Paul-Émile Borduas’ monumental body of work and collection of writings have had a significant impact on the contemporary pictorial aesthetic of Québec and Canada. Primarily known as a painter, the artist was also an educator, theoretician, essayist, and critic. In his youth, Borduas was drawn to art through the various forms of religious art he encountered, namely while working as an assistant to the painter Ozias Leduc, with whom he decorated church interiors. Borduas completed studies at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal (1923-1927), before pursuing his art instruction in France (1928-1930), at the Ateliers d’art sacré. In 1939, he obtained tenure as a teacher at the École du meuble de Montréal, where he met a new generation of artists and colleagues with whom he eventually founded the Automatistes. The influence of European avant-garde movements, such as Surrealism, Fauvism, and Cubism, prompted him to explore abstraction. Driven by his deep conviction of the need for political, social, and cultural renewal to which art could indeed contribute, Borduas dedicated himself more seriously to oil painting and began the journey that would lead him to automatic painting and the publication of the Refus global in 1948. This manifesto, signed by Borduas and 15 of his colleagues, including Marcel Barbeau, Marcelle Ferron, Fernand Leduc, Jean-Paul Mousseau, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and Françoise Sullivan, provoked a flood of reaction throughout Québec, upsetting established ideas and denouncing the rigid values of a society that had been tarnished by its blind adherence to the authority of the Catholic clergy. Borduas’ radical views led to his dismissal from the École du meuble in 1948, after which he devoted himself entirely to the revolutionary project of the Automatistes. The group became increasingly known and active within the Montréal scene before gradually dissolving around 1953, with each of its members following their own path. For Borduas, this involved moving to New York for two years, where he began integrating Abstract Expressionist techniques into his work, while hoping to position himself on the international scene. He moved to Paris in 1955, and in the following year, established what would become the fundamental structure for his black and white paintings, which constitute the final phase of his production. The artist died in Paris in 1960.

Portait of Paul-Émile Borduas.
Photo: Janine Niepce (1959)