Surrealism, the history of a great art movement

Automatistes and Refus Global (Total Refusal)

Automatistes Group

Between 1945 and 1954, a group of québécois authors meet painter Paul-Emile Borduas to found a movement widely inspired by the surrealism and abstract expressionism, the automatism.

Fifteen of these Automatistes will sign the Total Refusal in 1948, a powerful manifesto by Borduas rejecting the traditional values ​​and the immobility of the Québécois society at the time.

Paul-Émile Borduas (1905-1960) began his painting career in the late 1920s. He draws inspiration from the landscapes of Quebec, the abstract expressionism in vogue in New York, the Nabi art and from his Québécois defender Ozias Leduc, and from the surrealism of André Breton. Reading L’Amour fou by Breton, Borduas realizes he prefers painting paint itself: he gradually abandoned the themes and topics for the action without premonition, creating the concept of pictorial automatism, whose green Abstraction (1941) is one of the first drawings. After co-founding the Contemporary Arts Society, which defends the abstract Canadian art, Borduas gains more and more influence on the emerging generation of painters. Several, including Claude Gauvreau, Marcel Barbeau, Jean-Paul Riopelle (painter) Fernand Leduc, Marcelle Ferron and Françoise Sullivan, join Borduas to found the school of Automatistes.

The inspirations of surrealist groups

The Automatistes, inspired by just as much of the abstract expressionism in New York as by the surrealism of Breton, seeking, like those two groups, total spontaneity of creation, sometimes through the creative power of the subconscious.

The Total Refusal is a manifesto written in 1948 by Borduas and signed by fifteen Automatistes, participants of the Québécois community of art, in areas ranging from dance to visual arts, through fashion design and literature. In the same vein as the Surrealist Manifesto of André Breton in 1924, the Total Refusal is opposed not only to the conformity of the art in Quebec, but also to the whole inertia of the Québécois people. In doing so, it marks the entry into the public scene of Québécois artists, which means they are ready to participate in social debates. By denouncing the political, artistic and traditional restrictions, to which they are subject, the authors of Total Refusal (Including 7 women, an exceptional number for the time!) advocate an art like the Surrealists: instinctive, boundless, leaving room for experimentation and for the unexpected. Borduas, in the Refus Global, is not satisfied with expressing his point of view, for the least subversive: he relies on the need for change, and on the involvement of artists in said change. It is also on account of this urging on the democratization of art that Borduas will lose his professorship at L’École du meuble at the end of the 40s.

Signatories of the total refusal

The success of the Total Refusal is not immediate: the 400 original copies are selling slowly and only a handful of bookstores dare to publish this subversive collection. On the eve of the Quiet Revolution (in the 1970s), the Québécois people finally found an interest in the manifesto of Borduas: in 1998, the 15 signatories of Total Refusal win the Prix Condorcet-Dessaules, presented annually to a defender of the freedom of conscience and secularism.

Quote by Jean Arp

“We do not wish to copy nature. We do not want to reproduce, we want to produce... directly and without meditation.”
See more quote by Jean Arp

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