Surrealist figures

Revolutionary French Canadian artist’s work exhibited on campus

Paul-Émile Borduas’ exhibit Figure With Birds contains a series of rebellious surrealist pieces painted with warm, vivid colours.
Paul-Émile Borduas’ exhibit Figure With Birds contains a series of rebellious surrealist pieces painted with warm, vivid colours.

Art can start a revolution. So can artists.

That’s what happened in Quebec in the 1940s when a group of Quebec artists co-signed the Refus global manifesto, a call for liberty against the oppression of the Dupplessis regime and Catholicism in the province.

These artists paid for their opposition, but the works of these rebellious artists are on exhibit at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

Paul-Émile Borduas was the one who published the manifesto from the group, expressing their discontent at the connection the Catholic church had to artistic expression. The document would become a contributing factors to the start of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

While the gallery holds pieces that initially seem disjointed from artist to artist, at second glance, I’m able to locate the theme of surrealism.

This is because of the surprising details found in each work, like the rich colours used, from dark forest greens to warm rusted browns.

The exhibit includes three pieces by Borduas — one of which hasn’t been on public display since 1979.

I’m immediately drawn to Borduas’ oil painting, Figure aux Oiseaux (Figure With Birds), the work of which the exhibit is named after. Its large-scale canvas is covered with short, erratic brush strokes of highly saturated earth tones, capturing the essence of a fall day.

I’m reminded of the feeling of being on a swing set watching the blur of birds and leaves around me as I gain momentum. It’s both exhilarating and slightly unsettling.

Creating a similar mixture of feelings is Jean-Paul Riopelle’s Untitled.

Over a background of warm, soothing watercolours are spindly black lines, almost giving the impression of spiders crawling across the page.

Ozias Leduc’s Ils s’en vont…S’agenouiller devant deux croix des bois semblables perhaps best exemplifies the goal of Les Automatistes by portraying his own vision of surrealism art in the piece. It’s a charcoal drawing of a graveyard, where two individuals are mourning. Their backs are turned, unaware that they’re being watched.

The uncomfortable nature of this painting is indicative in the whole exhibit, as the artists’ goal to inspire people to think critically is accomplished.

It seems as though the artists are encouraging the viewer to push themselves to a state between familiarity and dangerous uncertainty.

This theme directly correlates to their encouragement of revolt against society, and the acknowledgement of a possible backlash as a result.

Figure with Birds made me think that even after nearly a century has gone by, art still has room to create and inspire change in society.

Paul-Émile Borduas’ Figure with Birds is on exhibit in the Samuel J. Zacks Gallery of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre until Feb. 24.

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