Skip to main content

Artists as Writers: Borduas, Paul-Émile

Artist Biography

(Image of Paul-Émile Borduas from Musée des beaux-arts de Mont-Saint-Hilaire.)

BORDUAS, Paul-Émile (1905-1960)

Areas of Expertise

Painting, Surrealism, Quebecois Identity

Biography

Paul-Émile Borduas is one of the most important figures in modern Canadian art. A leader of the group known as the Automatists, he developed a spontaneous style of non-figurative painting. Borduas was the principal author of the Refus Global, an influential manifesto calling for freedom of expression, and signed by many of Quebec's leading artists and intellectuals.

Borduas spent the first period of his career working primarily as a church decorator and teacher. As a child, he had developed an early appreciation for the work of Ozias Leduc in the church at Ste-Hilaire, and apprenticed with him beginning in 1921, at the age of sixteen. Over the next seven years, Borduas continued to assist Leduc in church decoration while attending classes in Montreal at the École Technique and École des Beaux-Arts.

In 1928, after a brief period of teaching in Montreal primary schools, Borduas traveled to France, where he studied decorative church painting under Maurice Denis and Georges Desvallières at the École des Arts Sacrés, Paris. He returned to Montreal in 1930, working again for Leduc and teaching. In 1937, he obtained a faculty position at the École du Meuble, remaining there until 1948; his students included Jean-Paul Riopelle, Marcel Barbeau and Roger Fauteux. When the Contemporary Arts Society was founded in 1939, Borduas was elected vice-president.

It was his discovery of Surrealism that marked a turning point for Borduas; he read works by André Breton, who defined Surrealism as "pure psychic automatism," and began experimenting with gouache in non-representational works. The 1942 exhibition of his first Surrealist works, held at Montreal's Théâtre de l'Ermitage, garnered rave reviews. The artist soon applied his experiments to oil and exhibited along with Riopelle, Barbeau, Fauteux, Pierre Gauvreau, Fernand Leduc and Jean-Paul Mousseau, a group labelled the Automatists. When Borduas published theRefus Gobal in 1948, his attacks on Catholicism and nationalism caused an uproar in the media, and he was summarily dismissed from his teaching position at the École du Meuble.

Borduas's move to New York in 1953 was of great importance to his artistic development, as he saw the work of artists from the New York School of Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. It was there that he began using a palette-knife, exclusively, to apply paint, and became preoccupied with light and space. In 1955, he moved to Paris, where he continued to paint, write and travel, despite failing health. Paul-Émile Borduas died of a heart attack in Paris on 21 Feb. 1960.

© Above biography from National Gallery of Canada and very comprehensive Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

Online Resources

Paul-Émile Borduas at The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Paul-Émile Borduas Life & Work by François-Marc Gagnon, a free online book published by the Art Canada Institute.

Writing by Paul-Émile Borduas

Please note that not all works are available through the OCADU library. To acquire one of these works through Interlibrary Loan or other means, please contact the library for assistance.

Paul-Émile Borduas: Writing about his own art

"Propos d’atelier." Le Devoir, 9 June 1956, p. 3.
Also included in Écrits I (Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1987, p. 525-529.

"Questions et réponses." Le Devoir, 9 June 1956, p. 3 and 11 Juen 1956, p. 7.
Also included in Écrits I (Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1987, p. 530-37.

"Borduas parle." Liberté 4.19-20 (Jan-Feb 1962): 5-16.
Borduas writes (in French) regarding his teaching methods, relationships between student and teachers, how to judge a piece of art, on abstract art, about New York

"Lettres à Claude Gauvreau." Liberté 4.22 (Apr 1962): 230-51.
Letters Borduas wrote to Gauvreau between 1952-59 about exhibitions, artists, and art theory (in French)

"Les Automatistes." Barre du jour 17-20 (Jan-Aug 1969): 1-389.
This special edition of La Barre du jour includes an ensemble of automatistes writings. It includes Projections libérantes by Borduas and two letters from Borduas to Jean-Jules Richard (n.d.) and to Claude Gauvreau (1954)

"Communication intime à mes chers amis." La Presse, 12 Juiy 1969, p. 24.
Also included in Écrits I (Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1987, p. 503-515.

Vers les îles de lumière: écrits (1942-1980). By Fernand Leduc. Ed. André Beaudet. Lasalle, QB: Hurtubise HMH, 1981.
Includes letters exchanged between Leduc and Borduas (in French)

"Hommage à Paul-Emile Borduas." By Robert Elie & Jean Ethier-Blais. Vie des arts 19 (Summer 1960): 18-31
This article comprises two texts; the second text is an interview of Borduas in his workshop, talks about his life & paintings

Paul-Émile Borduas: Writing about art

"Manières de goûter une oeuvre d’art." Amérique française 2.4 (Jan 1943): 31-44.
Also included in Écrits I (Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1987, p. 208-40).

Refus global. by Paul-Émile Borduas, Claude Gavreau, Bruno Cormier 1948.
Read "Refus Global" online or in English translation by Dan Taylor. The principle articles and manifesto by Borduas advocating the separation of Church and State in Quebec, especially for the arts. Also included in Écrits I (Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1987, p. 327-363

"Lettres à Claude Gauvreau." Liberté 4.22 (Apr 1962): 230-51.
Letters Borduas wrote to Gauvreau between 1952-59 about exhibitions, artists, and art theory (in French)

"Borduas parle." Liberté 4.19-20 (Jan-Feb 1962): 5-16.
Borduas writes (in French) regarding his teaching methods, relationships between student and teachers, how to judge a piece of art, on abstract art, about New York

"Les Automatistes." Barre du jour 17-20 (Jan-Aug 1969): 1-389.
 Includes Projections libérantes by Borduas & 2 letters from Borduas to Jean-Jules Richard (n.d.) and to Claude Gauvreau (1954)

"Communication intime à mes chers amis." La Presse, 12 Juiy 1969, p. 24.
Also included in Écrits I (Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1987, p. 503-515.

"Fusain." Amérique française, 2e année 2.3 (Nov 1942): 32.
 Discusses work of Jacques De Tonnancour. Included in Écrits I (Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1987, p. 165-66).

"Quelques pensées sur l'oeuvre d'amour et de rêve de M. Ozias Leduc." Canadian Art 10.4 (Summer 1953): 158-161.  English translation avaible through OCADU Library.
Borduas writes (in French) about his friend of 30 years, Ozias Leduc, regarding how they met, Leduc's influence on himself, points of view on artistic & social questions

"Hommage à Ozias Leduc." Arts et pensée 18 (July-Aug 1954): 162-192.
A series of articles about Ozias Leduc. Includes testimony by Borduas (amongst others) in "cinq témoignages" about Ozias Leduc

Paul-Émile Borduas: Autobiography, Letters and Journals

Autobiography

Projections Libérantes. Saint-Hilaire, Montreal: Mythra Mythe, 1949. Available at OCADU Library.
An autobiographical pamphlet that details Borduas' experiences that led up to the writing of Refus Global. Also included in Écrits I (Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1987, p. 393-479

 

Letters and Journals

Fonds Paul-Émile Borduas at the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montréal,
Personal papers & original copies of written works (archives, unpublished).

"Paul-Emile Borduas and Modernism: 'I Hate All Nationalisms.'" François-Marc Gagnon. Artscanada 36.4 (Dec-Jan 1979-1980): 15-18.
Gagnon uses Borduas letters & documents that reveal Borduas' anarchistic stance and dislike of nationalism in art

Journal: 1929-1930. Fonds Borduas du Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, T. 34
Also included in Écrits II: Journal, Correspondance, 1923-1953, T. 1 (Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 1997, p. 41-96).

"Lettre à Claude Gauvreau." Liberté 3.1 (1961): 430-33.
A letter from Borduas to Gauvreau 25 Sep 1954

"Lettres à Claude Gauvreau." Liberté 4.22 (Apr 1962): 230-51.
Letters Borduas wrote to Gauvreau between 1952-59 about exhibitions, artists, and art theory (in French)

"Communication intime à mes chers amis." La Presse, 12 Juiy 1969, p. 24.
included in Écrits I (Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1987, p. 503-515.

"Les Automatistes." Barre du jour 17-20 (Jan-Aug 1969): 1-389.
A special edition of La Barre du jour includes an ensemble of automatistes writings. It includes Projections libérantes by Borduas & 2 letters from Borduas to Jean-Jules Richard (n.d.) and to Claude Gauvreau (1954)

Écrits II: Journal, Correspondance, 1923-1953, T. 1. Ed. Andre-G. Bourrassa & Gilles Lapointe. Montreal: Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 1997.

Écrits II: Correspondance, 1954-1960, T. 2. Ed. Andre-G. Bourrassa & Gilles Lapointe. Montreal: Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 1997.

Paul-Émile Borduas: Writings about politics

Interview with Gilles Hénault, Combat, 1 Feb 1947.
An untitled interview published in a communist periodical.

Refus global. by Paul-Émile Borduas, Claude Gavreau, Bruno Cormier 1948.
Read "Refus Global" online or in English translation by Dan Taylor. The principle articles and manifesto by Borduas advocating the separation of Church and State in Quebec, especially for the arts. Also included in Écrits I (Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1987, p. 327-363

"Refus global." Artscanada 35 no. 4 (Dec-Jan 1978-1979): 19-20.
An English translation authorized by Borduas by English poet Simon Taylor Watson

Projections Libérantes. Saint-Hilaire, Montreal: Mythra Mythe, 1949. Available at OCADU Library.
An autobiographical pamphlet that details Borduas' experiences that led up to the writing of Refus Global. Included in Écrits I (Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1987, p. 393-479

Écrits/Writings 1942–1958. Translated by Francois-Marc Gagnon & Dennis Young. Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design ; New York: New York University Press, 1978. Available at OCADU Library.
This book includes Refus Global and Borduas' other writings regarding surrealism, transition from dominance of Ecole de Paris to New York School painting, regionalism in art, separatism in Canada

"Paul-Emile Borduas and Modernism: 'I Hate All Nationalisms,'" by François-Marc Gagnon. Artscanada 36.4 (Dec-Jan 1979-1980): 15-18.
Gagnon uses Borduas letters & documents that reveal Borduas' anarchistic stance and dislike of nationalism in art

Écrits I. Ed. André-G. Bourassa, Jean Fisette et Gilles Lapointe. Montreal: Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 1987.
A collection of "public" writings.

Refus global et autres écrits. Ed. André-G. Bourassa & Gilles Lapointe. Montreal: Éditions de l'Hexagone, 1990.