The eldest son in a family of a carpenter and metal-worker, Borduas began life in the little village of St.Hilaire, some twenty miles outside Montreal on the Richelieu River. After five years of schooling - the maximum available in the village - Borduas began working with his fellow-villager, Ozias Leduc.
While continuing to work with Leduc, he earned his degree at l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montreal and began to teach drawing. But, in 1928, he quit his teaching post and went to Paris. Though he left his Paris art school in disgust, and had trouble supporting himself through church-decoration commissions, he did discover the work of Braque, Soutine and Renoir.
Back in Montreal by 1932, he tried to live by his painting alone, but was unsuccesful and became a teacher of design in the primary schools. In the classroom he was greatly struck by the beautiful spontaneity of children's art. In 1937 he became a teacher of painting and art history at l'Ecole du Meuble, a design school with a reasonably progressive atmosphere.
All this time, Borduas was still painting representational subjects. Then, in 1940, the invasion of France by Germany brought an influx of Parisians to Montreal. One was Pere Couturier, a Dominican teacher and artist, who lectured for a year at l'Ecole du Meuble on all the latest ideas from Europe. Another was Borduas' contemporary and compatriot, Alfred Pellan, who was returning after a decade in Paris and who proceeded to exhibit his avant-garde work. In this atmosphere of ferment in 1941 - at the age of thirty-six - Borduas did his first abstract paintings. Later he wrote, "Children, always of great interest to me, opened up the way of surrealism, of automatic writing. The most perfect condition of the act of painting was finally unveiled."
Borduas' new non-figurative work began to attract important attention. He started to sell his paintings during the forties and was especially encouraged when he made his first sale to a public institution, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. And he exhibited with increasing frequency in major shows outside his native province.
Soon Borduas was enjoying an enthusiastic following of radical art students, young intellectuals and convinced collectors. It was from this coterie that the Montreal-based art movement known as Automatisme sprang. The group included, besides Borduas, Barbeau, Fauteux, Garvreau, Leduc, Mousseaux, and, eventually, Marcelle Ferron and Jean-Paul Riopelle. In the same year, 1947, an exhibition officially called "Automatisme" was organized by Riopelle and Leduc for La Galerie du Luxembourg in Paris -- Borduas and the new pioneer avant-garde Montreal art movement had won a toehold in Canadian art history.
This toehold was to be converted into a pedestal with the publication, in 1948, of the manifesto, "Refus Global". It was written in French, and received little distribution outside the author's own province, but in Quebec it caused a furor. In it, Borduas pleaded for a mature sense of social responsibility and a complete rejection of all the traditional patterns of thinking. He was particularly critical of the established Church and the influence of organized religion. In the repressive and authoritarian atmosphere of Duplessis' Quebec in the forties, it took rare courage. Borduas was fired from l'Ecole du Meuble for it. The next three years were very difficult. Added to ill-health were domestic and severe financial difficulties, and the sadness of seeing les Automatistes drift apart and go their independent ways.
In 1951 he scarcely painted at all. His health impaired, Borduas turned to watercolours as being less demanding physically. Fortunately, also at the same time, the unusually devoted patronage of two Montreal collectors, M. and Mme. Gerard Lortie, gave him some financial freedom. Lortie, in fact, became a sort of unofficial business agent for Borduas, managing to sell, in all, some 150 Borduas paintings in Canada, two-thirds of them in Quebec, and many of them to people making their very first purchase of a work of art. Thus provided for, Borduas was at last able to escape his native province. He went first to New York, where he met such leading figures of the abstract expressionist school as Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. Pollock and Kline, with their achievements in gestural painting, were undoubted influences.
In 1955, still searching, Borduas moved to Paris. After five productive years he died there of a heart attack in 1960.
William Withrow, "Contemporary Canadian Painting"
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