Paul-Émile Borduas, through his artworks, had a profound influence on the development of the arts and thought in Canada, including his province of Quebec. He was part of Canada’s avant-garde Automatiste movement, which he shared with other equally key figures in the development of the country’s arts and thought (such figures including Marcel Barbeau, Claude Tousignant, and Jean Paul Riopelle, among many others). Borduas’ works (including in this case the Untitled of 1957), like those of his contemporaries, broke from the known conventions of art. They could have been considered as surrealist art, and in fact, like surrealism, automatism represented a challenge of and rebellion against “what they viewed as an intolerable social and artistic state of affairs”. In other words, automatism was not only at, but also a social and political statement. Indeed, this purpose was realized through the more conspicuous Refus global manifesto, of which Borduas and his fellow automatism disciples were signatories, and because of which he lost his teaching position in Montreal. The work under analysis here, Untitled (1957) exhibited all these aspects of surrealism and rebellion. This is evident in the style and technique used, and the significant and critical issues/themes contained.
Critical Analysis of Untitled (1957)
To begin with, Untitled is not the first of Borduas’ works to come to mind when listing some of his greatest works. However, Borduas, like all artists, did evolve as he attempted to find his voice or newer voices to express himself, and Untitled stands out as a representative of one of the many voices (that is, styles) that he exhibited throughout his career and life. Particularly, although this is mentioned in any literature found while researching this paper, Untitled is most distinctly part of a series of works that included 3+4+1 (1956) and Black Star (1957).
Like 3+4+1 and Black Star, Untitled is constituted of black oil spots plastered on canvas. These spots are of different uneven shapes and sizes and seem scattered randomly across the workspace. Therefore, expectedly (as most – if not all – automatism works, and Borduas’ works), it is hard to know how to read the work. Besides, for one to start making sense of a piece of artwork, they must be able to make out the individual contents (including colors in their different shades and shapes) and, ultimately, the totality of those contents. In this case, however, while one sees the individual contents, it is hard to know where to begin reading the spots, because it clearly seems unhelpful to begin from anywhere.
According to Gagnon, Borduas at times tried to help the viewer with this task of reading his work. In this respect, he used numbers. His use of numbers in his artworks, however, evolved and it is important to understand how so one can avoid rushing to inaccurate conclusions. In his earlier works, Borduas used numbers merely for the purpose of personal inventory. The number 131, therefore, meant nothing more than the fact that the artwork in question was the 131st. This inventory purpose also evolved to also refer to the dates on which such works were done. The number 8.47, therefore, would mean that the artwork in question was done in August of 1947. At times the numbers referred to the sequential position of the artwork within the year in question, so that 19.47 referred to the nineteenth canvas painted in the year 1947. However, the purpose of the numbers changed with 3+4+1, which became the first in what (as noted above) seemed to be a series of works that would include (again as already noted) Untitled and Black Star. In this case, Gagnon argues, the numbers were meant to suggest the order in which the viewer should read the black spots in the piece. This is what it means to say that Borduas at times sought to help the viewers in their attempts to read his works. In 3+4+1 (see Figure 2 below), therefore, the numbers meant that the viewer was to start with the three large black spots that upon a close look form an arc across the canvas’ entire pictorial space, followed by the four spots at the lower left corner, and finally the black spot occupying the top right corner of the canvas (see Figure 3 below).
Figure 2: Paul-Émile Borduas, 3+4+1, 1956, oil on canvas, 199.8 x 250 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Figure 3: Gagnon’s Diagram Illustrating the Path of the Viewer’s Eyes 3+4+1
Gagnon further argues that “Borduas wanted the viewer to take the full possession of the canvas rather than focus on a detail or texture in the blacks and whites… [and also that] by introducing this essential aspect of active participation by the viewer, he [Borduas] creates, in an abstract painting, the impression of movement”. Moreover, the use of black and white (that is, the reduction of color) increases the plastic quality of the painting.
Unfortunately, Borduas does not offer such a visible ‘guiding hand’ for the viewer of Untitled. It is as if he left the task to the viewer’s own discretion. That said, however, perhaps he meant the guideline he provides in 3+4+1 to be a template for viewing all the other works in the series. Therefore, using the same pattern on Untitled – and indeed the eyes do seem to follow this path – one is likely to start with the cluster of black spots around the top-left section of the canvas and their connection to the two lonesome dots on the bottom-left and top-right corners of the canvas. There is an arc-path there. Next, the eyes move slowly to the two wing-like spots on both sides of the blank space (which look like two landmarks on the opposite banks of a river) and finally to the black spot around the bottom-right corner. Like 3+4+1, there is a sense of movement in the abstractness of Untitled. The use of only black and white also does create a sense of plasticity.
The sense and notion of plasticity in the work is not mere coincidence. Apparently, what Gagnon refers to as “the synthesis of… plastic language” was part of Borduas’ style during his time in Paris. This style was characterized by the creation of strong oppositions between contrasts (the colors black and white being perhaps the most contrasting, as in the three works already mentioned here), or subtle contrasts (such as between black and brown), and even a clever distribution of both black and brown on white surfaces (such as in the Symphony on a White Checkerboard, also of 1957). It is this contrast, accentuated by the white surface that creates the sense of movement.
Themes: Artistic and Social Rebellion
Before the arrival of surrealism, the primary objective of artists was to imitate nature. However, this changed with the arrival of surrealism, and automatism (and other schools of art that shared the same basic premise) carried it even further. The premise is, however, not original to art, but takes after the ideas and practices of ancient philosophers. Long before surrealism, Plato, while not necessarily against imitation, expressed his grievance against the fact that such imitation was limited to appearances of things, thereby failing to reflect other non-tangible aspects of such things (such as ideas and/or essence). Moreover, Aristotle, writing about tragedy, transformed imitation into some kind of therapy with the goal of purging and/or purifying the spectators’ emotions through the achievement of catharsis. These, however, were only seeds of surrealism. Meanwhile, these philosophers still placed emphasis on imitation, or at worst variations of imitation. In this regard, therefore, artists had preconceived ideas about their next work before setting brush to canvas. Surrealism, however, questioned this premise of preconception, and provided the foundation for the works of automatists like Borduas.
One would agree that Untitled is confusing. Understanding its meaning is not as easy as one may understand realist works. Even with the guideline that Borduas provides to help the viewers (cited above), seeing the sense of movement still does not help to extract any clear themes contained in the piece. Even if someone else were to come up with a meaning, one is still likely to question that analysis. Indeed, the painter does not seem to have had any clear idea what they were doing. On the contrary, it seems like they merely set brush on white canvas and stopped when, for one reason or another, they decided they could not go on.
This comes as no surprise however. Rather, it reflects surrealists and automatists’ ideas of painting. Reading the texts of the French poet Andre Breton, for instance, Borduas learned about ‘automatic painting’. The main premise of this ‘automatic’ work is that one begins without preconceptions, and that the work is not based on any imitable models or any iconographic programs to follow. Rather, the painter ‘creates’, and to do this he/she sets out for adventure in unknown territory. This became the basis for automatism, which explains the out-of-this-world look of the artworks. After all, they are created from nothing.
The best way to extract the theme in Untitled, therefore, is focus on the process rather than the piece itself. The process here refers to what drives the artists in doing what they do, and the piece only becomes a manifestation of that that process. For automatists (as it was for surrealists), the drive seems to be a challenge of and rebellion against rigid social and artistic conventions.
Indeed, even as their works challenged known conventions of artistic expression (particularly through painting), Borduas and his contemporaries also kept their eyes to the social and politics goings on in the country. Borduas was a signatory to the manifesto of the automatists, Refus global (translated as ‘Total refusal’), which was published in 1948. The manifesto quickly led to a conflict between the group and Quebec’s repressive regime under Maurice Duplessis. Borduas and his colleagues were against some of the repressive government policies. Such a policy was the ‘Padlock policy’. According to this policy, the provincial government could lock any building suspected to be used by communists and Bolshevism to disseminate their agenda to the people. The provincial government could also ban any materials deemed to be advocating these ideas. The climax was the collusion between state officials and the Catholic Church to silence those considered artistic and/or political dissents. The automatism manifesto was, therefore, critical of the government’s repressive behaviors.
However, even as he signed the manifesto, Borduas had his own doubts about the possibility of creating a better world in the aftermath of a revolution. He cited the historical evidence of crushed hopes in the aftermath of political revolutions. For him, therefore, art was the better revolution as it enabled the creation of a kind of utopia where people could bask in the “joyful fulfillment of [their] fierce desire for freedom”.
In this frame, therefore, Borduas seems set to bask fully in the freedom within, which he manifests on the canvas. A work like Untitled is, therefore, a realization of that freedom by virtue of its own freedom from any known boundaries of artistic expression. Therefore, the answer to the question of theme in Untitled is this: freedom.
In conclusion, while Borduas did not believe in the credibility of an actual political revolution, it does not mean that he did not desire and believe in freedom. Rather, he believed that art was the path to true freedom, which resided within. His artworks show this freedom, and Untitled is itself a declaration of that freedom, despite oppression in the external world.
Dell’Aversano, Carmen. Beyond Dream and Reality: Surrealism as Reconstruction. Journal of Constructivist Psychology 21, no.4 (2008): 328-342
Gagnon, Francois-Marc. Paul-Émile Borduas: Life & Work. Art Canada Institute, 2014
Jan Helge, Solbakk. Catharsis and Moral Therapy II: An Aristotelian Account. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 9, no.2 (2006): 141-153
Keshavarz, Ramin & Moheb Ali Absalan. The Confrontation between Essence and Existence in Plato and Aristotle’s Ideas in Art. Environment Conservation Journal 16, (2015): 161-170
Nasgaard, Roald & Ray Ellenwood. The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941-1960. New York: The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 2010
Parsons, Lee. Les Automatises: Revolt and Modern Art in Post-War Montreal, World Socialist Website, Jan. 2010.
 Roald Nasgaard & Ray Ellenwood. The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941-1960 (New York: The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 2010), 11
 Lee Parsons. Les Automatises: Revolt and Modern Art in Post-War Montreal, World Socialist Website, Jan. 2010, 1
 Parsons, p. 1
 Francois-Marc Gagnon. Paul-Émile Borduas: Life & Work, (Art Canada Institute, 2014), 3
 Gagnon, p. 37
 Ibid, p. 37
 Gagnon, pp. 37-38
 Gagnon, p.40
 Carmen Dell’Aversano. Beyond Dream and Reality: Surrealism as Reconstruction. Journal of Constructivist Psychology 21, no.4 (2008), 331
 Ramin Keshavarz & Moheb Ali Absalan. The Confrontation between Essence and Existence in Plato and Aristotle’s Ideas in Art. Environment Conservation Journal 16, (2015), 163
 Solbakk Jan Helge. Catharsis and Moral Therapy II: An Aristotelian Account. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 9, no.2 (2006), 145
 Dell’Aversano, p. 331
 Ibid, p.330
 Nasgaard & Ellenwood, p. 5-21
 Parsons, p.2