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Paul-Émile Borduas

Paul-Émile Borduas was born on November 1st 1905 in Saint-Hilaire Quebec.

Very young, Borduas wanted to become a painter, but his family did not have the means to put him trough art school.

Borduas came to Art through a side door.  In the village church, he met a very well know painter-decorator named Ozias Leduc of whom he became the apprentice.

In 1921, Borduas is 16 years old.  Leduc tells him that he should enrol at l'École des Beaux-Arts de Montreal.
During the next seven years, Borduas worked with Leduc and studied at both l'École technique de Montreal and l'École des Beaux-Arts.

In 1927, Leduc obtains from Mgr Olivier Maurault, who was the parish priest at cathedral Notre-Dame in Montreal, the money necessary to send Borduas at the Ateliers d'art sacré in Paris.  In 1928, after teaching in the primary school system of Montreal, Borduas embarks for France where he will stay two years.  There, he will discover works of European artists like Cézanne who will have a profound influence on the paintings of his younger years.

Borduas returns to Quebec in the middle of the great Depression.  Without work, he thinks he might have to exile himself to South America in order to survive. Then, he is offered a teaching job at l'École du meuble. There, he will teach until 1948. Among his students, is the young Jean-Paul Riopelle.

In 1938 Borduas encounters John Lyman, a painter and critic of the Montreal art scene. At the first exhibition of one of Borduas' paintings, Lyman encouraged him to join the Contemporary Arts Society, a group that made the promotion of abstract art in Canada. In January 1939 Borduas is elected vice-president of the Contemporary Arts Society.

The influence of Borduas among the young students painters of Quebec grows.  Soon he will be the leader of the Automatist movement and he starts thinking of making Montreal the centre of a School as prestigious and influential as l'École de Paris or New York.

In 1937, André Breton publishes «l'Amour fou»  in which he reproduces Leonardo da Vinci's words recommending to his students to look deeply at an old wall until they start seeing in it, among the cracks and the stains forms that they can start using, imitating. Borduas recreates da Vinci's old wall by tracing spontaneously on his canvas, a few lines which will guide him when he applies oil or gouache. That is when Borduas abstract work begins.  He is, from that moment, more interested by the act of painting than by the subject painted.  He stops making preparatory sketches. He concentrates on expressing his unconscious feelings and the emotions of the moment.  From these uncontrolled movements, the Automatism concept will emanate.
The 1941 painting entitled « Abstraction verte » is the first automatist work of Borduas.

In August of 1948, Borduas publishes «Refus global», a manifesto that is a severe critic of the French Canadian culture.

Refus Global denounces the old conservative ideology that pervades the province of Quebec. He calls for a wider opening on the world.

Paul-Émile Borduas

Paul-Émile Borduas

Abstraction Verte (1941)

Abstraction verte (1941)

Étoile noire (1957)

L'étoile noire (1957)

Paul-Émile Borduas (sans titre)

Paul-Émile Borduas
(sans titre)

Composition (1949)

Composition (1949)

Antique Jewels(1956)

Antique Jewels(1956)

The tomb of the deceased cathedral (1949)

The tomb of the deceased cathedral (1949)

Paul-Émile Borduas (sans titre)

Paul-Émile Borduas
(sans titre)

Paul-Émile Borduas( sans titre )

Paul-Émile Borduas
( sans titre )

Refus Global is unquestionably the source of the «Révolution tranquille» in Quebec. In it Borduas denounces the authority of the Church, accuses the Duplessis government of keeping the province in a «middle Ages» way of thinking.  He calls on Quebecquers to reject the backward way of thinking, to stop obeying, like a flock of sheep's, to the authority.  Quebecquers must grow out of their old culture and they must create a new one based on emotions, feelings, and what he called «magie».

At the time, the Catholic Church controlled the whole life of Quebec. The education system, the politic, the judiciary world all bowed to the «holy order». In such a social climate, Borduas ideas were to say the least revolutionary.  These attacks against the clergy got him fired from, l'École du Meuble.

New York

Without any means of living, Borduas leaves Quebec for New York in April of 1953. There, he thinks he can experiment freely while in the centre of the creation world. In the American metropolis, he paints, he exhibits his works in .New York, Philadelphia, Montreal; he participates to the 17th Venice biennale.

He meets Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and many other expressionist painters. Influenced by Piet Mondrian's work and by Kasimir Malevitch
« suprématism » Borduas style goes through radical's transformations. Filtered through the Expressionist works, his paintings are purged of the last reality signs. Flat zones emerge toward a black and white chromatic tendency.  In New York he starts using exclusively the spatula to apply the paint.

But in New York he must compete with Jean-Paul Riopelle. There, the former student is much more popular than the teacher.

Conscious that Borduas was the teacher and Riopelle the student, the American critique can't help but be more enthusiastic for the work of the student. This drives a formidable wedge between the two artists.


In 1955, Borduas decides to go to Paris, where he thinks he will get more recognition. But he will never know the expected success.
Even if he knows certain popularity internationally ― his works are exhibited in London, Australia, Germany, and Switzerland ―
he feels neglected. His first solo exhibition in Paris will be offered to him 4 years after his arrival there.

Although Borduas is bored in Paris, and his health is deteriorating, it is at that moment that he creates his masterpiece: «l'Étoile noire».    
« L’Étoile noire » is the prototype of the expressionist abstract movement. It reflects the existential anguish of the post-atomic era generation, the masses of peoples decimated by war.   « L’Étoile noire » shows Borduas disillusion.

Borduas style becomes more and more calligraphic in accord with the new project of a new exile, this time to Japan.

But his artistic career is cut short with « Composition 69 », a painting where the canvas is completely covered by a black paste, laid down in thick overlapping squares until they form a solid mortuary mass. At the top of the canvas, through a few cracks a little white shows.

On February 22nd 1960, Borduas dies of a heart attack, in his Paris studio.


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Last update: April 11  2018

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