Radical abstracts

Quebec rebels are worth the trip

THE AUTOMATISTE REVOLUTION: MONTREAL 1941-1960 at the Varley Gallery (216 Main, Unionville), to February 28. 905-477-9511. $4, stu/srs $3. Rating: NNNN

Despite the efforts of MOCCA and others, Toronto remains strangely isolated from the culture of Quebec. This important and informative show of mid-20th-century painting, put together by former AGO curator Roald Nasgaard, bypasses Toronto for Unionville and then heads to Buffalo’s Albright-Knox.


In the 1940s, Montreal painters, led by Paul-Émile Borduas, rebelled against Catholic cultural strictures to found what Nasgaard calls Canada’s first avant-garde art movement, the Automatistes. Inspired by André Breton, their work links Surrealist stream of consciousness with abstract expressionism.

Few artist groups have had such a deep societal impact. Their 1948 manifesto, Le Refus Global, a call to “sweep away the rotten edifice of Christian civilization” in favour of artistic freedom and a separation of church and state, spurred the Quiet Revolution.

The show includes documentary material about the Refus as well as video and photographic documents of Automatiste dance works choreographed by Françoise Sullivan.

Early meditations in paint by Borduas, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Pierre Gauvreau, Fernand Leduc, Marcelle Ferron and others feature semi-abstract plant forms and landscape-inspired gestural markings. By the 50s and 60s, their styles had progressed to full-fledged abstraction, as in Riopelle’s palette-knife-sculpted impasto on a flat picture plane and Borduas’s monochromatic rectangular and Motherwellish black and white compositions.

Post-Automatiste work is represented by Rita Letendre’s paint markings, Jean McEwen’s hazy surfaces and Guido Molinari’s colour-fieldish work.

The modestly sized canvases are an apt reminder of the Modernist age when painting ruled. Watercolour and ink sketches impart a particularly strong sense of immediacy.

Though group members moved in Paris and New York art circles, they never received the international recognition accorded their splashier American contemporaries. Perhaps this show will help remedy that.


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