Sans titre, 1951
Inscriptionssigned "Borduas / 51." (recto, lower right); inscribed in graphite, "FERRON" (verso, lower horizontal strecher); with partial unidentified typset paper label, inscribed in ink, "Artiste[:] Borduas / Titre[:] Sans Titre 1951 / Preteur[:] Le gouvernement du Québec Paris (verso, lower horizontal stretcher).
ProvenancePossibly owned by Marcelle Ferron, Paris (1955-1960);
PublicationsFrançois-Marc Gagnon, Paul-Émile Borduas (1905 - 1960). Biographie critique et analyse de l'oeuvre (Montreal: Fides, 1978), Catalog Number:2005-0929.
When confronted with a rare Borduas painting newly appearing on the market, the best source to establish its authenticity is to consult the Borduas files at the Archives of the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal. Some files in this huge documentation contain photos of his paintings taken by Borduas himself or by professional photographer like Philip Pocock, from Ottawa, who worked for the magazine Canadian Art. He visited Borduas in Paris in May 1957. Indeed, there is a black and white photo of our painting in file 225 at the Musée d’art contemporain, one dating from 1951, suggesting that the photo was probably taken by Borduas himself.
A painting is also an object that has its own history. We know that the actual collector acquired it “long time ago” from the Simon Dresdnere Gallery, which had a Montreal address (2170 Crescent Street) in the sixties. But the back of the painting gives us two more intriguing clues.
A label on the lower sub-frame claims that “Le Gouvernement du Québec, Paris” is the “PRÊTEUR” of this painting! From this information, we could not extrapolate anything. But at the same level, on the right, one can read in big letters: “FERRON”, of course referring to the artist Marcelle Ferron, with whom Borduas was in contact during his Parisian period (1955-1960). Could it be that Marcelle Ferron was the one who brought back this painting to Canada, later selling it at Dresdnere? This is an interesting possibility. (There is also a stamp on the canvas of its exportation from France.)
The special character of this small painting is less its size, but the fact that it is so thinly painted. One has to recall that 1950 - 1951 was a period when Borduas produced many watercolours, and our painting is one the rare evidence showing the influence of the watercolour on the oil paintings of that period. One sees even here and there some running effects due Borduas’ excess use of the oil medium. Additionally noteworthy are the branching forms on the right and the general movement of the spots in the painting which also echo some watercolours of 1950, e.g. Sombre machine d’une nuit de fête, 1950 and Le Vent d’ouest apporte des chinoiseries de porcelaine, 1950 .
1951 was not a very happy year for Borduas. It was alrady three years since the publication of the manifesto Refus global in 1948 after which Borduas was dismissed from his work in École du meuble. Borduas was trying to support his family exclusively from the sale of his paintings. This explains his interest in small works on paper, less costly than oil paintings. The cost aspect probably also explains the small scale of this fine painting of 1951. 1951 saw also a new interest of Borduas in sculpture. He exhibited them at his Saint-Hilaire studio (June 2 to 4), with some oil and watercolours. In October 13 to 26, the Picture Loan Society showed his “Colour Ink Paintings” in Toronto. Nevertheless, his hardship in making a living continued to put stress on his marriage. Borduas could not accept that his wife should go back to her nurse job, a remnant of a male chauvinistic attitude, astonishing from a man like the “revolutionary” Borduas!
If we had only our Sans titre, 1951, nothing of this hardship could be felt in the free handling of the painting, in the contrast of blue and brown, in the gentleness and movement of the whole composition. Painting is also a way to escape from the necessity of life. Therefore one should not always assume a correspondence between the biography of a painter and the look of his work. Automatism, appealing from the unconscious, encouraged this kind of liberty. Dreams are not always nightmares. Done without any pre-conceived idea, our Sans titre reminds us of the first lines of Projections libérantes, the autobiographical pamphlet published by Borduas in 1949, "A reprieve is granted from the black misery to come. (...) The idea of a vacation haunts me. It manifests an old echo: at last, free to paint! "
Are we not feeling it in this particular painting?
© François-Marc Gagnon
1. Reproduced in color in my book, Paul-Émile Borduas. A Critical Biography, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca, 2015, respectively on page 281 and 283.