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BriefsReportRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences

The Automatists and the Book

Michel Brisebois
Rare Book Librarian

Without attempting to recapitulate the history of Surrealism and other modern movements in visual arts in Quebec, this short essay will endeavour to summarize how the Automatist movement manifested itself in the field of book publishing and to examine more closely Refus global as a printed book.

First Period: 1939-1945.
With Alfred Pellan's return from France in 1940 and the founding of the Contemporary Art Society, so-called modern art began to appear in Quebec publishing in two forms: the art book and the illustrated book. It began with art critic Maurice Gagnon who wrote Peinture moderne published by Valiquette in 1943. He was also in charge of the collection "Art vivant" published by the Éditions de l'Arbre which produced monographs on artists of the new school of painting such as Paul-Émile Borduas and John Lyman. The Éditions de l'Arbre was also responsible for Fernand Léger: la forme humaine dans l'espace which informed readers about the modern art movements in Europe. The production of illustrated books was very modest and limited, aside from a few book covers illustrated by Pellan, to only two books both published by Lucien Parizeau: Les Îles de la nuit by Alain Grandbois, illustrated with drawings by Pellan (1944) and Nézon by Réal Benoît, illustrated with drawings by Jacques de Tonnancour (1945).

Second Period: 1946-1948.
The period which precedes the publishing of Refus global is mainly represented by Les Cahiers de la file indienne, a publishing house founded in 1946 by Eloi de Grandmont and Gilles Hénault, the latter associated with the Automatist group and a member of the Communist Party. Hénault was also to be involved with the Ateliers d'arts graphiques, and later, with Éditions Erta. For the first time, both the text and the illustrations are inspired by Surrealism and merge in the same work. Of the five titles published, one can highlight Théâtre en plein air by Gilles Hénault, illustrated with drawings by Charles Daudelin, a student of Borduas's, and Les Sables du rêve by Thérèse Renaud (later Thérèse Leduc), illustrated with drawings by Jean-Paul Mousseau. This last work is known as the first Automatist book published in Quebec. Although they show some characteristics of livres d'artistes  -  fine paper, limited and numbered editions, illustrated wrappers  -  Les Cahiers de la file indienne are, because of the absence of original prints, still far from the productions of the Éditions Erta.

Third Period: 1948-1949.
When one examines its presentation, Refus global is a hybrid publication. The mimeographed text is in line with the nature of the manifesto and its revolutionary content. It implies a clandestine, underground work. The collective manifesto is followed by short theoretical works by Borduas, Bruno Cormier and Françoise Sullivan, plays by Claude Gauvreau, and ends with the broadside-declaration by Fernand Leduc. The manifesto becomes a book but a book in parts  -  physically since it is made up of unsewn gatherings and in content  -  which shows a fragile unity or at least integrity. The presence of gatherings on coloured paper, printing in red and black for the Commentaires sur les mots courants, numerous photographs, of the double wrapper  -  paper and cardboard  -  illustrated by Jean-Paul Riopelle, and the numbering of copies are more characteristic of a livre d'artistes. Badly printed press book or deluxe manifesto? Rather a collective work by artists representing various fields of endeavour, conscious of the appearance of the object, but limited by their financial and technical means. Le Vierge incendié, also a large work, has a similar but more modest presentation. Without illustrations or colour, the mimeographed gatherings are nevertheless surrounded by a wrapper lithographed after a drawing by Pierre Gauvreau. The errata leaves in both works show the tension between the willingness to print an accurate text, primitive technology and a certain haste. Projections libérantes, also published by Mithra-Mythe, has a totally different look: smaller format, printed text, cheap paper, ambitious but unnumbered printing of 1000 copies. It is in this format that one would expect to find Refus global, a format reminiscent of certain French Surrealist manifestos.

Fourth Period: After 1949
The influence of Surrealism and Automatism on the book arts is evident, mainly from 1949 on, in the productions of Roland Giguère's Éditions Erta. These were the subject of an exhibition in this room in January 1997. Let us go back to the signatories of Refus global. Analysing their contribution to the field of illustrated books, one realizes that it is very modest and that only four names stand out: Jean-Paul Mousseau, Claude Gauvreau, Marcelle Ferron and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Jean-Paul Mousseau supplied drawings for the play by Claude Gauvreau Sur fil métamorphose published by Erta in 1956  -  with only the first twenty-six copies containing an original dry-point. To illustrate his Etal mixte (Montreal: Éditions d'Orphée, 1968), Claude Gauvreau used automatist drawings he had done back in 1954. Only in 1960 did Marcelle Ferron illustrate, with powerful etchings, Voyages au pays de mémoire by Gilles Hénault, once again published by Roland Giguère and his Éditions Erta. The list of prints produced by Jean-Paul Riopelle is impressive but one forgets that it is only in 1966  -  twenty-two years after Refus global  -  that he began to use this medium. Many of his books are rather suites of prints accompanied by descriptive text rather than a traditional illustrated book. The other artists who signed the Refus global  -  Borduas, Marcel Barbeau, Pierre Gauvreau and Fernand Leduc  -  did not contribute to the illustrated book. This lack of enthusiasm can be explained in part by the very nature of surrational automatism, "plastic writing without preconception" according to Borduas, which leaves little room for inspiration by a text and its transposition into a pictorial form. Illustration can at most exist side by side with the text. But let the art historians be the judge of this. The other reason is more technical. At the time of the publication of Refus global, the Automatist artists were not familiar with the techiniques of printmaking. It was under the teaching of Albert Dumouchel at the École des arts graphiques that the surrealist artists of the Éditions Erta were initiated to printmaking, and it is around Roland Giguère  -  printer, typographer, engraver and poet  -  that these writers and artists collaborated to produce the first livres d'artistes in Quebec.

Selected Bibliography

Les Automatistes. Special issue of La Barre du Jour. Nos. 17-20 (janvier-août 1969). 389 p.

André-G. BOURASSA. Surréalisme et littérature québécoise. Montréal: Éditions L'Étincelle, 1977. 375 p.

André G. BOURASSA et Gilles Lapointe. Refus global et ses environs. 1948-1988. Montréal: L'Hexagone, 1988. 184 p.

Paul DUVAL. Four Decades: The Canadian Group of Painters and their Contemporaries. 1930-1970. Toronto and Vancouver: Clark, Irwin & Co., 1972. 191 p.

François-Marc GAGNON. Paul-Émile Borduas. Biographie critique et analyse de l'oeuvre. Montréal: Fides, 1978.

François-Marc GAGNON. Paul-Emile Borduas. Montréal: Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1988. 480 p.

Groupe de recherche sur l'édition littéraire au Québec. L'Édition littéraire au Québec de 1940 à 1960. Sherbrooke, Québec: Université de Sherbrooke, 1985. 217 p.

Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal. Automatisme et surréalisme en gravure québécoise. Catalogue of a travelling exhibition. Québec: 1976.

Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal. Dessin et surréalisme au Québec. Catalogue of a travelling exhibition. Québec: 1979.

Guy Robert. Borduas, ou le dilemne culturel québécois. Montréal: Stanké, 1977. 253 p.

Guy ROBERT. L'Art au Québec depuis 1940. Montréal: La Presse, 1973. 501 p.

Selected Chronology

1939 Founding of the Contemporary Art Society.
1940 Alfred Pellan returns from France after a 16-year absence.
1946 April 20-29. First Automatist exhibition, Amherst Street in Montreal.
1947 February 15 - March 1 : second group exhibition. The term "automatiste" originated from a review of the exhibition by Tancrède Marsil in the newspaper Quartier Latin.
  Issue no. 2 of Atelier d'arts graphiques is published.
  May 20 - Claude Gauvreau's play Bien-être is put on at the Montreal Repertory Theatre. It is the first public performance of an Automatist text.
  June 20 -July 13 - Automatist exhibition at the Galerie du Luxembourg in Paris.
  Fall - Riopelle returns from his stay in France.
  December - January 1948: writing of Refus global.
1948 February - The Automatists refuse to continue their contribution to Ateliers d'Arts graphiques.
  February 4 - appearance of the Pellan group manifesto entitled Prisme d'Yeux.
  Febraury 7-29 - last exhibition of the Contemporary Art Society.
  February 13 - Borduas resigns from the Contemporary Art Society and severs his frienship with John Lyman and Maurice Gagnon.
  May 15-29 - second exhibition of the group Prisme d'Yeux at the Librairie Tranquille.
  August 9 - launching of Refus global at the Librairie Tranquille in Montreal.
  September 4 - Borduas is fired from the École du Meuble.
1949 July - publication of Projections libérantes by Borduas.
1953 Borduas moves to New York.
1955 Borduas moves to Paris.
1960 February 21 - Borduas dies in Paris.

The Signatories: Biographical Notes.

Magdeleine Arbour

She contributed costumes and theatre designs for the Automatist plays. Later she hosts television shows et creates murals and other decorations for public buildings such as the Canadian Pavillion at Expo 67.

Marcel Barbeau, 1925-

A student of Borduas's at the École du Meuble, he takes part in most of the Automatist exhibitions. He pursues a varied artistic career which includes sculpture, photography and film.

Paul-Émile Borduas, 1905-1960

Author of Refus global, Borduas is considered to be one of Canada's greatest painters. He has been the subject of numerous publications.

Bruno Cormier, 1919-

Friend of Pierre Gauvreau and Françoise Sullivan, he writes poetry and plays at the beginning of the Automatist period. With a background as a psychoanalyst, he became an international expert in criminal psychology.

Marcelle Ferron-Hamelin, 1924-

The last to be recruited by the Automatists, Ferron-Hamelin was very active during the period of Refus global. She lived in France from 1953 to 1966. She designed many stained-glass windows for public buildings.

Claude Gauvreau, 1925-1971

Central figure of Automatism. A friend and supporter of Borduas until his death, Claude Gauvreau published poems, plays and theoretical works which contributed greatly to avant-garde literature in Quebec.

Pierre Gauvreau, 1922-

Older brother of Claude Gauvreau and one of Borduas's oldest friends. He took part in many Automatist exhibitions. Later he divided his time between his art and the writing of television series including the very popular Le Temps d'une paix.

Muriel Guilbault, ?-1952

Theatre actress, she played in Bien être by Claude Gauvreau (see the photographs in Refus global) and became the great love of his life. She committed suicide in 1952.

Fernand Leduc, 1916-

Considered, with Borduas, the theoretician of the Automatist group, he was the one who maintained the closest ties with the French Surrealists. He moved to Paris with his wife Thérèse Renaud in 1946 and slowly distanced himself from the group. He has had a brillant career as a painter and was also involved in teaching during his short stays in Quebec.

Thérèse Renaud-Leduc - 1927-

The author of the first Automatist work Les Sables du rêve in 1946. Married to Fernand Leduc, she moved to Paris very early on. She had a short-lived career as a singer. She published a few literary works at the beginning of the 1980s.

Jean-Paul Mousseau, 1927-1991

He joined the Automatists at the age of 17. Mousseau was one of the most active members of the movement with Claude Gauvreau. Later he contributed theatre designs and murals for public buildings including some Montreal Metro stations.

Maurice Perron

Student at the École du Meuble, he was the official publisher of the Automatists and Mithra-Mythe was registered in his name. He was also the photographer of the group  -  he took most of the photographs reproduced in Refus global  -  and his photographs of Françoise Sullivan are very well known.

Louise Renaud

Student of the École des Beaux-Arts, Renaud had an interest in dance. During the period which preceded Refus global, she worked as governess for Pierre Matisse in New York. She met many of the French expatriot artists and was the link between them and the Montreal Automatists.

Françoise Riopelle

Dancer and choreographer. She married Jean-Paul Riopelle and accompanied him to Paris in 1946.

Jean-Paul Riopelle, 1923-

Student of Borduas at the École du Meuble, Riopelle kept close contact with the French Surrealists. He pursued a brillant international career dividing his time between France and Canada and is the subject of numerous publications.

Françoise Sullivan, 1928-

One of the pioneers of modern dance and choreography. Sullivan is also a sculptor and painter.

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