"My painting is non-figurative, abstract, maybe it's lyrical. All the terminology is not important. What is important is the actual painting. When you're looking at the painting you're looking at something real, and that's what counts."
Rita Letendre's work attracted attention in the early 1950s through her association with Paul-émile Borduas and the Montreal abstractionists known as the Automatistes. Their primary objective was the liberation of the creative force through the painted surface. Although their influence was instrumental in the evolution of her style, Letendre developed a singular vision in her body of work that resulted in an international reputation and an extensive exhibition record.
In 1941 economic difficulties led to a move of her large family from Drummondville to Montreal. She began attending the École des Beaux-Arts in Montreal in 1948, but rejected the emphasis on traditional figurative representation in favour of more innovative models. Leaving the conservative school, she became associated with the burgeoning avant-garde art milieu of Montreal and was introduced to Surrealist, Automatiste and abstract art. Letendre drew inspiration from Borduas’ emphasis on self-determination and creation of new visual vocabularies. By the early 1950s she was exhibiting small abstract gouaches. Her participation in the 1954 Automatiste group show, La matière chante, was a pivotal moment in her career. This exhibition drew public attention to the abstract movement that had hitherto been disregarded by mainstream institutions in Quebec. In 1955 Letendre exhibited in Espace 55 at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal. Her work elicited disapproval from Borduas who returned from New York to view the important show. He critiqued her paintings as “too geometric and rational” and unfaithful to his ideas.
These early paintings used vibrant oils defined in loose patterns of repeated geometric shapes to suggest a sense of movement. Increasingly her work exhibited more space and tension, indicating a greater commitment to form, shifting from the abstract Automatiste style to the more ordered, geometric mode of the Plasticiens. Colour fields are broken apart and expanded, while a reduced range of pigmentation creates a feeling of intensity. The surfaces became more compelling with densely applied gestural strokes that evoke raw states of emotion, restlessness and energy. It has been suggested that these changes may have been prompted by the artist’s growing interest in her Aboriginal heritage. By the 1960s Letendre had reached an international audience exhibiting in New York and at the National Gallery of Canada.
Letendre has said that her work is grounded in metaphors of light, darkness and movement in an ongoing commitment to the process of discovery of the self. Atara (1963) features an eruptive struggle between fields of volcanic reds and a jagged black mass. In it, light is freed from an encroaching eclipse of darkness. Letendre suggests that in this eternal meeting of forces, light escapes annihilation and thus survives.
Letendre travelled and lived in France, Israel, Italy and the United States before settling in Toronto in 1970.