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François Gagnon

Québec painting 1953-56, a turning point [1973]
[Borduas, Molinari, and Claude Tousignant]
artscanada #176/ 177, February - March 1973.
[ 1,999 words ]


The span of time corresponding to Borduas's New York period (March 31, 1953 to August 21, 1955), and his subsequent first year in Paris, deserves most careful attention in the history of Québec painting. The shift from Automatism to Plasticism occurred then and it was during that time that Québec artists first met the challenge offered by American painting.

According to the diary of Ozias Leduc, Borduas left Montreal for the U.S.A. on March 31, 1953. He spent the spring and summer in Provincetown doing '40 new paintings' referred to in a letter of September 18, some of which were included amongst the 24 works that comprised his first one man show in New York, at the Passedoit Gallery, (January 5 - 23, 1954). Meanwhile the La Place Des Artistes exhibition had taken place in Montreal in May 1953. Fernande Saint-Martin called this a 'Major and Historical' exhibition, because some 'young painters [in] emphasizing colour and structure' demonstrated their estrangement from Automatism and a preoccupation with 'atmosphere and accident.' (1)  Borduas had one painting in this exhibition, 'in the style of his Trophées' as de Repentigny put it, referring it seems to a painting of 1949. (2)  Molinari was also present at this show, with poems, songs, sculpture and 'paintings with bold colouring,' to quote the same article by de Repentigny.

1954 was a year of great change in Borduas's painting. It was during this time that he assimilated American Action Painting and broke with his former Automatist formulas. One can follow this evolution step by step.

For the Automatist exhibition La Matière Chante organized by Claude Gauvreau (April 20 - May 4, 1954), Borduas was asked to choose the participants. At that time he believed that 'works usually described in Canada' as 'Automatiste' or as 'Surrationnel' are 'elsewhere sometimes described as "Abstract Expressionist." ' He was not yet aware of the gap between Automatism and Action Painting, and his own presentation at Passedoit Gallery was more a development of his former painting than a sign of his integration into the American trend. In his Provincetown paintings the background does have a tendency to approach the viewer, instead of receding indefinitely as in his Automatist works, and the floating objects in front tend to spread in the foreground; but the distinction between object and background is still sensible. The object has not yet burst all over the painting area.

One month after La Matiere Chante, Borduas exhibited 18 watercolours at the Lycée Pierre Corneille (June 19 - July 10, 1954), transposing the developments of his Provincetown work into another medium. According to de Repentigny Borduas spoke about an 'indetermination' in these watercolours, 'indetermination' between different planes, since 'extremely narrow spatial zones' appeared here and there in these works. De Repentigny added that, 'The white spaces play a capital role in some of Borduas's watercolours, although not in the same way as in his oil paintings.' (3) 

The critic was taken aback by Borduas's next show at the Agnes Lefort Gallery (October 12 - 16, 1954). This exhibition, meaningfully entitled En Route, presented 17 oils and 6 ink paintings, in which he seemed 'to do no more than stop the matter in its purely physical movement. This looks so easy...but who can decide with such assurance upon this "moment of truth"...?' (4)  The novelty of the technique had blinded the critic to the structural aspect of the work. In fact, guided by an incomplete idea of Action Painting, Borduas was exploring with increasing boldness the possibility of accident.

When, in 1955, he exhibited his work at L'Actuelle (October 25 - November 8 — most of it shown before at the Passedoit Gallery), the connection with Pollock's dripping / splashing technique was made by D. G. Seckler in Art Digest (June 1955), and the structural significance of his recent development was understood. 'There is a grid organizing the successive planes,' wrote de Repentigny. (5)  With the emergence of the 'Grid', Borduas was ready to go back to Mondrian, as he was to do in Paris.

Meanwhile, during 1954, the public activity of Molinari seems to have been rather slight, amounting to a telegram sent to a newspaper (September 5, 1954) and an exhibition of drawings at L'Echourie (December 2-23, 1954). The telegram read as follows: 'I have never adhered to automatist group — stop — cannot be its theoretician then — stop — I am the theoretician of Molinarism.' Confusingly enough, the drawings exhibited were interpreted as 'Surrealist' by de Repentigny. (6)  In a sense they were Surrealist, with their intricate monstrous apparitions at the edge of figuration; however, in another way they were not. As Molinari was reported to have said about them: 'They emphasize the very whiteness of the paper, and give equal value to the lines in two-dimensional space.' (7)  One cannot help but notice that this was the kind of analysis applied by de Repentigny to Borduas's watercolours shown at Lycée Pierre Corneille and Agnes Lefort.

Thus confusion between the image and the structure characterized critical reaction to Molinari's works. The image was Surrealist, but the intention structural. Only the telegram revealed the true direction of his development — but how tenuously!

The next Molinari showing was at Espace 55, where he again exhibited drawings, six of them. The other participants were Comtois, Dupras, Emond, Ewen, Gauvreau, Lajoie, Leduc, Letendre, McEwen and Mousseau. Understandably, Borduas's reaction to this exhibition was negative. Having undergone the development discussed, Borduas perceived paintings that still owed to Automatism (Comtois, Dupras, Ewen, Gauvreau, Letendre, and McEwen for instance) and others that appeared to him to exemplify an old form of Geometrism (Leduc, Mousseau), as 'archaic'. He clarified his position in a statement (February 26, 1955) entitled 'Ultimate and Definitive Objectivation,' prepared for a four man show in which he took part at the Public Library, London, Ontario. In this text Borduas arranged in a line of progressive evolution Cézanne, Mondrian and Pollock, and he spoke of the latter as taking 'the magnificent risk' of relying entirely upon 'the accident, which he multiplies infinitely.'

His attitude caused great surprise, especially among former Automatists, because the year before at La Matière Chante, confounding Automatism and Action Painting, Borduas had declared that Montreal painting was at the level of international avant-garde. F. Leduc was particularly bitter and broke with Borduas. The latter replied in a letter to Gilles Corbeil (March 1, 1955) which was published in L'Autorité (March 5, 1955). This antagonism was leading nowhere. The only article which throws light on the Leduc-Borduas conflict was by Molinari, published also in L'Autorité. In a way, Molinari agreed with Borduas's negative evaluation of the painters of Espace 55:

'The recent attitude of M. Borduas in evaluating the pictorial production of our milieu in relation to dynamic American painting is legitimate because it bases itself in the history of the evolution of painting.'

Molinari also agreed with Borduas that there was coherent development from Cezanne to Pollock with Mondrian as the turning point. But he understood in a very different manner the direction this development was taking

'It is not the accident as such or even its many possible relationships that make the Pollock experiment new painting. It is rather the peculiar quality acquired by the speckle of paint - Borduas says "Little Drops" — when this is used in the dynamic space established by Mondrian through spatial structure.' (8) 

We have seen that Borduas put Pollock's originality in 'the accident' itself. The spatial structure problem was for him never separate from any other aspect of the problem. According to Molinari, Mondrian's contribution was not, as Borduas saw it, to propose a new way 'to situate the plane-object through light-evaluation,' but the progressive 'destruction of volume and plane in the space of the painting,' and the proposition of 'a dynamic plane where colour discovers all its energetic potentialities.' To emphasize his point, Molinari quoted the following statement by Mondrian

'The intention of Cubism — in any case at the beginning — was to express volume. Three-dimensional space (natural) thus remained established. This shows that Cubism was basically natural, and was only an abstraction, not abstract. This was opposed to my conception of abstraction, which is that this space has to be destroyed. Consequently I came to destroy volume by using the plane. And then the problem was to destroy the plane also. This I did by means of lines cutting the planes. But still the plane was too intact. So I came to only lines and brought the colour into them.' (9) 

Molinari saw the innovation of American painting in the same way (did he have especially Pollock in mind?), as the creation of a non-Euclidian energetic space in which colour finds new expressive dimensions. One must wait until 1956, however, to see in Molinari's painting a clear expression of his intention. During 1955 he was busy establishing his Gallery L'Actuelle, and helping Robert Parizeau and Rolande Sainte-Marie with the organization of the exhibition La Peinture Canadienne Actuelle at the High School of Commerce (HEC) for November 12-30, 1955. (10)  On both occasions he exhibited only drawings. But in 1956 two exhibitions modified the picture Molinari gave of himself. The first was in March 1956, when with Claude Tousignant among others he exhibited a large scale painting reminiscent of Franz Kline, according to de Repentigny, as the Tousignant painting was reminiscent of Sam Francis. (11)  From April 30-May 4, 1956, at L'Actuelle, Molinari exhibited ten black and white paintings showing his development through Action Painting to hard-edge. The following month Tousignant astonished the public with his so-called 'Panels', large paintings, oversimplified, one of them for instance entirely orange with no modulation. The foundation of the 'Espace Dynamique' group followed these events. Plasticism was definitively asserting itself. It appeared then as a sudden change, at least on the part of Molinari. In reality, now that we know more about his painting activity during the whole period, we can see that the shift was less improvised than it seemed. As Fernande Saint-Martin put it:

'...pursuing his research in drawing, where from white agglomerations he had elaborated a plastic negative-positive space quite different from the traditional space, and in chromatic paintings reduced (between 1953 and 1955) to a few planes...' (12) 

Unfortunately for the understanding of his development at that time, his 'Chromatic paintings' were not shown along with his drawings, and I am afraid that because of their state of preservation, they will be difficult to exhibit at any time.

Molinari may have considered himself closer to the American scene than he really was. He had experimented with accident, but basically Molinari was interested in the structural aspect of Pollock's work and its relationship to Mondrian's concept of space, and it was this that contributed to the development of his hard-edge, two-dimensional, serial and chromatic style of painting. Borduas on the other hand was more sensitive to the accidental, chance dimension of Pollock's painting than to its structure and his New York and Paris work directly reflected the development of American Action Painting from Pollock, Still and Motherwell to Newman.


artscanada #176/ 177, February - March 1973.


Text: © François Gagnon. All rights reserved.

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