A favourite bedtime story among Quebec's creative class tells of how modernity came to the province by way of a slender booklet, penned by a group of frustrated artists, and which barely sold 200 copies.

Part artistic creed, part political manifesto, the "Refus global" scandalized much of Quebec society when it was launched 60 years ago this weekend at a small Montreal bookstore.

Saying "to hell with the holy-water sprinkler and the tuque!" – as the Refus does in its preface – was blasphemy in a Quebec ruled by iron-fisted then-premier Maurice Duplessis and a ubiquitous Roman Catholic Church.

"It was a violent rupture with the environment," said writer and art critic Paquerette Villeneuve, who was 17 when she attended the launch.

"The establishment had never heard anything like this."

The artists who signed the manifesto were excited about avant-garde movements afoot in the rest of the world, particularly among the French surrealists.

Known as the Automatistes, the group of 16 wanted to break from traditional, academic forms of art in favour of more spontaneous expressions of the subconscious mind.

The booklet articulates this spirit with pieces by modern dance pioneer Françoise Sullivan, an absurdist play by Claude Gauvreau and a cover by abstract painter Jean-Paul Riopelle.

"It's the key to all abstract, to the revolution that happened in the art world," said Iegor de Saint-Hippolyte, a Montreal art auctioneer who recently sold a copy of the Refus global for $12,000, compared with its original cover price of $1.

But if the impact of the Refus global was felt well beyond art circles, it was thanks primarily to its incendiary preface, written by artist Paul-Emile Borduas and signed by the 15 others.

Progressive ideas were sweeping Europe

His call to "break finally with all the conventional patterns of society" was a challenge to conservative forces to bring Quebec in line with the progressive ideas sweeping Europe and the U.S.

"It was momentous in the cultural history of Quebec because it basically opened the doors to modernity," said Irish Amizlev, curator of a retrospective on the Refus global at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

"People had to go beyond Quebec's borders to see the real world and join the international currents."

Yet Borduas' clarion was initially shocking and unwelcome. Despite a limited print run of 400 copies, the manifesto made headlines for months.

Borduas was fired from his job as an art teacher and he spent the remaining years of his life in self-imposed exile in New York and Paris.

"You have to realize these people were artists, they were struggling with financial difficulties as well as rejection from society," Amizlev said. "Signing the Refus global was not easy."  

By 1960, the progressive and internationalist credo of the Refus began to be echoed in mainstream society.

The government of then-premier Jean Lesage kick-started the Quiet Revolution with a wholesale rejection of the values embodied during Duplessis' tenure, labelled the Great Darkness.

Blacklisted artists went on to find success

Artists blacklisted after signing the Refus, such as Marcelle Ferron, were suddenly sought after for large-scale public works in places such as Montreal's subway system.

Others, Riopelle and Fernand Leduc among them, left Quebec and enjoyed stellar careers on the international art scene. 

Quebec's conservatives, in the meantime, struggled to regain the traction they once had. The Roman Catholic Church is now a shadow of its former self, while Mario Dumont of the Action democratique du Quebec has had uneven success selling himself as Duplessis 2.0 in recent years.

The influence of the Automatistes is felt little in contemporary Quebec art as it branches off into post-modernism. But their work is nevertheless enjoying a resurgence among collectors.

De Saint-Hippolyte said copies of the Refus global sold for as little as $800 in the 1980s. This year they have fetched prices of more than $37,000.

And, while Quebec's artists may have moved beyond the formal innovations of the Automatistes, the story of its success holds its allure.

"A manifesto is never a bad idea," said Villeneuve. "Society needs to be rescued from time to time."