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Paul Émile Borduas and the Refus Global:

Artists and the Secularization of Québec, 1930-1970

By Gord Dimitrieff, November 1997

Throughout the mid-twentieth century, Québec experienced a growing trend of secularization. Although this trend affected many of the religions, and denominations operating in the province, the Roman Catholic Church, in particular, lost much of the influence that it had traditionally enjoyed in Québec society. This change was the result of many factors, such as increasing government control over the areas of education and health care, and, to some extent, even because of internal problems within the Church itself. Within the sphere of culture, artists and intellectuals also contributed to the secularization of Québec, by steadily increasing their challenge to the traditional values held by the Church.

Although by the 1930s some wealthy anglophone businessmen had become major supporters of the arts, they tended to remain within anglophone circles, and the Catholic Church remained the largest supporter for artistic and cultural activities in Québec, especially outside of Montreal, where the Church's classical colleges were practically the only active cultural centres. The influence of the Church in the art world went beyond this, however. For painters, the Church was one of the largest sources of employment, meaning that if painters were to make money from their artwork, it would probably come from Church commissions. Additionally, the Church's control over education made it the largest buyer of books in the province, giving it virtual control over the publishing industry. Combined with the Church's Index from Rome, which dictated the literary works that were to be banned in the Catholic world, this control over education gave the Church the ability to maintain a stronghold in literature, as well as in painting.

Against this backdrop, however, some changes began to occur, and some artists began to question the conservative values held by the Church. Understandably, these undercurrents began in Montreal, where the Church had to share its supporting role to the arts, and soon they began to develop into an increasingly strong challenge to the Church, and other conservative forces, that held power in Québec. Although this challenge had its very early stages in the 1930s, its rapid growth can traced to the Second World War, and later, to the Automatist movement, headed by Paul-émile Borduas.

When war broke out in Europe, it had two major effects on art and intellectual thought in Québec. First, the war forced the French publishing industry to close down, giving Québec the opportunity to rise in its place. Second, many artists and other intellectual thinkers of continental Europe came to North America, as a result of the war. Many of these people came to Montreal, either on their way to New York, or as their final destination, and with them, brought the modern ideas and trends that had been developing during the inter-war period on the Continent.

When the Nazi occupation brought the French publishing industry to a standstill, a new group of secular publishers emerged in Québec, virtually overnight, to take their place. These new publishers had a new degree of vitality, and variety that had, until this point, been scarce in Québec, and included such companies as Valiquette, L'Arbre, and Variétés, all of which appeared during the early years of the war. [1] These new companies brought many of the books that had been previously suppressed by the Church in Québec, and although most of the books that were published were actually exported to other countries, their new ideas remained. New magazines, such as Regards in 1940, and La Nouvelle Relève in 1941, arose quickly within this publishing boom, devoted to covering, and providing better distribution for the new trends brought from Europe. As a result of these two trends, newspapers began to devote more space to books, which further helped to disseminate the new ideas to the population.

The second major result of the war, in the arena of culture, was a sudden influx of artists and intellectuals from Europe, who brought their ideas with them. An example of this is the case of Alfred Pellan, a French-Canadian artist, who had lived in Paris since 1926. Pellan had been paining in the new surrealist movement, along side the likes of Fernand Léger, Max Ernst, and Picasso, but returned to Canada in 1940. Upon his return, he mounted a major exhibition of 150 of his works, and quickly became a recognised leader in the Montreal avant-guard. Although he had been refused employment in 1936 at the école des Beaux-Arts in Montreal, the growing acceptance of modernist concepts within art circles led the school to make him a professor in 1943.

Although the publishing boom spurred on by the war ended with the restoration of peace in Europe, this influx of new ideas and information soon made its mark on the artists of Québec. In the world of literature, the novel experienced a major change, as urban themes and the psychological novel came to the forefront. This new trend towards reflecting the urban reality of Québec began with Gabrielle Roy's Bonheur d'occasion in 1945, and was in stark contrast to the rural themes of Québec writers in the nineteenth century. Other authors, such as Roger Lemelin (Les Plouffe, 1948), and Jean-Jules Richard (Le feu dans l'amiante, 1956) also continued to follow this theme during the post-war period.

Robert Élie (La fin des songes, 1950), and other authors, such as André Giroux (Le gouffre a toujours soif, 1953), examined similar social themes, but did it in a more introspective manner, through the psychological novel. In 1953, André Langevin published Poussière sur la ville, a novel that managed to synthesise these two ideas, by exploring modern existential themes in the setting of a mining town. Similar changes to literature occurred in English Canada, especially after the publication of Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising in 1941, and Two Solitudes in 1945.

Despite these impressive developments, however, the distribution of books in Québec was still inadequate, and these novels remains fairly inaccessible to most Québecers. In 1949, there were only 12 libraries in Québec, and only 6 of those were French-language collections. This left 65 percent of Québec's urban population, and 95 percent of the rural population without library service. [2] Although this problem improved slightly during the 1950s, library service remained largely inadequate. Bookstores were also fairly uncommon, and remained geared towards the education market. The result of this was that while these novels could have a strong effect in intellectual circles, they had little, or no effect on the general population.

Painting was an artistic field that was also directly affected by the fresh ideas that arrived with the war. During the 1930s, experimental, modern art had had some early beginnings within the anglophone community, and was especially promoted by John Lyman, an artist who had spent a lot of time living in Europe, and had brought these ideas of modernism back with him. In 1939, Lyman organised the Contemporary Art Society to further promote the ideas of Fauvism, cubism, and futurism; however support for these concepts remained very limited, even within artistic circles, until after the war.

Although many European painters displaced by the war actually went on to New York, some stopped in Montreal, and some expatriates, like Pellan, returned to Québec. With them, these painters brought the new concepts of abstract, nonfigurative art, that stem from the surrealist tradition that had been pioneered before the war in Europe. In New York, these ideas developed into the movement of Abstract Expressionism, while under the influence of Lyman, Pellan, and others, they evolved with a slightly different flavour in Montreal. It is within this community that Paul-émile Borduas emerged in the early 1940s.

Borduas originally aspired to be a religious painter, and although he had had some experience teaching in primary schools during the 1930s, it was not until 1937, when he took at job teaching at the école du Meuble, that his career began to radically change course. At the école, Borduas encountered, for the first time, other like-minded people his own age with whom he could exchange his ideas, and soon his painting became influenced by the nonfigurative concepts brought from Europe. Borduas sought to adapt the techniques of automatic, stream-of-consciousness writing to his painting, by starting without preconceived ideas, and proceeding in a spontaneous manner.

Borduas first exhibited his own work in late April 1942, and around this time he began to write about his theories of art. In a paper delivered 10 November 1942 to members of the Société d'études et de Conférences, for example, Borduas described this new nonfigurative tradition as "an art form entirely devoted to the exploration of the internal world, and one that marked the end of the attempt, followed up until this point, to represent the external world."[3]

Despite the growing popularity of this modernism within artistic circles during the early 1940s, collectors remained cautious, and tended to continue purchasing more conservative, figurative, and immediately representational paintings. Borduas, perhaps as a result of this, began to draw closer to his art, and a group of young painters, who had been his students at the école du Meuble. Borduas began to develop his ideas for a new group of painters, similar to the Surrealists, yet independent, and with this group of former students of the école, he formed the Automatists.

The Automatists exhibited first in April 1946, and then again in February 1947. [4] Sometime after this second exhibition, Borduas began work on a manifesto entitled Refus global, in collaboration with the other members of the Automatist group. Although Refus global was intended to be a text accompaniment for the third Automatist exhibition, it appeared by itself on 9 August 1948, and quickly sold out all four-hundred copies that had been printed. [5] The manifesto was comprised of three texts by Borduas (Refus global, En regard du surréalisme actual, and Commentaires sur les mots courants), as well as additional texts by Claude Gauvreau, Françoise Sullivan, Bruno Cormier, and Fernand Leduc.

In Refus global, Borduas attacked the conformism and traditionalism of Québec society, and denounced what he saw as Québec's oppressive, suffocating environment, hindering individual and collective creativity. Borduas also specifically attacked the clergy and the education system. The result, was an unprecedented uproar, and its complete condemnation by the authorities, right-wing Catholics, and other adherents to conservative ideologies; a reaction that the press echoed for weeks. [6] In 1946, the école du Meuble had cut Borduas' teaching hours in half, in what some people suggest was an attempt at limiting his influence amongst the students, and in September 1948, the reactions to the publication of Refus global caused the school to fire Borduas. [7]

Borduas was shocked at the extent of the reaction against the manifesto, and he was unable to find any support for his ideas, even among journalists who were opposed to the Duplessis government. After losing his job, in the autumn of 1948, Borduas set out to write his own defence in an autobiographical essay, entitled Projections libérantes. In this essay, Borduas outlined his entire career, step by step, and stressed the separation of his professional teaching activities, his own exhibitions, and his personal involvement with the Automatists. Projections libérantes has been described by the art historian François-Marc Gagnon as "a lengthy plea for the individualised form of education which Borduas had championed at the école du Meuble," and which had proved itself through the quality of work from the Automatist painters. [8] In contrast to the heavy and rapid reaction caused by Refus, however, the public and the press largely ignored Projections.

The significance of Refus global, and the Automatist movement was not limited to the field of painting, and following the publication of the manifesto, other essayists also began to leave the traditional doctrines of Québec. An example of this is provided by the Cité Libre, a group of writers, that included Jean LeMoyne, Ernest Gagnon, Pierre Vadeboncoeur, and Pierre Trottier. During the 1950s, and early 1960s, these writers identified with universal themes, rather than nationalist ones, and produced a number of essays denouncing much of the same stagnation, and oppression as Borduas had been concerned with.

The ideas presented by Refus global, and the essays of these other writers soon spilled into the world of academia, and a number of social scientists, and historians began to re-evaluate their past and present interpretations of Québec. Around this time, the universities of Laval and Montreal established historical institutes, the Revue d'Histoire de l'Amérique Française was founded, and the historical literature of Québec began to take on a more scientific quality. [9]

Paul-émile Borduas had sought to adapt the techniques of writing to his painting, and soon this concept came full circle, as a new generation of poets began to adapt the introspective concepts of nonfigurative painting to their writing. This movement in poetry is represented by Claude Gauvreau, who was also a contributor to Refus global, Gilles Hénault, Paul-Marie Lapointe, and Roland Giguère. These new poets attempted to challenge people's perceptions of reality, by utilising language that was absent from normal speech. Through this type of language, the poets believed that they deal with issues that were beyond the external world, closer to the true needs of the individual. According to the authors of Québec Since 1930, these poets were engaged in more than philosophical and artistic revolt, but in a direct challenge to the established sociopolitical order of Québec.[10]

Between the years of 1945 and 1960, poetry was primarily a small press activity, with very limited distribution. In 1953, a group of poets founded the most significant of these presses, éditions de l'Hexagone. These poets endeavoured to incorporate the modern ideas of their predecessors with the development of a new language designed to reflect the experiences of love, existence, spirituality, and even politics. [11] The work of this group in particular began to chart the course of poetry in Québec that would be followed until the 1970s; however it too was plagued by the problems of poor distribution, and it did not gain a wide-spread audience until after 1960, when its poetry became part of school curricula.

As in the case of poetry, the new concepts of art that broke with the traditional conservative and religious doctrines of Québec did not show their greater significance until after 1960, when the secularization of Québec was clearly underway. Although most of these ideas had become highly developed by the early 1950s, there remained considerable resistance to them outside of artistic circles. By the 1960s, however, this situation had changed dramatically. Nonfigurative painting, for example, had continued its development during the 1950s, and by the 1960s had become so dominant, that the works of Pellan, Borduas, and others, were now considered to be classics. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts produced major retrospectives of Pellan, Borduas, and Jean-Paul Riopelle, another member of the Automatist school, and soon nonfigurative styles became so popular that many considered them to be a new form of academic art. [12] This last fact alone shows the importance of modern art to the secularization of Québec, for it is in direct opposition to what would have been acceptable in the pre-war atmosphere, under the cultural influence of the Church.

Together, the changes spurred on by the Second World War, and later by the Automatist movement, and its Refus global, created a considerable challenge to the conservative and religious doctrines that had been traditionally dominant in Québec society. This challenge to traditional thinking combined with other pressures to bring about a trend towards secularization, which culminated during the 1960s and its Quiet Revolution.


1.  P. A. Linteau, R. Durocher, J. Robert, F. Ricard, Québec Since 1930, (Toronto, 1991), p. 135.
2.  Linteau, Durocher, Robert, Ricard, p. 295.
3.  François-Marc Gagnon, Paul-Émile Borduas, (Ottawa, 1976), p. 16.
4.  Gagnon, p. 18.
5.  Gagnon, p. 19.
6.  Gagnon, p. 20.
7.  Gagnon, p. 20.
8.  Gagnon, p. 20.
9.  Linteau, Durocher, Robert, Ricard, p. 298.
10. Linteau, Durocher, Robert, Ricard, p. 297.
11. Linteau, Durocher, Robert, Ricard, p. 297.
12. Linteau, Durocher, Robert, Ricard, p. 576.


Gagnon, François-Marc, Paul-Émile Borduas, National Museums of Canada, Ottawa: 1976.

Linteau, Paul-André, Durocher, René, Robert, Jean-Claude, Ricard, François Ricard, Québec Since 1930, James Lorimer & Co, Toronto: 1991.
Chapters 13, 29, 45, 53, 54.

Republished with permission of the author.