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Exhibit offers glimpse of historic art movement

By Diana Rinne, Grande Prairie Daily Herald Tribune
Friday, February 22, 2013
View article on DHT website.

Curator of The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941-1960, Roald Nasgaard poses with a painting by Paul-Émile Borduas, Abstraction, 1941, at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie. The exhibit officially opens at the gallery Friday. (Diana Rinne/Daily Herald-Tribune)

A look at what is referred to as Canada’s first true avant-garde art movement now graces the walls of the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie in the form of The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941-1960, which officially opens today.

“I call it Canada’s first true avant-garde art movement,” said exhibit curator Roald Nasgaard who was in Grande Prairie to install the show last week.

“In a way the Group of Seven were avant-garde too but they had national objectives, they wanted to create a national painting, whereas this group here really saw their sights as being international.

“They saw themselves as being equal to anything that was going on (in the world).”

The exhibit originally opened in the Varley Art Gallery in Markham outside of Toronto in 2009.

Nasgaard points out a small green painting created in 1941 by Paul-Émile Borduas, the founder of the Automatistes, as the first example of the movement.

“He called it his first non-figurative abstract painting,” he explained. “Borduas was already 38 by then and he had been trained as a church painter and gone to Paris to study church paintings in the ’20s and hadn’t really looked at avant-garde painting as far as we could tell.

“He came back during the Depression and the church couldn’t afford to hire him and he sort of disappeared, taught, did some painting and emerges as a still-life painter. And then suddenly he reads about psychic automatism or surrealism and learns this technique of automatic writing,” he said.

Borduas begins to paint without thinking about it.

“It doesn’t begin with a still life in the studio, it doesn’t begin with anything in the mind’s eye…it’s from nowhere and that was the magic,” said Nasgaard.

The most forward thinking of the group, Borduas became a beacon for young artists as they saw him as an alternative to the academic teaching that they were subjected to, he explained.

In 1948 Borduas published Le Refuse Global (A Total Refusal), an anti-religious and anti-establishment manifesto for the group which continued approach its work through an exploration of the subconscious.

“Francoise Sullivan a dancer in the movement would talk about those Tuesday nights where they would gather in Borduas’s studio and talk about their paintings, talk about all things and everything. Francoise said ‘we would come out in the streets after those meetings shouting with joy,’” said Nasgaard.

What sets The Automatistes apart from other movements is that they were very interdisciplinary and included were painters, poets, dancers, choregraphers and actors.

The classroom downstairs at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie will feature this aspect of the group with some of the literary documentation as well as photographs and video of many of the dances created during that time.

“It was a movement that connected internationally,” said Nasgaard.

The Automatiste Revolution: 1941-1960 will be on exhibit at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie until April 30. The opening reception will be held at 7 p.m. Friday.