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Artists as Writers

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


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.