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

Masson found his solution in the astonishing series of paintings on sand that he did in 1927 (see fig. 5). He would first spread glue over certain areas of the canvas that he had marked off with his finger. He would then sprinkle sand across the whole surface and shake off the excess. Only the sticky areas were covered with sand. When this "background" dried, Masson used a pastry syringe filled with oil paint to draw continuous lines, similar to the type of lines he could have drawn with pencil or pen. This procedure had a great advantage in terms of plasticity. Although technically the background and forms had to be done in stages, the final result presented a unified appearance. Because of its uneven texture, the background emphasized the highlights of the drawn lines which added further detail to the latent figures. In addition, the lines that had soaked into the sand tended to dissolve into the background. For Masson, this was a reasonably good means by which to express the two-dimensional nature of a picture's surface.

Faced with the same problem at about the same time, Miró arrived at a similar solution. In The Birth of the World (1925; fig. 6), he began by pouring a very dilute blue on a lightly-prepared canvas. Then, using cloths and a sponge he rapidly spread his colour over the surface in a haphazard fashion, leaving the vertical grooves that inevitably formed because his canvas had been set upright on its easel. On this "background," which created the effect of a primitive interpretation of an ocean, Miró then painted lines or surfaces suggesting unicellular organisms, with a fine brush. These lines were so thin and the coloured surfaces so uniform and flat that there was no variation of density in the texture of the painting.

In other words, Masson, like Miró, solved the problem of Automatist "painting" without jeopardizing its two-dimensional nature, even though their techniques required that a distinction be made between the preparation of the background and the final execution of forms upon it. The secret of their success was in focusing their technical inventiveness on the background rather than on the forms that overlaid it. Masson with his sand and Miró with his sponges and rags gave the background sufficient visual substance to prevent it from fading off into infinity, as had been the tendency among their Illusionist Surrealist colleagues. Their success in this respect is easily explained. Miró and Masson had a solid grounding in analytical Cubism; this experience was lacking among the disciples of renascent Illusionism in the style of Oiorgio de Chirico, a group that included Dali, Tanguy, Magritte, and Delvaux. The Cubist experience somehow served to restrain Miró and Masson in their Surrealist adventure. Without it the result might be something like Meissonier's work, as was clearly the case with Dali.

How does Borduas' solution compare with that of Miró and Masson? In 1943, in Rape at the Limits of Matter (fig. 7), also entitled Nebulae in the artist's notes, Borduas decided to proceed in two stages. He first did a black background, and when this had dried he added white, green, and grey lines. He was soon to even further dissociate these two stages, as can be seen in Nature's Parachutes. Here he painted the background with large horizontal sweeps and the objects in front of this background with a spatula loaded with colours. The result was that the background and forms were sharply separated, not only technically but also visually. The two-dimensional aspect was not preserved; in fact, it was voluntarily sacrificed. In Borduas' Automatist paintings the objects appear suspended in the air, floating before a background that fades off into infinity. Needless to say, Borduas' forms did not figuratively define the still vague motifs in the background. They were superimposed on it and existed independently of it. While Masson and Miró sought to visually reconcile the background and forms after having technically dissociated them, Borduas sought to achieve exactly the opposite effect. With both Masson and Miró, pictorial space tended toward two-dimensionality, or rather, it had never departed from it. Both retained the concept of space present in analytical Cubism, to which they had adhered before proceeding to Surrealism.

Borduas did not follow the same route. His knowledge of analytical Cubism derived from reproductions, and he interpreted it as an experience in integral "abstract art" in the tradition of Cézanne. In Refus global Borduas defined the term as follows:

CUBISM. n. Recent period of art history: 1911. The first paintings of this school could be attributed to Georges Braque: small  landscapes, with natural elements treated in geometric forms, hence the name cubism. From this hazardous but limited attempt, helped by the famous spatial line of Cézanne, the likeness of the subject was swiftly enough destroyed, though without losing its essence.

In the extreme phase, Picasso went as far as the exclusive use of geometric elements without outside reference.

The emotional quality of the picture, contrary to what one might be led to expect by such a loss, became more disconcerting. These irrational experiments destroyed the sensational values of the past, presumed, up to that time, to be indispensable.

A school which became rapidly conventionalized. Its numerous "missionaries" satisfy their meagre curiosity by continuous repetition. (2)
Whatever sporadic interest Borduas may have had in the subject, the above quote is a fair indication that for him Cubism rapidly became a closed door. Very few of his works contain even a trace of it. Apart from a few gouaches done in 1942, which are more marked by the synthetical Cubism of Alfred Pellan than by the analytical Cubism of the acute phase, this influence is nil. In this respect, the difference between Masson and Miró on the one hand, and Borduas on the other is crucial.

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