In the House of Paul-Émile Borduas
Automatists' second exhibit,
from the mock-up of Refus global
Magdeleine Arbour and Paul-Émile Borduas,
Photography by Maurice Perron, 1947
Donation from the Maurice Perron familyBorduas had foreseen the events that would result from the publication of Refus global. On September 4, 1948, he was suspended without pay from his teaching job for religious and moral reasons. He must have sensed what was coming, for on September 9 he wrote to his friend Robert Élie: « The troubles of uncertainty have passed. I now enter the more serene zones of action. ».
One gets the impression that it was almost a relief for him, despite the disastrous repercussions on his teaching career and his family life. He found himself unable to obtain another teaching position. Retiring to Saint-Hilaire, without a steady income and cut off from his artistic and intellectual circle in Montréal, he wrote: « I’ve been living in a funny state for the past month! I waver between the certitude of having done exactly what a most demanding conscience obliged me to do and, at the same time, the impression that it is utterly impossible to live and support my family in such conditions. ».
Several texts followed the launching of Refus global. In the final pages of Projections libérantes (Liberating projections), which was published by Mithra-Mythe Éditeur in early July 1949, Borduas described the reasons that had incited him to write and produce Refus global: «The most important, unique duty is to spontaneously organize a new world in which the most generous of passions can develop in great numbers, COLLECTIVELY. Humanity belongs to man alone. Each individual is responsible for the multitude of his brothers, today and tomorrow! For the multitude of his brothers and their material and psychic troubles – their misfortunes!
It was to meet this unique duty that Refus global was written. »
Later, Borduas was sceptical of the actual repercussions of the manifesto. When Maurice Beaulieu, the chief editor for the review Situations, wrote to him in 1958 asking, “Would you sign the Refus global manifesto today?”, Borduas replied with a letter that ended with these words: «For overwhelming reasons, I wrote – and signed – Refus global at the time without really knowing why. Perhaps merely because it was necessary for my inner equilibrium, in its relation with the universe, requiring that the unacceptable forms of an arbitrarily imposed world be corrected. Today, without repudiating any of the text’s essential values, which still stand, I would situate it in a quite different atmosphere: more impersonal, less naïve and, I fear, even crueller to breathe. I had faith – in youth, in the moral and spiritual evolution of the masses. A trip to Sicily, among other things, would have by itself been sufficient to cure me of this detestable sentimentality about slavery. To be sure, I burn with whatever love I am capable of for the entire Earth and its inhabitants. But I have faith in only a few humans. It seems more urgent to look at the crowd and recognize the ardent souls who might be able to profoundly transform the human adventure, rather than to attach oneself to large numbers without hope.»
Refus global et son impact sur la vie de Borduas
Refus global was published in 1948. At that time I was in France with my wife, Thérèse Renaud. Borduas had sent me a manuscript, typed, a copy of the manifesto text. So I read it, Thérèse read it, and we gave our consent. The text published in the manifesto was the same text I read. But the manifesto consists of many parts. There is the main manifesto, and then there are different parts about Surrealism, creativity, social awakening and so on. And each of us were asked to produce a text that would help create the totality of the manifesto, which was about forty pages-long, about thirty or forty pages. In total. There was poetry by Claude Gauvreau. There was dance – Françoise Sullivan. There were reproductions of works by painters. In doing this, I think we were trying to show that the manifesto concerned all forms of art. There was no sculpture simply because there were no distinctive sculptors at the time. I think that all in all the result was quite good. The main content was unsettling, it was even almost like a bomb thrown at the spirit of society at the time – I mean the 1940s society – which was controlled by the joint forces of religious and political power. And we were kept under the dictatorship of that power. There also existed bans on books, as was the case in the "padlock" law for example. If you kept so-called subversive books at home, they could throw you out of your house. The manifest was a bomb in the era's religious and political ideology. It was a huge upheaval, because it represented a direct attack towards religion.
So, because Québec is a Catholic country, a very Catholic country (it was even once considered by the Church to be the principal place of Catholicism), it certainly was like a huge bomb. And the first to be affected was Paul-Émile Borduas. Because he was the main signatory, and he was the main author, and he was also the one who was taking responsibility for Refus global. So, he lost his job and from then on everything began to fall apart. This is a man who was a martyr, whose life was massacred. He needed a lot of courage to be able to pull through. But we younger ones, what did you want us to do, we had signed the Manifesto almost thoughtlessly, but he was taking all the responsibility. And they came down hard on him. Of course we were also blacklisted, we certainly weren’t allowed to teach. In other words, the consequences were less serious for us young ones, they weren’t even serious at all, in comparison to what happened to Borduas.
Charles Doyon, in “Refus global,” Le Clairon de Saint-Hyacinthe, August 27, 1948, wrote about the launching of the Automatists’ publication:
«Passers-by are intrigued by the window of the Librairie Tranquille, with its original display marking the publication of this group’s manifesto. Using makeshift accessories, streamers and strands of papier-mâché, Jean-Paul Mousseau and Claude Gauvreau have dangled a bait in the Automatists’ nets where the promised roots of Refus global grow… whose the window symbolizes a call for liberation and future deliberation…. One can go back over our literary and artistic past, relive the time of Arthur Buies, Charles Gill, the Institut canadien and the notion of our country or think back to Jean-Charles Harvey’s allusions to fear, but never, ever, has such daring and outrageous intransigence been seen in the unmoveable, indivisible land of Québec.»
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