To hell with the holy-water-sprinkler and the toque.
They have extorted from us a thousand times more than they ever gave.
Our duty is simple: To break finally with all the conventional patterns of society.
Quebec artist Paul-Émile Borduas wrote those incendiary words more than half a century ago in Refus Global (Total Refusal), a manifesto railing against the Roman Catholic church and French-Canadian culture of the day that changed irrevocably both the artist’s life and the course of Quebec history.
"They wanted to wake people up," says art historian Iris Amizlev, the curator of Refus Global: 60 Years Later at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (on until Dec. 7), an exhibit of 58 paintings and drawings by the Refus’s signatories. "At the time, it was scandalous. Everyone talked about it."
Published in 1948 by 16 artists — many of them Borduas’s students — the bound collection of artwork, photos and plays was the "cri de coeur" of a frustrated generation. These young artists wanted their province to open up to the world. They blasted the clergy and the corrupt government of Maurice Duplessis for keeping Quebecers in the dark. But one of their most daring acts was to portray French Canadians as devout, tuque-wearing habitants held back by their own fear of the outside world. In Refus, Borduas called on Quebecers to create a new culture by living spontaneously: "Make way for magic! Make way for objective mysteries! Make way for Love."
The Refus Global was one of the first collective expressions of dissent during Quebec’s "grande noirceur" (great darkness). First used by journalist André Laurendeau, the term evoked the European Dark Ages to describe Duplessis’s reign over the province. The notion of free expression was completely foreign and the church, through its control over information, ensured that most people were unaware of the intellectual and artistic movements, such as Cubism and Surrealism, making waves in London, New York and Paris.
The Refus not only paved the way for contemporary art to flourish in the province, it helped trigger the social change that would ultimately lead to Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the 1960s.
"We felt that art and our society were at an impasse. It wasn’t modern or alive," Refus signatory and abstract painter Fernand Leduc, 92, recalled at the exhibit’s opening on June 19. "We wanted to create art that was authentic, that came from the impulses of life and the unconscious."
Inspired by French Surrealist poet André Breton’s "écriture automatique" (stream-of-consciousness writing), Borduas developed an approach to painting known as Automatism. At Montreal’s École du meuble, he told his students they could release their creativity by expressing their subconscious desires. As Canada’s first generation of non-figurative painters, the Automatists drew on their instincts and feelings rather than classic rules of style and form.
In a painting such as Glorious Cemetery or 14.48 (1948) — Borduas used numbers rather than titles to stress the abstract nature of his paintings – he would paint a background, let it dry and then apply colours spontaneously. The result: his luminous squares seem to dance, suspended in the air. Marcel Barbeau‘s Au château d’Argol (1946-1947) is another uniquely Automatist work, incorporating pastels and earth tones as well as the dripping technique popularized by American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock.
"[Barbeau] was likely completely unaware of what Pollock was doing in New York. It’s fascinating that they employed the same technique at the same time," Amizlev said.
Automatism was a radical concept because Quebecers were living in a censored society. The Catholic church in Quebec banned thousands of films. And in keeping with the Ecclesiastical index of inappropriate reading material drawn up in Rome, the church kept a close watch on what people read. The province’s Catholic bishops also ensured that it was the last jurisdiction in North America to make public education compulsory – it wasn’t until 1943 that Quebec children under 14 were required to attend school. In 1937, 460 of Canada’s 642 public libraries were in Ontario; only 26 were in Quebec.
Released at the bookstore Librairie Henri Tranquille in Montreal on Aug. 9, 1948, the Refus Global was immediately and universally criticized by the media and the clergy. Borduas was subsequently fired from his teaching position at École de meuble and forced to leave Quebec for New York. ("He died alone and miserable," Amizlev says.)
"We wanted to know about what was happening around the world. We wanted to liberate our society," painter and dancer Françoise Sullivan said at the exhibit’s opening. Sullivan, who was married to celebrated Canadian artist Paterson Ewen (1925-2002), is featured in Danse dans la neige, an exquisite series of photographs taken by Maurice Perron in 1948. By dancing alone in the snow, Sullivan expressed herself unhindered by the confines of studio, stage or formal choreography. "We were young and we were really into excess. We felt we were part of the modern avant-garde," she said.
Artists such as Sullivan were attracted to Borduas’s ideas about painting and his desire to reform his society. Le Refus was the first in a series of events over the next decade that nudged the province along the path toward modernity and changed Quebecers sense of themselves as a people.
In 1949, 5,000 miners in Quebec’s Eastern Townships started an illegal strike for better wages and working conditions. The infamous Asbestos Strike pitted Duplessis against thousands of ordinary Quebecers and galvanized the labour movement. A year later, intellectuals Pierre Trudeau and Gérard Pelletier launched the anti-clericalist Cité Libre magazine, to "break the silence" they believed was preventing their province from entering the modern world. And in 1953, Quebecers experienced a revelation that not only plugged them into the global village but also affirmed their collective existence as French-speaking North Americans: it was the launch of CBFT Montreal, one of the world’s first French-language television services.
Sullivan says Les Automatists were experimenting with art but, like much of Quebec’s intelligentsia at the time, they were also exploring what it meant to be French-Canadian. (The term "Quebecois" didn't become common parlance until René Lévesque founded the Parti Quebecois in 1968.)
After losing his job and being forced to move first to New York and then Paris, the author of Refus Global had an identity crisis, Sullivan says.
"[Borduas] realized he wasn’t French or British or American, but Canadien," she said, employing the ethnonym used in Quebec since the 17th century to distinguish the inhabitants of French Canada from those of France. "We were trying to figure out who we were, in the sense of the collective nous. At the time, we had an inferiority complex," Sullivan said. "But we have much more confidence now."
Refus Global: 60 Years Later is on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until Dec. 7.
Patricia Bailey is a writer and broadcaster based in Montreal.