Paul-Émile Borduas’s Figure Legendaire and Composition
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has a vast permanent collection with a significant range of artwork which documents many important Canadian artists and their contributions to Canadian Art. In the Ondaatje Gallery in the North Building, there are two artworks by the Quebec Artist, Paul-Émile Borduas - Figure Legendaire (1941) and Composition (1959). These works demonstrate the depth and development of his creative expression throughout his career. Paul-Émile Borduas is known for being one of the most significant figures in modern Canadian art. There are eighteen years between these two works and knowing the history of his career is an important tool when comparing them.
In 1921, the beginning of his artistic career, Borduas became a church decorator and teacher at 16. He apprenticed with the artist, Ozias Leduc, in church decorating whilst attending classes in Montreal at the École Technique and École des Beaux-Arts. Borduas then went to Paris in 1928 to continue his studies in decorative church painting at École des Arts Sacrés under artists Maurice Denis and Georges Desvallières. Once he returned to Montreal, he continued to work with Ozias Leduc, decorating churches and teaching. In 1937, Borduas received a faculty position at École du Meuble. The artwork Figure Legendaire was painted in his first few years of teaching. This composition demonstrates his development as a church decorator by depicting a colour-rich, figurative painting which creates a variety of depth from the use of light and shadows.
In the following years, Borduas was deeply drawn to the Surrealist movement and was especially influenced by the artist, André Breton, and his non-representational works, culminating in a change of his own artistic expression. Whilst working at École du Meuble, Borduas became close to many other artists who were also exploring surrealism in their artwork. From that, Borduas and several of his students, including Jean Paul Riopelle, Marcel Barbeau and Roger Fauteux, created a group known as Les Automatistes. As their leader, Borduas developed an unstructured style of non-representational painting. In 1948, Borduas was the principle author in the influential manifesto called Refus Global, which many of Quebec’s leading artists and academics signed. The manifesto attacked Catholicism and nationalism and called for freedom of expression. This created an uproar in the media and resulted in Borduas being dismissed from his faculty position at École du Meuble.
Borduas moved to New York in 1953 in order to escape from the consequences of the manifesto. He credits this move as being of great importance to his artistic development. This is when he began to create the work for which he is best known today. He worked solely with a palette knife and delved into painting without a preconceived idea of the result, focusing purely on light and space . Using the palette knife forces a different technique of painting as it does not have the same accuracy as using a paint brush. This allowed for Borduas to apply paint thickly and play with the textures of the wet paint. In 1955, he moved to Paris and continued to write and paint. The second artwork that the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has of his, Composition, was painted in 1959, just a year before his death in 1960. You will notice the vast contrast between this piece and his work eighteen years prior. Borduas applied the paint generously to create movement with different levels. While it only appears to be black and white, brown and yellow are layered in as well, creating depth of tone in the paint strokes.
Often when individuals first view this work, they see the simplicity of the colour and placement and wonder ‘why is this in the gallery?’ and ‘I could make something like that.’ And maybe they could, but what is important to remember here is that Paul-Émile Borduas was the one of the first to create work like this, and therefore changed the way in which artists approach work and how viewers interpret it.
Next time you are at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, or if you are taking the virtual tour, have a look at Paul-Émile Borduas’ paintings. Think of the development of artistic expression over his career, and how that change is reflected in his works.
Here is a Heritage Minute video re-enacting Paul-Émile Borduas painting and conversing in his studio.
(left) Figure Legendaire, 1994, Oil on canvas, 50.4 x 59.0 cm; (right) Composition, 1959, Oil on canvas, 73.0 x 59.5 cm. Both: gift of Christopher Ondaatje, Toronto, Ontario, 1994. 1994.245; 1994.244.