Author: Antoncic, Debra
Date published: April 1, 2010
Varley Art Gallery * 28 October 2009 - 28 February 2010
Embracing the interdisciplinary nature of the group of artists gathered around Paul- Emile Borduas in the early 1 940s in Montreal, Vie Automatiste Revolution: Montréal 194 1-1960 showcases dance, theatre, poetry and literary endeavors along with experimental work in painting. Although the gradual opening up of the intellectual climate did not take hold until a decade later, the manifesto published by the Automatistes in 1948 is often considered a starting point for Quebec's Quiet Revolution. This exhibition is a welcome reminder of a time when artistic experimentation fueled by intellectual debates aspired to challenge the repressive atmosphere of post-war Quebec.
The antithesis of a daunting blockbuster show, the exhibition provides a comprehensive yet concise history of the Automatistes from the earliest paintings to the large-scale, fully abstract works of the 1950s. The death of Borduas in I960 provides a convenient end point, although the group had effectively dispersed earlier, separated by geography and internal dissent. Carefully balancing scholarly and educational content with aesthetic presentation, the exhibition includes photographs, books, video and other documentation to accompany the early works executed under the principles of automatic writing gleaned from their reading of the French Surrealist author André Breton.
While the exhibition opens with the first abstract canvas attempted by Borduas. a compelling introduction is provided by a mural-sized photograph of members of the group. Positioned above the entrance to the gallery, the photograph documents the group's second exhibition, which took place in 1947 at the apartment of Mme Gauvreau, mother of Pierre and Claude Gauvreau. Suggesting a congenial gathering of a close-knit circle of friends, the picture shows members of the Automatistes seated with the pivotal figure of Borduas beneath his painting Ueward of the Island (1947), In the photograph, the painting dominates the domestic setting, although we are perhaps too accustomed to the large-scale paintings produced by the American Abstract Expressionists, so that die paintings by the Automatistes appear small today. Nasgaard attributes this difference in scale to the lack of funds for large canvases available to the impoverished artists in Montréal; however, the photograph suggests that the origins of die movement lie within the conventions of easel painting rather tlian the large-scale public murals that informed the work of Jackson Pollack, for one.
According to Ray Ellenwood's catalogue essay, the aesthetic investigations undertaken by the artists were not the ultimate goal, but merely a means to an end. In this analysis, die critique of artistic conventions is a starting point for challenging the strictures of contemporary life and the institutions that support them, most notably the dominance of the Catholic Church in Québec society. As history tells us, the challenge did not go unnoticed, with Borduas suffering immediate consequences for his rebellion: the loss of his teaching job at l'Ecole du meuble. The language employed by Ellen wood in his description of a "heterogeneous collective" suggests why the group was perceived as potentially disruptive, particularly during a period of intense anxiety regarding communist subversion within Canada. The multidisciplinary nature of the group, which included proponents of modern dance, experimental poetry and theatre, along with the use of a manifesto to announce their aspirations, no doubt added to contemporary suspicions.
Ellenwood is careful to distance the group from Marxism and emphasizes the absence of communist sympathies among the Automatistes. Nonetheless, members of the group may have been perceived by authorities as, if not members of the Communist Party, at the very least "fellow travelers." The suppression of communist and "broadly defined" unionist activities in Canada in the early years of the Cold War. employed most vigorously in Quebec through provisions of the Padlock Law, no doubt had a chilling effect on intellectual debate. Against a background of police surveillance, forfeiture of property rights under charges of illegal assembly and other methods of censorship, the photograph depicting a congenial evening among friends and colleagues takes on new significance.
It is this suspicion of potential subversion that perhaps accounts for the lack of attention the Automatistes as a group have received in Canada in subsequent years. As the publicity for the exhibition invariably notes, this is the first comprehensive exhibition of the Automatistes in English Canada and also the first time the group has been exhibited in the United States. Borduas and other members of the Automatistes participated in many solo and group exhibitions from the 1940s on, not only in Québec but in major public institutions in English Canada, such as the National Gallery and the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) and also internationally. Emblematic of the tendency to privilege the individual artist as singular, creative (male) genius and the promotion of art as "personal expression" in the context of the Cold War, the lack of attention for the Automatiste Revolution in the past also suggests sensitivity around artist's groups, particularly those organized for political, rather than aesthetic, investigations. Institutions have perhaps been more accepting of the positioning of Borduas as mentor to a circle of younger adherents and subsequent histories have situated the group within a context of rising Québec nationalism.
Needless to say, the exhibition at the Varley is long overdue. While many of the works may be familiar, the opportunity to view them in the context of the other work produced at the time should not be missed. It will also be interesting to observe the progress of the exhibition south of the border.
DEBRA ANTONCIC is a Ph. D Candidate in the Department of Art, Queen's University. An art historian and curator, her exhibition reviews and other essays have appeared in Canadian Art, RACAR and Fuse Magazine.