4.8 Canadian Art: Up to and Between the Wars

Please Read

Reid, Dennis. A Concise History of Canadian Painting. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2012. https://archive.org/details/concisehistoryof0003reid/page/n7/mode/2up
Chapter 10. Tom Thompson and the Group of Seven 1913 – 1931 pp145-163
Chapter 11. Emily Carr, LeMoine Fitzgerald, and David Milne 1912-1950 pp164-184

The rise of abstraction and the Automatistes – https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/canadarthistories/part/collectivity/ Edited by Jennifer Lorraine Fraser

Since the early 20th century, abstract art has formed a central stream of modern art. The artists who were the pioneers in Canada exploring abstraction often used nature-based subject matter. They took as images landscape, the body, and nature, filtered through methods we still think of today as abstracting—summarizing, subtracting, and stylizing. Relatively speaking, Canadians were late to abstraction.  In Canada, Kathleen Munn was the first artist to exhibit abstract, Cubist-inspired paintings in 1923. Early women abstractionists were given little credit in early accounts of art history, and recent renewed interest in artists like Munn, Edna Taçon, and Marian Scott has worked to correct this oversight. Watch the Art Canada Institute preview video for their online book on Kathleen Munn to learn more:

A few years later, Bertram Brooker was the first Canadian artist to hold a solo exhibition of abstract work in 1927 in Toronto at the Arts and Letters Club. To his dismay, the works in view were not received well; especially hurtful were the reactions of his friends and supporters, J.E.H. MacDonald and Arthur Lismer, who could not understand his process and approach.

Artists like Bertram Brooker and Kathleen Munn were influenced by the latest modern art trends happening in the US and Europe, and in their experiments in abstraction they, too, explored the process of separating qualities or attributes from the individual objects to which they belong. The forms these painters used were often blocky, solid, and three-dimensional; they used colour as an expression of mood, musical feeling, or ideas rather than a reflection of the natural world. Art historian Joyce Zemans observes that this “first generation of English-Canadian abstractionists came to maturity at a time when the nationalist discourse of the Group of Seven dominated Canadian art. Artists who chose a different path struggled for critical and institutional support” (2010, 163). Because of the difficulties of being certain of where and when abstract art began in Canada, and because, in Canada, abstract artists did not constitute a single movement, and because abstraction was a tentatively grasped idea that led to numerous strands of development, it is best to call the efforts of these breakthrough artists individual approaches to abstraction. The first collective of abstract artists in Canada exploded onto the scene in Quebec in the 1940s with the Automatistes.

In 1946 artist Claude Gauvreau pronounced, “At last! Canadian painting exists.” He was referring to an exhibition of works by painter Paul-Émile Borduas and some of his disciples in Montreal. These artists came to be known as the Automatistes and would revolutionize art-making in Quebec, making works that could stand up to both New York and Paris (Nasgaard 53). The Automatistes were the first artists to embrace avant-garde gestural abstraction. Gathered under the leadership of Paul-Émile Borduas in the early 1940s, they were inspired by stream-of-consciousness writings of the time and approached their works through an exploration of the subconscious.

The Automatistes were united by their sympathies for European abstraction and outrage over Montreal’s pervasive cultural and political conservatism. The group comprised not just visual artists, but also included dancers, playwrights, poets, critics, and choreographers. Members included Marcel Barbeau, Marcelle Ferron, Roger Fauteux, Fernand Leduc, Jean-Paul Mousseau, Pierre Gauvreau, Louise Renaud, and Jean-Paul Riopelle.

The Automatistes’ leader, Paul-Émile Borduas, had originally aspired to be a church decorator, and apprenticed with one of the forefathers of Quebec art, Ozias Leduc, a distinguished painter who is best known for his extensive religious work in churches. Leduc encouraged Borduas to go to Paris in 1928 to study art with Maurice Denis, a French artist who was devoted to reviving Catholic religious art by recasting its traditional iconography in a more contemporary language—not exactly the most progressive teacher when we consider some of the other radical avant-garde art movements going on in Europe. When Borduas returned to Quebec, there was little church decoration work to be found because of the onset of the Depression in 1929. Instead, he began teaching young children in the Catholic School Board in Montreal, dropping off of everyone’s radar. However, Borduas later recalled of this period that working with children re-established his feelings about art and helped him “unblock his creativity.” Children, he wrote, thus “opened wide for me the door to Surrealism and automatic writing” (Nasgaard 60). He emerged in 1937 to teach at the École du meuble in Montreal. There he joined the intellectual company of colleagues like the art historian Maurice Gagnon. In the early 1940s Borduas began to form strong relationships with his students and with other younger intellectuals, artists, writers, and dancers. Borduas and his followers, including Marcel Barbeau, Jean Paul Riopelle, Pierre Gauvreau, and Jean-Paul Mousseau, met in Borduas’s studio to discuss Marxism, surrealism and psychoanalysis, all subjects disapproved of by the church. Together the group discussed art, life, and politics, and began to reject the Catholic Church, which maintained a firm grip on francophone life and culture.


Paul-Émile Borduas, Abstraction verte, 1941. Oil on canvas, 26 x 36 cm. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, purchase, grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act, and Harry W. Thorpe Bequest. Photo MMFA, Brian Merrett.

Preeminent Borduas scholar François-Marc Gagnon writes of the artist’s early foray into abstraction,

[Borduas’s] style was still figurative [in the late 1930s] and betrayed the influences of his Parisian masters, James W. Morrice and finally also Cézanne and Rouault. His discovery of the Surrealist movement and his reading of “Château étoilé” by André Breton (a text Borduas read in the review Minotaure and which eventually would become chapter 5 in Breton’s L’Amour fou) were decisive for his further career.

In this chapter Breton cited Leonardo da Vinci’s famous advice to his students to carefully look at an old wall until shapes and forms appear in its cracks and stains–shapes that the painter will only have to copy afterwards. This inspired Borduas to consider the piece of paper or the canvas on which he wanted to paint as a kind of psychic screen. By haphazardly tracing a few strokes, that is “automatically” and without any preconceived ideas, Borduas recreated Leonardo’s “old wall.” In this way he would only have to discover and refine arrangements in the drawing and, at a second stage, set them apart from the background by colour.

The art of pictorial automatism was born. Borduas’s first automatist painting, if we are to believe him, was Abstraction verte in 1941. In 1942 he exhibited 45 “surrealist works” in gouache at the Théâtre de l’Ermitage in Montréal. This exhibition was a profound success. The year after, he attempted to transfer to oil the effects he had obtained in his gouaches, but not, however, without introducing important changes. To the dichotomy of drawing and colour which he had explored in the gouaches, he introduced the contrast of figure and ground. (Gagnon 2008)

Fernand Leduc had a central role in the development of ideas of the Automatistes between 1943-47. He was the first to suggest that the grouping of artists, writers, and dancers form a group and the first to propose they come up with a collective manifesto. The first time they were referred to as the Automatistes was in 1947, at an exhibition held in the apartment of the Gauvreau brothers, Claude and Pierre. Tancrède Martin reviewed the show and, inspired by Borduas’s Sous le vent de l’ile or 1.47 (1947), he coined the group’s name.


The Automatistes shared a collective approach to art-making that emphasized a creative process without preconception. They believed that artists should draw what comes naturally to them and then give the work of art a title after it is completed. Using any art materials you have on hand—paper, canvas, paint, pencil, pencil crayon—attempt to create an artwork using the automatism technique, using Borduas’s method of drawing “what the mind sees.” Free your mind and let the image dictate where it goes. Once you feel it is completed, reflect on the experience of making your artwork.

Looking at your artwork, what do you think it represents? What did you like or dislike about this exercise and why? What was challenging and why? Why do you think artists were interested in creating art “without preconception”?

Refus Global (cover), 1948. Ink on paper, 21.5 x 18.5 cm. Canadian Museum of History, RARE N 6546 Q8 R44 1948, IMG2009-0063-0111, Gatineau. Fair dealing copyright Canada.

One of the most important legacies of the Automatistes was their manifesto, Refus Global. Refus Global, or “total refusal” in English, was a manifesto, written by the painter Paul-Émile Borduas and signed by 15 members of the Automatistes. It included texts by Bruno Cormier (later a psychoanalyst), poet Claude Gauvreau, painter Fernand Leduc and Françoise Sullivan (then a dancer). The manifesto was illustrated by Marcel Barbeau, Paul-Émile Borduas, Marcelle Ferron-Hamelin, Pierre GauvreauJean-Paul MousseauJean Paul Riopelle et Maurice Perron, a photographer. Other signatories also included Thérèse Renaud, Madeleine Arbour, Françoise Riopelle, Muriel Guilbault, et Louise Renaud. It was launched at the Librairie Tranquille in Montreal on 9 August 1948.

The passionately written rallying cry of the Automitistes manifesto advocated a need for not just liberation but “resplendent anarchy,” vehemently challenging the traditional values of Quebec. One of its iconic lines was: “To hell with the holy-water-sprinkler and the tuque!” It also anticipated the coming of a “new collective hope.”

The Automatistes were directing their anger at the oppressive nationalism defined by the province’s premier, Maurice Duplessis. The 15-year period that his government was in power became known as “La grande noirceur” (the Great Darkness). Duplessis’s conservative Union Nationale party favoured private businesses and gave overwhelming control of both education and health care to the Catholic Church. It is also clear from its text that the signatories of Refus Global railed against the Catholic Church, which was at the time very fundamentalist, defensive, and moralizing in terms of the French language and repressive customs and habits which lingered still.

Their manifesto claimed:

. . .The fatal disintegration of our collective moral strength into strictly individual and sentimental power has undermined the once formidable shield of abstract knowledge behind which society takes cover to enjoy its ill-gotten gains at leisure.

It took the last two wars to achieve this absurd result. 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.

It is already demanding the passion of exceptional insights, anonymous union in renewed faith in the future, in the future collectivity. . .

You can read the entire text of the anti-establishment manifesto, Refus Global, here.

The effects of Refus Global, the Automatistes’ anti-establishment and anti-religious manifesto, rippled far and wide. It went on to become one of the most important and controversial artistic and social documents in modern Quebec society. The manifesto voiced the group’s desire for liberation and the ushering of a collective hope. The incendiary text caused an uproar in the media, leading to Bordaus’s firing from his teaching job at the École du Meuble. Borduas exiled himself, first to the United States, and then to France, where he died. Refus global helped trigger the Quiet Revolution to come.

Watch this CBC News video about the ripple effects of Refus Globalhttps://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1818456538

Jean Paul Riopelle was another major figure of the Automatistes, a co-signer and cover designer of the manifesto; internationally, he is probably still the best-known Quebecois artist. He studied at the École du Meuble, and while he achieved success in Montreal, it was his relationship with Paris that secured his reputation. He first visited Paris in 1946, and in 1947 he decided to settle there. He was included by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp in the last major group show of the Surrealist movement at the Galerie Maeght in 1947. His work of the 1940s and onward is characterized by a technique in which he squeezed paint directly from the tube onto the canvas, the paint’s threads trailing across the surface so that they criss-cross in a number of directions. From around 1953 Riopelle used a palette-knife, which we can see below in Pavane (1954)—here, the whole surface of his work becomes a mosaic of compact and varied palette-knife strokes that wedged together to form contrasting chromatic zones and movements.

Jean Paul Riopelle, Pavane, 1954. Oil on canvas, 300 x 550 cm, National Gallery of Canada. Uploaded by Wikiart.
The National Gallery of Canada describes Pavane and Riopelle’s style:

Jean Paul Riopelle was one of the most ambitious artists of the group “Les Automatistes”. The artist applied paint directly to the surface of the canvas using a palette knife, blending each mark in a free, abstract and automatic gesture. Space is created by the relationships of colours as they intersect or lay in close proximity to each other. This creates an animated surface, with some colours receding and some dancing forward. This monumental triptych was first exhibited in Canada in 1963 as part of the artist’s retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada, and its title refers to a Spanish dance that originated in the 16th century. The dance incorporates a stately and processional rhythm, which is captured in the energy and movement of this painting. (National Gallery of Canada, n.d.)

The coming years brought Riopelle increasing success and immersion in the Parisian cultural scene. He spent his evenings in Paris bistros with friends, including playwright Samuel Beckett and artist Alberto Giacometti. In the 1960s, Riopelle renewed his ties to Canada. He had exhibitions at the National Gallery of Canada (1963), and the Musée du Quebec held a retrospective of Riopelle’s work in 1967. In the early 1970s, he built a home and studio in the Laurentians in Quebec and divided his time between France and Quebec.

Rita Letendre Sunforce, 1965

Another great painter associated with the Automatistes was Rita Letendre, who was just beginning her academic studies at the time of the signing of the manifesto. Though not embedded into the movement, Letendre’s work was an inspiration and inspired the movement to shoot for international recognition.

One of the most important legacies of Riopelle, Borduas, and the Automatistes was their anti-establishment and anti-religious manifesto, Refus global. It went on to become one of the most important and controversial artistic and social documents in modern Quebec society. The manifesto voiced the group’s desire for liberation and the ushering of collective hope. The incendiary text caused an uproar, and Borduas exiled himself, first to the United States and then to France. Refus global helped trigger the Quiet Revolution to come.




Paterson Ewan was another important artist involved with the Automatistes, and he worked in Montreal and later in London, Ontario. Listen to Dr. John G. Hatch speak of his work here



A number of other artist collectives and groups emerged on the heels of The Automatistes. The Painters Eleven formed after a number of its members exhibited in a show at Simpson’s Department Store in Toronto, entitled Abstracts at Home. The Painters Eleven—Jack Bush, Oscar Cahén, Tom Hodgson, Alexandra Luke, Ray Mead, Kazuo Nakamura, William Ronald, Jock Macdonald, Harold Town, Walter Yarwood, and Hortense Gordon—introduced the kind of abstraction happening in New York to Canadian viewers.

Around the same time in Quebec, a second avant-garde formed. Les Plasticiens were Jauran (Rodolphe de Repentigny), Louis Belzile, Jean-Paul Jérôme, and Fernand Toupin, followed by Guido Molinari, Claude Tousignant, Yves Gaucher and Charles Gagnon. These painters made a decisive impact on art through their explorations of geometric abstraction developed both in Paris and in New York.




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