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Masters Gallery Presents Paul-Émile Borduas

September 10, 2014

Words by Monique Westra

Paul-Émile Borduas, "Blancs Metaux" 1955, oil on canvas, 20x24 in.

Paul-Émile Borduas, “Blancs Metaux” 1955, oil on canvas, 20×24 in.

Drawing on the generosity of its clients, Masters Gallery has assembled a large number of paintings by the famous Canadian artist, Paul-Émile Borduas. This is an unusual and ambitious undertaking for a private, commercial gallery. None of the displayed paintings is for sale because they belong to the discerning collectors who purchased them from Masters over the past 25 years. With this exhibition, the gallery once again seems to be taking on the educational mantle of a public museum. Visitors are offered the rare opportunity to see firsthand a collection of Borduas paintings drawn exclusively from private collections. The vast majority of these paintings has never been seen publically before. And, as all of Borduas’ major periods are represented, this exhibition is, in effect, the first survey of Borduas ever to be seen in Calgary.

Paul-Émile Borduas (1905-1960) is recognized as one of Canada’s preeminent modern artists, whose art-historical significance is indisputable. He was an intense man – a thinker, a passionate teacher, a lover of nature and an extraordinary artist. Over a period of less than twenty years, his work and ideas evolved dramatically. His paintings changed as his understanding deepened based on his readings, his exposure to other artists and styles and especially as a result of his own probing experiments. In looking at Borduas’ work over time, one senses the urgent striving of the artist and his fearless willingness to chart unknown waters in pursuit of profound truths, expressed through the idiom of abstraction.

Borduas believed that art could be revelatory and that the process of art making – the freedom of creativity – was a metaphor for the way in which one could and should lead one’s life. He was an idealist and a poet, not a political activist. Yet, he is associated with the inflammatory anti-clerical manifesto Refus Global, a text he co-wrote with his students in 1948 and which irrevocably changed his life. Borduas was completely unprepared for the devastation that ensued in the wake of the publication of Refus Global. He lost his job, his income and his family. Borduas was shattered and his painting activity slowed considerably. After a few dispirited years in Montreal, he moved to New York in 1953 where he painted with renewed vigour. Abstract Expressionism had an impact on his work, but its influence remained superficial. Borduas’ dynamic style is his own. After his move to Paris in the autumn of 1955, his paintings began to reassert the idea of depth and controlled structure. At the same time, he drastically reduced his palette, leading to the creation of the magnificent and monumental black and white paintings for which he is best known.

Borduas’ reputation as a serious and important artist flourished during his time in New York. He continued to have exhibitions in Canada after he settled in Paris in 1955 up to his untimely death in 1960 at the age of fifty-four. Throughout Borduas’ years of “exile” abroad, a number of devoted supporters kept believing in him, recognizing the singular importance of his abstractions. His sales and growing reputation were largely due to Canadian patronage. In particular, an exhibition in October at the Agnès Lefort Gallery in Montreal in 1954 sparked unprecedented interest in his work. Many collectors, dealers and friends visited him in his New York and Paris studios, often purchasing several paintings at once. In fact, the provenance of most of the works sold by Masters Gallery can be traced to these early percipient individuals. They include Gilles and Maurice Corbeil, Gérard Beaulieu, Gérard Lortie, Dr. Max Stern and G. Blair Laing as well as the New York dealer Martha Jackson.

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