The Proust questionnaire: Marcel Barbeau

The Proust Questionnaire started as a Late Victorian parlour game, aimed at revealing key aspects of a person’s character. While still in his teens, author Marcel Proust answered a similar series of questions with such enthusiasm that, when the manuscript containing his original answers was discovered in 1924, his name became permanently associated with this type of informal interview.


Marcel Barbeau in his Montreal studio, 2014. Photo: Daniel Roussel

Marcel Barbeau was born in Montreal on February 18, 1925. He studied with Paul-Émile Borduas at the École du Meuble de Montréal (in 1945 and 1953) and often visited Borduas’ studio, where he met young intellectuals from the Automatistes. He took part in all of their activities between 1946 and 1955, and signed the Refus global manifesto in 1948. From that time to this, he has never stopped asking questions.

As an artist-explorer, with a restless impulse to test boundaries, Barbeau is constantly seeking new forms and new means of expression. Nomadic, deeply curious about other people and other places, Barbeau has lived in Vancouver, Paris, New York and southern California, returning often to Montreal for extended periods. Since 2008, he has again called Montreal home. 

A pioneer of “allover” gestural paintings (1946), and Op Art (1958), Barbeau has established himself as an innovator, often putting together disparate aesthetic approaches around issues such as desire and movement. A bold proponent of paradox, he has been known to associate Abstract Expressionism with Minimalism or Op Art, colour studies with sculpture, and performance art with multimedia. In this way, he is constantly renewing his means of expression, in painting and sculpture alike.

Since his inclusion in the Canadian exhibition at the Two Worlds Art Festival in Spoleto, Italy (1962), he has participated in several important group exhibitions including, most recently, Sota la Bomba (Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007); L’art en guerre – France 1938–1947, De Picasso à Dubuffet (National Museum of Modern Art in Paris and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2012–2013), and the Nouvelles Vagues event (at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2013).

Barbeau has received the Zack Purchase Award from the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (1963), and a Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award from the Canada Council for the Arts (1973), as well as numerous national and international prizes. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1995, and in 2013, won a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, the prix Louis-Philippe-Hébert (Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste) and the Prix Paul-Émile Borduas (Prix du Québec en arts visuels).


Your earliest memory of art:

When I spied on Borduas, who was giving a drawing course at the École du Meuble, I discovered art and knew that this was what I wanted to study.

When you knew this would become your vocation:

When I had my first exhibitions with the Automatistes in 1946 and 1947, I knew that art was the thing that truly met my aspirations. But it was a commitment that I constantly questioned, making it a difficult choice to live with. It was only after my first exhibitions at Galerie Denyse Delrue, and at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, and after receiving a grant from the Canada Council of the Arts to go to Paris at the beginning of the 1960s, that I felt I could devote myself to it completely.  

Your greatest influence:

Paul-Émile Borduas.

Occupation you would have chosen (other than art):

As a child and as a teenager, I saw myself as a professional dancer. But that was a fantasy that I never bothered to pursue. I believe that I wouldn’t have known how to do anything other than paint, draw or sculpt. Routine work bored me, and probably would have killed me years ago.

Favourite pastime (other than art):

Tennis—as an enthusiastic amateur until the middle of the 1990s; since then, only as a spectator, as I am unable to find any partners.

Favourite artist:

Matisse, because right until the end he presented evidence of an inspiration that was constantly being renewed. Picasso was inspired by his virtuosity.

Favourite author and musician/composer:

Georges Simenon and, paradoxically, the poets Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Éluard, René Char, Claude Gauvreau and Marie Uguay. In music, Olivier Messiaen and, more broadly, contemporary music.

Favourite colour, flower and bird:

For me, colour doesn’t exist except through its relationship with other colours. My taste for a colour varies constantly, depending on the one preceding it, on the time of year and the quality of light. The double begonia, for its range of colours and the density of its flowers, and because it brightens the shade. The duck, for the purity of its form, and because it is migratory like me, returning each spring.

Favourite food and drink:

Chicken fricassee, which reminds me of my mother’s cooking. Dry white wine from the Haute-Loire such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fuissé or, for very special occasions, one of the great white burgundies such as a Clos des Mouches or a Puligny-Montrachet.

Favourite smell and sound:

The scent of lilies; because I have little sense of smell, it is one of the few scents that I recognize. The sparkle and fizz of a bottle of champagne, like the one you hear all of a sudden in Kidnapping au concert by Mauricio Kagel.

Favourite object:

The sable brush; for me, it’s the most beautiful brush, the most subtle.

Favourite environment or landscape:

Somewhere near water—the sea, the river, or even a canal like the one near my studio—because the changing light is so beautiful.

Favourite weather or season:

Spring: not too cold, not too hot, a time when anything seems possible.

Favourite expression, formula, catchphrase or word:

He must be up to no good. 

Pet peeve:


Best quality:


Worst flaw:


Your definition of happiness:

I am constantly redefining it.

Ideal place to live:

A peaceful location near water, where the weather is always pleasant and mild.

A recurring dream:

Reaching a very large audience, moving them, transforming them. 

One wish:


Aspirations before you die:

I am not going to die.

For me, art is (in five words or less):



Click here to view works by Marcel Barbeau housed in the National Gallery of Canada's permanent collection.

Share this article: 

About the Author