Early Abstract Art that changed Canada

Leeward of the Island by Paul-Émile Borduas – iconic work of the Automatists

Leeward of the Island by Paul-Émile Borduas – iconic work of the Automatists

Well before the Painters Eleven were establishing themselves as early Canadian abstract painters, in Montreal an artist named Paul-Émile Borduas was busy painting, teaching and contemplating art and his harshly restrictive society under the rule of Duplessis in the early 1940s. Coming to be known as the Automatistes, Paul and some of his students were trying to paint with "pure psychic automatism" as per the writings of André Breton. In a controversial manifesto titled Refus Global (Total Refusal) Paul-Émile wrote: 

We foresee a future in which man is freed from useless chains, to realize a plenitude of individual gifts, in necessary unpredictability, spontaneity and resplendent anarchy. Until then, without surrender or rest, in community of feeling with those who thirst for better life, without fear of set-backs, in encouragement or persecution, we shall pursue in joy our overwhelming need for liberation. Wikipedia

For these ideas the group was disgraced, and Paul-Émile fired from his teaching job with the Montréal Catholic School Board.

Isn't it hard to imagine – today – living in a society so utterly based in religion and a culture of fear? As pointed out by David Conrey on his Fresh Rag blog, before the 13th century it was blasphemous for artists to put their names on their art – and they did not dare do so: "To announce yourself as the creator of art would be to denounce the Lord’s power manifested within you. In other words, if you claimed rights over the art, you could be brought to justice (which usually meant death) for saying that you made something that was obviously given to you by God." In the case of the Automatistes, they were publicly humiliated for challenging the status quo.