Borduas back in the spotlight with $3.6M sale of 1956 work

Despite his departure from Quebec, he is revered in the province as one of the fathers of the Quiet Revolution. With this week’s $3.6 million sale of one of his works, his importance in Canadian art history may be redefined.

Principal author of Refus Global manifesto painted Figures Schematiques in exile in Paris

Quebec artist Paul-Émile Borduas, author of the 1948 manifesto Refus Global, painted Figures schématiques while living in Paris. ((Maurice Perron/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts))

Paul-Émile Borduas is best remembered as the leader of a small group of Quebec artists who dared criticize the Catholic Church and the stranglehold on the province of the Duplessis regime.

For the publication of their manifesto, Refus Global, in 1948, Borduas ended up in self-imposed exile in France, his career in Quebec in ruins, and dead, at 54.

Despite his departure from Quebec, he is revered in the province as one of the fathers of the Quiet Revolution. He is well-known in English Canada. However, with this week's $3.6 million sale of one of his works, his importance in Canadian art history may be redefined.

The sale price of the 1956 work Figures schématiques set a record for a work by Borduas. Before this week's sale, the most a Borduas had ever fetched was $737,500 for Chant d'été in 2015.

"It's long overdue for him. It's great to have him in the spotlight," said Tania Poggione, the director of the Montreal office of Heffel Fine Art Auction House.

Heffel sold the work at an auction in Toronto last Wednesday.

The final "hammer price" of just over $3.6 million didn't surprise the auction house, since in pre-auction estimates it was expected to fetch between $3 and $5 million.

The 1956 Figures schématiques fetched $3.6M at auction in Toronto on May 30. (Heffel Fine Art Auction House)

Those estimates are determined by collectors, Poggione explained.

"It's a very select group of artists in Canada whose works reach those high amounts," she said.

Major Automatist painter

Borduas died in middle age, of a heart attack. Despite that, his influence on Quebec's artistic and intellectual life is still being felt.

He led an art movement in Quebec called Automatism, which was closely related to American abstract expressionism.

Then in 1948, with a group of like-minded artists, he wrote a manifesto against the restrictions the Catholic Church placed on freedom of expression in Quebec.

Refus Global (Total Refusal) was signed by 15 other artists, including Jean-Paul Riopelle and a young dancer named Françoise Sullivan.

This came more than a decade before the province's Quiet Revolution which saw Quebec society turn away en masse from the influence of the church.

Writing about Refus Global in the late 1990s, art critic Henry Lehman called the manifesto one of the most important artistic and social documents in Quebec society of the previous 50 years.

Art historian François-Marc Gagnon wrote in his seminal work, Paul-Émile Borduas: A Critical Biography, that Le Refus Global denounced the Church for its contribution to "human alienation."

Scandal and shame

The Catholic Church was all-powerful in Quebec at that time, and the manifesto provoked a scandal which made headlines across the province for months.

As the principal author of Refus Global, Borduas's career and reputation crumbled.

He was forced to resign from his teaching job at the l'École du meuble and became unable to sell his paintings. He was denied art exhibitions, and his health and marriage suffered.

Public reaction to Refus global is swift and harsh

33 years ago
Paul-Emile Borduas pays a heavy price for his views. 1:42

He fled Quebec for New York in 1953 then went on to Paris in 1955, where he stayed until his death in 1960.

During this time in Paris, he painted Figures schématiques — a large work measuring almost two metres wide.

It was bought by the Martha Jackson Gallery of New York in 1956 along with eight other works.

Figures schématiques was then bought by a Toronto gallery, which sold it to a Montreal doctor. After that, its ownership becomes more murky. It was sold to an anonymous private collector who has, in turn, now sold it to someone else whose identity is being kept confidential by the auction house.

Poggione said the final auction price of the work shows how well-respected some of Quebec's artists of the Automatist period are — and demonstrates the health of Canada's flourishing art market.