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

Annual Bulletin 4, 1980-1981

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Author & Subject

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

by François-Marc Gagnon

Article en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5

It was at the sixty-fourth Spring Salon of the Art Association of Montreal, from March 20 to April 20, 1947, that Borduas first exhibited Nature's Parachutes (fig. 1). This work was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada at the artist's workshop on December 21, 1948 and is still at the Gallery today. It was at this same exhibition that Borduas showed Flowering Quivers (fig. 2), a painting done in the same year and now hanging at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. These paintings were probably excluded from the competition since Borduas sat on the jury for the "modern" section of the Salon, along with John Lyman (1886-1967) and Gordon Webber (1909-1965). Whatever the case, the premier showing of these two paintings at the exhibition did not receive much attention from the press. The only critic who even mentioned them was Gabriel La Salle, who devoted one line to them in the April 15, 1947 edition of the newspaper Le Canada: "Two Borduas paintings, which look out of place among those of so many neophytes, exhibit an increasingly severe and plain style" [trans.].

Of the two canvases exhibited at the Spring Salon, Nature's Parachutes was the more recent. Borduas began to title his paintings with a serial number in the winter of 1944-1945. Nature's Parachutes was number 19.47 white Quivers in Bloom was number 8.47; tell paintings had been done in between. We know of only one painting done after this time: painting number 20.47 entitled We Will Go to the Island. In other words, when Borduas painted Nature's parachutes he was coming to the end of a four-month production cycle. It is not surprising, then, that although it may be less ambitious than paintings like Leeward of the Island, number 1.47, (fig. 3), Nature's Parachutes appears to be a more accomplished work. Finally, in terms of chronology, it appears that this painting must have been done around the time of or shortly after the second Automatist exhibition on Sherbrooke Street.

Signed and dated "Borduas / 47" in its lower right-hand corner, Nature's Parachutes is a painting of moderate size and horizontal format. On a background (painted with a brush) that appears to retreat into infinity, the artist has placed three groups of forms floating in space, painted with a spatula. The form on the left is open like a fan toward the upper part of the composition. The centre form is double and seems to consist of two closed entities pivoting around the same axis. Finally, the form on the right is open wide toward the side of the canvas. The detachment of the forms from the background is brought about by the technique (spatula instead of brush), by the colour dominants (a reddish-brown background, chartreuse green, black, red, and white for the forms) and especially by the representativeness of the forms themselves. These are not distributed evenly over the entire surface of the canvas, and none of them touches its periphery. Note the masterful placement of the forms in the pictorial area. It is hard to imagine how a single element in the composition could be moved without disturbing its equilibrium.

What we have just described in connection with Nature's Parachutes are what might be called classical features of Borduas' Automatist work. They are present in most of the paintings he did during this period. For example, they are fully evident in Flowering Quivers. The main difference between these two paintings, in addition to the nature of the verbal forms and associations they might evoke, lies in the dominant colour of the background, suggestive of different moments in time and therefore of different lighting of the atmosphere. Flowering Quivers is a morning painting; Nature's Parachutes is a painting of evening, or at least of late afternoon. Borduas particularly liked rendering such moments of transition from shadow to light, or from light to shadow.

When he painted Nature's Parachutes, Borduas had already solved the problem of expressing in oil the spontaneity of automatic drawing. He had, indeed, resolved it in 1942, when he completed his brilliant series of gouaches, which he then exhibited at Montreal's Théâtre de l'Ermitage (between 25 April and 2 May), entitling them "Surrealist paintings." These gouaches had been done in two stages: first the drawing, then the colour. Since gouache is a medium that dries very rapidly, these paintings were not only unplanned improvisations, but were also executed in a very short space of time, and bore the mark of great spontaneity of invention. How could some of this spontaneity be retained in an oil painting? The gouache effect could be imitated in oil by working in two stages: doing the drawing in charcoal on the canvas, and then colouring the surfaces, one by one, in oil.

However, since oil dries slowly and does not have much viscosity, it is impossible to obtain the desired result with the same rapidity as with gouache. A coloured surface has to dry before another colour is put alongside it; otherwise the colours will run and become blurred where they meet. The only oil painting done by Borduas in 1942 is entitled The Whimsical Boat (fig. 4; sometimes The Tipsy Boat). Its style is very similar to the gouaches. During its execution Borduas allowed each coloured surface to dry before painting an adjoining one. However, he did not continue with this method, because it did not allow him to maintain the unity of composition time and the rapidity of execution with which he had experimented in his gouaches. But how could these qualities be maintained when using oil?

The problem was a classical one in Surrealist painting. It had been encountered before Borduas' time, especially by those Surrealist painters described as "abstract" by William S. Rubin, in contrast with Dali, Magritte, Delvaux and the like, who are perhaps associated too exclusively with Surrealism. As early as the mid-twenties, André Masson and Joan Miró in particular had been asking the same question: how could the spontaneity of automatic drawing be incorporated into oil painting?

It was during the winter of 1926-1927 that André Masson found an original solution to this problem, as is explained by William S. Rubin: "...the winter...found Masson striving for a way to endow his paintings with the discoveries of automatic drawing. But painting was unalterably resistant to the rapid and extended linear automatism Masson wanted. The need for constant reloading of the brush broke the continuity of the line as well as the sequence of psychic impulses, while the drag of the brush prevented the rapid execution that was possible with pen or pencil." (1)

Next Page | Masson found his solution

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