This year Québec celebrates the 70th anniversary of the publication of Refus global, a manifesto marking a turning point in the cultural history of the province. It was truly revolutionary, challenging the existing societal values and the overwhelming influence of the clergy and its widespread use of censorship. That ‘dark past’ was marked by then premier Maurice Duplessis’ Padlock Act (1937-57), which allowed him to shutter any building he suspected of harbouring those with subversive opinions. And it was the artists with their magnificent manifesto, now seen as a historic document marking the beginning of modern Quebec that helped put a stop to it. They were soon aided in their rebellion by political changes brought on by the Révolution tranquille. The principal essay in Refus global was written by the painter Paul-Émile Borduas and signed by 15 members of the Automatistes Group of artists. It was launched at the Librairie Tranquille in Montreal on August 9, 1948. Texts were also written by the poet Claude Gauvreau, painter Fernand Leduc, and dancer and painter, Françoise Sullivan. Soon to be enamoured of sculpture as well, she is to this day actively involved in art making, translating movement into abstract works. The last of the Automatistes, Françoise Sullivan is being celebrated with a major retrospective at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal this fall.
Dorota Kozinska—How did the Automatistes form, what were the beginning of the group?
Françoise Sullivan—The initial person would have to be Pierre Gauvreau, and I would also mention Bruno Cormier because of their childhood friendship, which started with conversations they had while walking to school together.1 They were exploring the world, and sharing ideas. And then Pierre Gauvreau was invited to show in a student exhibition at the college — after being thrown out for his advanced thinking! Borduas, who was a drawing teacher at the École du meuble, was invited to give a prize, and when he saw Pierre Gauvreau’s little still life painting he was ‘thrown back’, and said to his wife: “I have discovered a painter! A real painter”.
That was November 1941. At the time we were all doing figurative work inspired by Bonnard and others of that period. I was studying painting at the École des beaux-arts, with Fernand Leduc and others, and we would talk during the break, and we all thought that the teaching was very stiff; we didn’t feel that we were really learning anything.
Borduas changed all that?
He first invited Pierre to visit him in the studio. Then we all went, our little group, to see Borduas, and listened to him talk. He was discovering André Breton at the time, reading Le Château étoilé and so forth. We were 17, 18-years-old… He was 20 years older, but he was still a young painter! He had a fascinating way of talking about art. That first time, we entered this little room on Mentana, just in front of Napoleon street; the walls were all white, which was different in those days, there was no furniture except for one chair and one easel; we sat on the floor. He would take out one of his paintings, put it on the easel and talk about it. His work was semi-figurative at the time, like for example the Portrait de Madame Gagnon (1941). He was also starting to do gouache, and [began] talking to us about abstract art. We visited him many times, at the beginning every two weeks, on a Tuesday evening, and that’s where it all started.
How listening to Borduas changed your outlook on art? Did it feel like a newfound freedom or was it more of a challenge?
It was a challenge, very much a challenge. After a few years, he brought in some of his students from the École du meuble to join us: Riopelle, Barbeau, Perron.
An iconic figure in the history of contemporary art in Quebec, Françoise Sullivan imbues the ideals so powerfully enunciated in the Refus global manifesto.
They must have been inspiring?
They were, and they were [all this time] learning from him in his school, he was their teacher. So they had a kind of advantage over us. Then Bruno Cormier, who was also his student, Gauvreau and others joined.
There was a terrible backlash after the Refus global appeared. It not only challenged the traditional values of Quebec (“To hell with the holy-water-sprinkler and the tuque!”) but also fostered an opening-up of Quebec society to international thought. It advocated a strong need for liberation, if not “resplendent anarchy,” and anticipated the coming of a “new collective hope.” And Borduas was removed from his post at the École du meuble, where he had been teaching since 1937.
How did it affect you?
It affected everyone. And some very deeply. It ruined Borduas but he did the best paintings of his career after that. And you know my son was at an auction and a Borduas painting came up and it sold for $ 3 million, and I was thinking: “I wish he had known that!”
Was this the end of the group?
There was a kind of restlessness after the Refus global and Borduas being deprived of his teaching; he had no money for his family, and his family left. I think there were some people, intellectuals, who bought his paintings but he barely survived, and finally went to New York, which was a very good thing for him. Some of the group wanted to go to Paris of course. And it scattered a bit. But Claude Gauvreau, Pierre’s brother, really held the fort, and kept on writing about it, but it’s only in 1970 that Pierre Vadeboncoeur, one of the key players in the Révolution tranquille, read the Refus global and said: “They have preceded us!” And it started to be accepted and hailed as a heroic piece of writing.
How relevant is its message in our times?
The group symbolized a meeting point of a community, a [precursory] junction of artistic and intellectual disciplines. Its relevance, its words still resonate. It has historical importance, which continues to support new forms of expression, the re-thinking of present ones, and the artists’ place in today’s society.
How thrilled are you with the upcoming exhibition of your works?
Mark Lanctôt is a young curator with a fresh point of view involving the prevailing thoughts in the art world that [to me] touches on the ethics, aesthetics and politics of movement. The works shown in the exhibition are his choice. It will be fascinating for me to see therefore how they bring out the discourse with the texts in the accompanying catalogue. Noémie Solomon wrote about my Danse dans la neige:
“A paradoxical beginning for a contemporary dance history: Françoise Sullivan dancing across the Québécois frozen landscape in February of 1948. Her movements, prompt- ed by the slippery and uneven ground; the brisk and muffled atmosphere of the countryside just outside Montreal, were witnessed by two other members of the Automatiste art movement, who, along with Sullivan, would co-sign a few months later that year Refus global. If Jean-Paul Riopelle’s 16mm film of the original performance was lost shortly after, Maurice Perron’s series of photographs were “rediscovered” in the late 70s and came to crystallize the event as a foundational moment for modern dance in Québec history.”2
We started talking about painting and ended up taking about dance, which weaves through your life, and finds its way in all of your artwork. Now that I look at your abstractions, I feel like they may be the culmination of every- thing you’ve done—sculpture, figurative work, and dance; you can translate it all into abstraction now. Am I right?
You are right. What is interesting is that it embodies the pluridisciplinary theory of the Automatists. I was always trying to translate what painters were doing into dance. To figure out what we were doing in painting, I should do in dance. One thing that I always had in mind, was stepping into the unknown.
How do you combine all the disciplines?
It’s in the ideas…These ideas will be on full display at the long-awaited retrospective of Sullivan’s versatile, multidisciplinary career at the Musée d’art contem- porain de Montréal this fall. An iconic figure in the history of contemporary art in Quebec, she to this day imbues the ideals so powerfully enunciated in the Refus global manifesto. The exhibition will hinge on the most important milestones in Sullivan’s professional and personal life; it will also offer a cohesive overview of the many styles and approaches the artist employed in her creative process. Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the publication of the Refus global, the exhibition and its protagonist take on a greater ampleur.
Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal
October 20, 2018 —January 20, 2019
Françoise Sullivan chorégraphie la matière Sculpture 1959-1970
Galerie Simon Blais, Montréal
October 10—November 24, 2018
Sullivan at the modern
September 20—November 17, 2018
(1) Collège Sainte-Marie, Montréal (1948-1969)
(2) SOLOMON, Noémie (2018). “Dancing a people to come: Variations on Sovereignty in Québécois Photography”, Gurur Ertem et Sandra Noeth (ed.), Bodies of Evidence: Aesthetics, Ethics, and the Politics of Movement. Vienna: Passagen Verlag, p. 81-100.