, composed of paintings of soldiers drawn from historical photographs, and a series of etchings based on propaganda posters, from countries involved in WW1. His most recent work was shown in June 2008, at the Williams Street Artists Studios, Montréal.

shadow with green
shikeroku, shadow with green, 2005
Certains droits réservés.

In 1950, when the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts held its 67th Salon du Printemps, all submissions by members of the avant-garde abstractionists, Les Automatistes, were rejected. They were the first group in Canada devoted to nonfigurative painting. In response, members organized a salon des refuses titled “The Rebels.”

From today’s perspective, it is hard to imagine that the artwork could generate extreme reactions. Yet it did, especially from citizens of the worlds of representation: artists, politicians, the art market and its institutions, and especially from the local authorities of the Catholic Church. Today, however, the revolutionary discourse accompanying this work is safely contained within the frame of art history.

The current exhibition, housed in two small galleries in the Museum’s basement, frames the exhibition with two quotations from the manifesto, enlarged and printed on each of the gallery walls. Each quote defines the movement’s objectives slightly differently, but together they synthesize the values that spawned modernism in Quebec: “Make way for magic? Make way for objective mysteries? Make way for love? Make way for necessities! To this global refusal we contrast full responsibility.” Such sentiment provides the context to view more mature automatiste works presented in the opening space of the exhibition. The second gallery houses smaller paintings and works on paper made during the group’s formative period; here, the emotion expressed in the quoted manifesto sits closer to home: “To hell with the goupillon and the tuque. They have seized back a thousand times what they once gave.”

A slightly expanded reading of the Refus global manifesto, by Paul-Emile Borduas, the group’s founding member, helps contextualize the works in the exhibition more fully. He refers to anxieties surrounding the Second World War and, within a local context, envisions the fall of the dominant social order. In both instances, older structures were viewed as complicit in causing the problem.

Christian civilization is coming to an end. The next world war will bring about its total collapse by eliminating all possibility of international competition […] The horror of the third war will be decisive. We are on the brink of a D-day of total sacrifice […] The rats are already fleeing a sinking Europe by crossing the Atlantic. However, events will eventually overtake the greedy, the gluttonous, the sybarites, the unperturbed, the blind and the deaf. They will be mercilessly swallowed up. A new collective hope will dawn. (2)

Change was essential to meet the crisis of hope for any kind of humane future for the world. For the automatistes, that meant embracing and expressing universal principles of modernism. Abstraction was the painter’s affirmation of adherence to this principle. As such, the works displayed also chronicle a transformation and elaboration of realist aesthetics on an international scale. On one hand, in the early work we see the influence of Surrealism, a movement founded by André Breton in France; the Automatistes’ label was borrowed from his idea of “pure psychic automatism.” In Paris, Breton’s ideas were explored through spontaneous or automatic writing, to then lead Surrealist painters to harness the figurative style of painting for an exploration of unconscious impulses and drives. Borduas took this principle further by adapting ‘automatism’ to expressionism in non-representational or abstract imagery—or what would later evolve to and be defined as abstract expressionism. His work from 1950s reveals this influence more explicitly: here the painting’s only formal purpose is the expression of the paint itself, totally unburdened of any literal visual or textual reference to reality as perceived or repressed.

In 1941 Borduas made “Green Abstraction,” his first automatic painting; by 1942, for “Foyer de l’Ermitage,” his first solo exhibition, the artist had completed 45 automatiste works. If 1942 represents the official inauguration of the automatiste movement, the group’s political identification came later. In l947, an inflammatory essay by Henri Pastoureau titled “Rupture Inagurale” was published in Paris and signed by 47 artists including Andre Breton and Quebec artist Jean-Paul Riopelle. The statement, which officially announced the surrealists’ rupture from Communism, was to have consequences for Quebec art and politics. Riopelle gave a copy of the essay to Borduas in Montréal. The rest is history.

This ‘realism vs. abstraction’ battle was little more than a tempest in a teapot in the local context. Adherence to the principals of abstraction advocated change: aesthetic and social transformation went hand in hand. The ‘refus global’ pointed to shifts within francophone Quebec society—the emerging middle class, consumerism, mass media influence and, most importantly, a national identity reborn or what is known as the Quiet Revolution.

We are the offspring of modest French-Canadian families, working-class or petit-bourgeois, French and Catholic from the day we set foot on these shores, steadfast out of resistance to the conqueror, out of stubborn attachment to the past, out of sentimental pleasure and pride, and other drives.

We are a small and humble people clutching the skirts of priests who’ve become sole guardians of faith, knowledge, truth and our national heritage; and we have been shielded from the perilous evolution of thought going on all around us, by well–intentioned but misguided educators who distorted the great facts of history whenever they found it impractical to keep us totally ignorant.

As early as 1760, this colony was cast behind slick walls of fear (the normal refuge of defeated peoples) and abandoned there, for the first time. Our leaders sailed away, or sold themselves to the highest bidder, as they have done ever since, whenever they had the chance.

A small and humble people grown from a Jansenist colony, isolated, defeated, we were powerless to defend ourselves against invasion by all the religious orders of France and Navarre, carrying with them the pomp and privilege of a Catholicism badly mauled in Europe, rushing to establish themselves in this land blessed by fear-the-mother-of-wisdom. Since then, our institutions of learning, past masters of obscurantism, heirs to automatic, infallible papal authority, have never lacked means to organize a monopolistic reign of selective memory, static reason, paralysing intention. (3)

The exhibition is as much a narrative of dissidence as it is of influence: surrealism and abstract expressionism on Borduas, Borduas on everybody else. As Canada’s first generation of non-figurative painters, the Automatists drew on their intuitions and feelings rather than classic rules of style and form. The philosophy this collective came to embrace spread from the visual arts to dance, theatre, and poetry.

The Automatists suspended group activities in l954 after Borduas moved to New York City, and then finally to Paris in 1956. Borduas’ move to New York in l953 influenced his work significantly. Works by the Abstract Expressionists, including Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock among others, gave him the impetus to move to a more clear-cut formalist use of the painting medium. Many Automatists followed Borduas and exchanged Quebec for Paris in l950s, continuing the evolution of their respective aesthetic research into the 1960s and on.

The current exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts aligns modernism in Quebec with American abstract expressionism more than with the French surrealist school. Borduas’ 1956 painting “Radiating Expansion” is the first we see; his effortless handling of paint on canvas with palate knife giving us an example of his most impressive formally abstract style. The painting is white on black and highly textured, its title referring to the poetic idea of the black ground spreading far past the picture frame. Jean-Paul Riopelle’s 1962 painting “Vertigo” gives the viewer a small taste of his passionately energetic classic technique in full bloom. The surface is highly textured with the palette knife creating a crescendo of strong color. Fernand Leduc’s l962 painting “Binary Coloring” reveals the artist’s later association with the Plasticiens. His hard edge, flat and uniform oil coloring, and abstract design negate all the subjective expression of his earlier works. The remaining paintings in this gallery echo the same inspiring confidence and maturity of vision.

As we move to the heart of the exhibition, the works in the smaller gallery reveal the influences of French Surrealism on group members earlier on. Borduas’ 1945 painting titled “The Enchanted Island” depicts a nocturnal Freudian partial abstraction of a sexualized couple. His “Glorious Cemetery” (1948) shows some painterly expressiveness emerging. “Arctic Landscape” assembles tree trunk-like forms in a semi-circle on an alien red/grey background. Borduas continues exploring his style, enlarging canvases and taking them to greater degrees of abstraction, as in the 1953 painting titled “Planet Fragments” and the arresting “Les lezardes fleuries.”

Stylistic developments from academicism to abstract define the trajectories of all the artists in the group. Riopelle”s small l946 paintings “Untitled” and “L’Isle-aux Grues” illustrate the transition from his classical art training to automatisme, which is characterized by a dense composition of chaotic unstructured elements with stress on the process of chance. Amorphic forms and brush strokes tease the viewer to try and separate them. Jean Paul Mousseau’s two small fascinating 1945 collage pieces in paper were inspired by an art catalogue on Surrealism he found in Riopelle’s studio in New York. Again, all the other artists’ work in this gallery is striking in its intensity and superb in its level of articulation. One member, Françoise Sullivan, trained in New York and a pioneer of Quebec modern dance, is documented in a series of black and white photographs by fellow member Maurice Perron. She was performing her “Dance dans la neige” at St. Hilaire outdoors in mid-winter l948. This early form of dance without an audience anticipates the emergence of performance art on the one hand and the fresh idea of ‘dance without walls’ on the other; the manifesto affirmed her sense of individual creativity:

The reign of hydra-headed fear has ended.
In the wild hope of effacing its memory, I enumerate:
fear of facing prejudice—fear of public opinion—of persecutions—of general disapproval;
fear of being alone, without the God and the society which isolate you anyway:
fear of oneself—of one’s brother—of poverty;
fear of the established order—or ridiculous justice;
fear of new relationships;
fear of the superrational;
fear of necessities;
fear of floodgates opening on the one’s faith in man—on the society of the future;
fear of the forces able to release transforming love;
Blue fear—red fear—white fear; links in our shackles.
From the reign of debilitating fear we pass to that of anguish. (4)

Borduas portrays the Church as a strange breakaway from the modernist message of truth-giving freedom, of liberating honesty and mutual understanding. From August l947 to January l948, the print media attacked the manifesto and its creator on a daily basis.

It is intriguing to observe how strenuously the Catholic Church tried to neutralize Borduas and his philosophy. His manifesto clearly identifies the church as the enemy of the people of Quebec, not their protector. In l947, not even a month after the Manifesto was published, Borduas was fired from École du Meuble, where he had been teaching since l937. Unrepentant in l949, Borduas published 1000 copies of “Projections liberantes,” an autobiographical essay defending Refus global.

Before these upheavals, the Catholic Church in Quebec had already banned thousands of films from the public view. The list of inappropriate reading material was served by Rome’s Ecclesiastical index. Quebec’s bishops also ensured that theirs was the last territory in North America to make public education compulsory. In 1937 there were only 26 public libraries available to the population in the entire province. Only in l943 were Quebec children under 14 required to attend school.

Until the publication of the Refus global manifesto, a firm censure limited Quebec artists to paint only approved subjects, in a non-abstract, narrative form. In his formative years Borduas painted religious images, church windows, portraits of priests, sunny landscapes, and still life compositions. No examples of these works are a part of the current exhibition, so the viewer cannot make comparisons first hand. However, the artwork in this show sheds some light on this individual’s and this group’s passion for ideas. One can only marvel at their irrepressible enthusiasm in attacking the oppressive restraints and thereby helping launch the Quiet Revolution.


(1) The exhibition, titled “Refus Global 60 Years Later: Recent Acquisitions,” runs at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion from June 19 to December 7, 2008. Further information is available at .
(2) Borduas, Paul-Émile. “Refus Global Manifesto.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. .
(3) Borduas, Paul-Émile. “Refus Global Manifesto.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. .
(4) Borduas, Paul-Émile. “Refus Global Manifesto.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. .

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