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

Borduas continued his botanical musings in other paintings done in 1947. We have already examined one of these: 8.47 or Flowering Quivers (fig. 2), which Borduas himself spontaneously associated with Nature's Parachutes, since he had sent them together to the Spring Salon. In addition to their similarity of style and form, these canvases are both suggestive of the plant kingdom. The calyx formed by the flower's sepals could be compared to a "quiver", and the word "flowering" used to describe the corolla and its coloured petals. These would be rather strange flowers, since they have no stems and would float in space like true "nature's parachutes."

The third painting from 1947 that possesses the same kind of allusiveness is called 16.47 or Spring-Loaded Fruit (fig. 13). It was painted a little before Nature's Parachutes, as indicated by its number. The lower part of this composition is occupied by a sort of takeoff ramp, from which yellow, black, and white objects, resembling little aeroplanes, are taking flight into the brick-red background. However, the literary title given by Borduas to this canvas is based on another group of associations. The "spring-loaded fruit" par excellence of the damp, dark forest glades is the seed of the Touch-me-not, two species of which exist in Quebec: the Pale Touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida, Nutt) and the Cape Touch- me-not (Impatiens capensis, Meerb), the latter being commonly known as Lady's Earrings. The flower of the former is pale yellow, whence its name, and is mottled only slightly if at all; the latter's is orange and deeply mottled. The stem of the Pale Touch-me-not is translucent and pale green; and that of the Cape is tinted with red. This spectrum of colours is precisely the same as in our painting.

The word "impatiens" is used to describe the flower because of the way the elasticity of its pod causes it to burst open. The dry fruit of the plant, which contains the seeds, is very sensitive to the touch; hence the name Touch-me-not. The slightest touch causes the capsule to open, and the seeds burst forth in all directions, as if triggered by a spring. (4) The term "spring-loaded fruit" is therefore highly appropriate.

All three titles, Nature's Parachutes, Flowering Quivers, and Spring-Loaded Fruit, are all constructed in the same way, with a noun and an adjective. All refer essentially to the same phenomenon, whether real or imaginary: during part of their life cycle, some plants defy gravity and float into the atmosphere before landing and germinating. From this point of view, the plants in question are like dancers, breaking away into the air and then floating back down to earth. Moreover, at least two 1947 paintings allude to the theme of dancing in their titles. The first of these is 2.47 or The Dancer. It can be seen to the left of Leeward of the Island in that photograph that shows Borduas sitting under his painting at the Sherbrooke Street exhibition (see fig. 14). Borduas had first thought of calling it 2.47, or Morning Meeting. The painting's background is suggestive of morning light and it features two forms pivoting on one axis, like the central element of Nature's Parachutes. But Borduas discarded this title, appropriate though it was. He perhaps preferred calling the painting The Dancer because the attempt to defy gravity interested him more than the evocation of a particular atmosphere.

The second painting done in 1947 in which dancing is referred to is not extant. Its title is known: 12.47 or Fish and the Dancer on Red. This seems to have been inspired by the 1943 title, The Yellow Dancer and the Animal, but in this earlier painting the protagonists were on the ground, and were not part of the general theme of the possession of space that seems to mark the thematics of 1947.

In this context even the suspended objects in 1.47 or Leeward of the Island (fig. 3), the first painting in the series, could be seen to be a company of dancers wearing feathers. The title even suggests that they are being blown by the wind.

The title of 5.47 is The Wings of the Cliff or The Winged Postman of the Cliff (fig. 5). From plants and dancers the subject matter now shifts to birds, probably that large colony to be found around the cliffs of Bonaventure Island, or Perce Rock in the Gaspe Peninsula. Borduas visited this part of the province in the summer of 1938, and like Andre Breton he could not help being moved by the sight; Breton wrote: was on Bonaventure Island, one of the world's biggest seabird sanctuaries....We had been listening to the flags flapping in the wind when our attention was captured by the mind-boggling appearance of the Island's steep wall fringed at its various levels by foam; living snow which was constantly being replenished by the capricious and sweeping gestures of the waves' blue trowel. I was caught up with the sight of it, and for a good quarter of an hour I tried to blend my thoughts in with the pounding waters. Sometimes a wing would come close. It would be ten times longer than the other and would deign to spell a letter - never the same letter twice. I would soon be caught up again in the exorbitant nature of the entire inscription....Who would have thought that wings could be used to rise above an avalanche!...How marvellous that the wrinkles cleft in the land by the years could be used to shelter life in its most inviting aspect: the luxurious sweep of a seagull gliding close by. (5)
The birds of Bonaventure Island defy gravity and move about in the same segment of the cosmos as the winged seeds referred to above, namely the atmosphere.

It appears then that from one painting to another Borduas, probably without realizing it, was meditating on something much more coherent than the avowed Automatism of his procedures might lead us to think. Admist the diversity of content, (floating plants, dancers, seabirds) is a single structure of meaning: escape from gravity and possession of the atmosphere. In 1947, the Automatism of Borduas took flight and established a place for itself in atmospheric space. Rather than depict biomorphic beings pinned to the ground or hanging from dead branches, Borduas made his canvases a place where the birdcage is opened, where dancers jump high, and where "nature's parachutes" float freely.

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