National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 4, 1980-1981

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Paul-Émile Borduas
Nature's Parachutes..towards a 
Definition of Borduas' Pictorial "Surrealism"

by François-Marc Gagnon

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5

Was Borduas - with his atmospheric backgrounds and his objects floating in space -in the camp of the Illusionist Surrealists, as were Tanguy and Dali? No. When a Borduas Automatist painting like Nature's Parachutes is compared with a Dali (see fig. 8) or Tanguy (see fig. 9), two obvious differences emerge. Although they retreat into infinity, Borduas' backgrounds have no horizon, unlike some of Matta's works (see fig. 10). Borduas encountered some works by Tanguy and Matta in the form of illustrations for an article by André Breton, "Des tendances les plus récentes de la peinture surréaliste," in Minotaure (XII-XIII, 1939), an article Borduas read in 1941. Matta's composition - quite different from Tanguy's - no doubt appealed more to Borduas, in whose work the objects are situated in a segment of the cosmos (the atmosphere, the ocean, or a primitive plain), but never on the theatrical stage, so to speak, where the sky can be distinguished from the land or sea, as is the case with the apparitions created by Dali and others. In addition, Borduas' forms do not have the pronounced biomorphic nature that is present in the works of the Illusionist Surrealists. Why these sharp differences? Again, the answer lies in Borduas' Automatist technique. As we have said, his backgrounds are painted with sweeping horizontal brush strokes. This is an excellent method for suggesting depth without using the expedient of the horizon line or following the laws of classical perspective. Borduas is much more liberated from perspective than are Dali and Tanguy. More specifically, these painters voluntarily went back to classical perspective, wishing to re-create the dream-like, theatrical set ting which, although it is a product of the imagination, nonetheless remains faithful to the laws of ordinary perception.

The backgrounds created by Borduas require that the pictorial matter itself suggest atmospheric illuminations; thus the backgrounds serve as indicators of time. Some paintings evoke the morning light and others the last rays of dusk. Morning Candelabras (1948), or Figure at Dusk (1944), for example, are well suited to their titles.

Moreover, the forms suspended in these infinite spaces are painted with a spatula. The consequences of using this implement cannot be over-emphasized. The Surrealists painted forms in one of two ways, depending on the school of thought they espoused. The "Abstract" Surrealists (Masson, Miró, and so on) used a line to mark the outline of their forms. In other words, they maintained the concept of contour, and drawing retained its traditional role. When Jackson Pollock freed the line from this function, while maintaining the two-dimensional nature of the pictorial surface, a new frontier that bad only been faintly perceived and left unapproached by Masson and Miró was opened to painting. In Borduas, the forms are not outlined.

Nor are Borduas' works painted in the traditional manner, in the style of Meissonier, that is, with a gradual transition from dark to light, as with the Illusionist Surrealists. Borduas' forms are perceived as an arrangement of areas of colour. These areas do have limits which could be called outlines, but his lines are not drawn as such; they are simply the edge of a coloured area. It can even be proven that Borduas consciously conceived this idea of using forms as an area of colour as early as 1943.

When he painted his gouaches in 1942, the drawn line still had a place in his works. The first stage in the preparation of these gouaches consisted of a charcoal drawing. The drawn areas were then filled with colour, although the charcoal lines rarely showed through the completed picture (see fig. II). In 1943, Borduas did a few paintings in oil, in which there were lines on a black or dark background, for example in Rape at the Limits of Matter (fig. 7). There is even a drawing done in 1943 (see fig. 12), in which, on a background done with the side of a stump of charcoal, overlapping linear outlines have been drawn, accented here and there with India ink or graphite. There is a certain rigidity in the se lines. They are broken, and problems of continuity are everywhere evident. Clearly, when indulging in these linear acrobatics, Borduas did not achieve the same spontaneity of movement as Miró and Masson. He therefore discontinued his use of this particular technique.

He was, in fact, coming to the conclusion that he could eliminate the use of lines by creating contrasting areas of colour. The spatula, a poor instrument for painting lines, proved to be both flexible and rapid when used to apply colour. It was sufficient to control the quantity of material for the painting prepared ahead of time on the palette, and consequently to control this aspect of the painting. Photographs of Borduas in his Paris studio show that at the end of his life he had completely done away with the palette, and was using a table top on which to arrange his materials. He had not arrived at this point when he did Nature's Parachutes. The surfaces painted with the spatula were still relatively small in size and thickness, and did not require such large masses of paint as were evident in his Parisian paintings.

There was a further consequence involved in the use of the spatula. Unless manipulated with a very light touch, it did Dot allow the painter to express the modulation of natural light - the gradual transition from 'dark to light. Forms painted with this tool readily take on a faceted look, reminiscent of crystal, diamond, or other minerals. For this reason, Borduas' forms never have, so to speak, the biomorphic aspect present in the Illusionist Surrealists. Just when Borduas appeared to be moving in the direction of Tanguy in his predilection for wide-open spaces or for marine backgrounds, he went his own way. He developed his angular, feathered, or crystalline objects from these spaces and backgrounds, instead of using them as a set ting in which rounded pebbles, amoebae, and ectoplasm rolled and floated, or where "soft forms" hung suspended, as in Dali's work.

In its iconography as well as its form, Borduas' Automatist painting departs from " Abstract" and "Illusionist" Surrealism. As the titles of his paintings suggest, the imagination is invited to wander in a very special set ting. Nature's Parachutes recalls the gentle drifting to earth of the "tufted seeds" of certain plants of the composite family. These can be borne by the wind for distances of "hundreds of miles," (3) which - incidentally - accounts for their very wide distribution. For example, we are all familiar with the dry seeds (called "achene" by the botanists) with feathered tops, found on the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale, Weber), and sometimes blown about in such great quantities that they look like snow. Like the girl on the cover of the Petit Larousse, we have all picked one and "sown seed in all directions" by blowing on it.

Next Page | Borduas continued his botanical musings

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