The Automatiste Revolution: two brief visits and a reading of “Refus Global”

The first part is a brief visit to the Art Gallery of Alberta.

I dropped by the AGA briefly a few days after the Automatiste Revolution opened. As I waited for my companion’s washroom break to finish, I noticed that the Gallery Shop had copies of The Automatiste Revolution by Nargaard and Ellenwood for sale. I always try to get a copy of the catalogue/book which goes with exhibits in order to read and study them between visits (this has been the one disappointment about the tremendous Janvier show). I leafed through the big book for a moment before we headed up to the second floor. I wasn’t sure what to expect. While I often appreciate abstraction in its various schools and forms, it rarely grabs me (Janvier being a great exception). We went through the doors, my companion making a bee-line for a bench (her ankle becomes painful quickly although the infected sore is almost healed due to the wonderful ministrations of Alberta’s public health care system.) As I remember it, I rounded a bit of wall and was riveted. And then I was blown away. That first visit I didn’t know what I was looking at, who the painters were, what the theoretical underpinnings might be, or even where I was actually standing, I learned later. But the paintings – there’s no other verb fit for it – grabbed me. They reached out through my good eye and grabbed my brain/body. A moment later, after consulting one of the guides, I found my disappeared companion standing before Borduas’ Sans Titre (no. 6), somehow paralytically still and yet slowly and smoothly gliding toward the textured field of red. “Don’t touch it,” I said, although I had to resist the urge myself.

And the brief visit was over after stopping again at the shop to buy a copy of Ellenwood’s translation of Refus Global.

The second part is the reading of Refus Global.

Ray Ellenwood’s translation, particularly of the pieces by Claude Gauvreau, is a wonder and a bit of a mystery. The verbal abstraction of Gauvreau’s dramatic pieces leave one perplexed as to how such a collection of absurd yet evocative non sequiturs and neologisms could ever have been translated between languages.  But Ellenwood has given us something wonderful.

One passage in Paul-Emile Borduas’ “Comments on Some Current Words” seems particularly relevant to the present exhibition at the AGA:

Looking at the pictures in the exhibition your mind will be blank. You won’t even be allowed the idea of a picture. These paintings don’t correspond to a landscape, nor to a still life nor to any scene you’re familiar with, nor even to a geometrical abstraction. Thus, with all your mental habits put to flight, unable to make any kind of visual contact, you will have the uncomfortable feeling of a serious illness, a painful and needless amputation, a frustration.

You’ll want to cry sacrilege, madness, early senility, hoax. If you’re less honest, more cagey, you’ll talk about visual and intellectual clichés and phony drawing-room revolutions. And the more obviously impotent your sensitivities, the louder you’ll shout, despite the clarity of these written forms.   p. 30

“these written forms” is a very important phrase, for these paintings are in a real sense, written pieces, an argument flowing from initial gestures marked on the canvas, through revisions and additions building on what has gone before. Each painting is a record of the development of itself. As well as any illusion of physical space produced by line and colour, there is a real temporal space contained in the fully developed composition.

I find Gauvreau’s dramatic pieces, particularly “In the Heart of the Bulrushes”, to be melancholic to the point of tragedy. I can’t help but think that this (and much of the Automatiste thing) is sort of an early twenties (age, not period of the century) sophomore phenomenon. And the man who escapes down the stream and disappears off stage . . . has he achieved adulthood? Is the poem/play an unconscious acknowledgement of the childishness of the thing? And Gauvreau’s suicide after the suicide of his muse Muriel Guilbault? Did he himself later sink beneath the flow without escaping? I can’t help but feel that Gauvreau is the head in the river, doomed to never escape the absurdist flow past the angel into – what? And “The Good Life”, the next piece by Gauvreau, makes me feel the above even more. Gauvreau’s life followed the sad pattern his art anticipated.

Where Refus Global becomes most coherent – perhaps most compelling – is in Françoise Sullivan’s discussion of dance. Sullivan opens with

More than anything else, dance is a reflex, a spontaneous expression of intense emotion.  p.88

This is no Wordsworthian “strong emotion recollected in tranquility”. Automatism in dance (as in all art) is immediate expression and development of expression.

Sullivan argues that academic dance such as that taught by the ballet schools is a dead language, and she goes on in her densely argued essay to lay the theoretical groundwork for Modern dance. As I read “Dance and Hope” from 1948 the constant image in my mind was Louise Lecavalier circa 1985:

The dancer plays with his weight by falling, leaping, balancing, by the simple fact of standing, by wobbling, by whirling, etc. He can follow his impulse and make himself very heavy or very light, not by tricks designed to escape the laws of nature, but through the harmonious use of those laws.  p. 99.

Two bits I also found most interesting:

Today there are those who believe in a revolution to transform the world. The instrument of change will be instinct, and part of our effort must now be directed to unearthing that instinct so long stifled.

Fortunately, there are the basic needs of life, irresistible forces; there is hope, and there is also science, which is wrong to isolate itself but should instead, take the place it used to have in religion and magic. All our forces must be directed towards liberation, towards a rediscovery of ecstasy and love.   pp. 94-5


Art can only flourish if it grows from problems that concern the age, and it is always pushed in the direction of the unknown. Hence the marvelous in it.“p. 100

The third part is a return to the gallery.

The grabber? Borduas’ Abstraction Verte.

But it’s not around the corner. It’s the first painting you see, right at the entrance.

It’s a tiny piece but it reaches out from the wall and grabs again. It is stunning.

Some others I noticed:

Riopelle’s Composition1951 is phenomenal. This is a painting I noticed on the first visit with fascinating knife work in the upper right quadrant in green and blue.

Fernand Leduc’s Napoleon in La Dernière campagne de Napoléon is an hilarious vindication of the Automatist method.

Ferron’s Cerce Nacarat has stunning knife work creating a fascinating feeling of night, of the sea, of a city . . .

Barbeau’s Au château d’Argol has amazing depth, as though looking through a cracked stained glass window at a Mediterranean hill town in a heavy sunshower.

Pierre Gauvreau’s sans titre, 1946 is a tiny, beautiful gem.

Not to be missed are the collages by Jean-Paul Mousseau and the artifacts of Sullivan’s dance.

I found it disconcerting to walk into the gallery and find the first few paintings in different places than I remembered them. Somehow that first encounter truly disoriented me.

The fourth part is a political comment.

The Automatistes in Montreal have not been given the historical notice they deserve. Unlike the roughly contemporary Abstract Expressionists in New York, the Automatistes included designers, dancers, poets as well as painters and sculptors. And, perhaps more important from the Canadian point of view, the Automatistes were the political Avant-Garde, standard bearers of the revolt against the Church and Duplessis which would lead to the Quiet Revolution and the Quebec we know (or, sadly, don’t know) today. The great art of these artists’ manifesto, Refus Global, is that it is a political manifesto. Although few realize it, or are even aware of it today, Refus Global remains a foundation document of contemporary Canadian society.

The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941-1960 is showing at the Art Gallery of Alberta until October 14, 2012.

3 comments on “The Automatiste Revolution: two brief visits and a reading of “Refus Global”

  1. […] that the Gallery Shop had copies of The Automatiste Revolution by Nargaard and Ellenwood for sale. Read the full blog entry This entry was posted in online resources, RESOURCES and tagged anhaga, Art Gallery of Alberta, […]

  2. […] while Janvier was living nearby in Ottawa. In this the overlap of the Janvier exhibit with the Automatiste Revolution downstairs is more than a little fitting. It is also in this room that we see the first circular […]

  3. […] art and its apparent disengagement from the audience, I worry about what John Ralston Saul, echoing the Montreal Automatistes, terms “refusing […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s