Borduas

When I was very young, too young to begin to understand art, really, my dad took me on trips to galleries to show me his favourite works of art. The artist he talked about the most was Borduas, a painter who was part of a group of artists, known as the Automatistes, in Quebec (Canada) in the 1940's and onward.

 Paul-Émile Borduas,  Leeward of the Island  or    1.47 , 1947, oil on canvas, 114.7 x 147.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. This work was displayed in the second Automatiste exhibition, in 1947

Paul-Émile Borduas, Leeward of the Island or 1.47, 1947, oil on canvas, 114.7 x 147.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. This work was displayed in the second Automatiste exhibition, in 1947

The above work was displayed in the second Automatiste exhibition, in 1947. The automatistes worked subconsciously, focusing on mark-making and materiality, and opposed representational art.

Borduas' signature works consist of black irregular spots arranged on a background of white paint.

Paul-Émile Borduas, 3+4+1, 1956, oil on canvas, 199.8 x 250 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa  

In front of this painting, my dad asked me if the black spots were on top of the white background. I said "of course" (well actually I said "Bien sur" since I only spoke french with my dad). He made me look closer, and closer, until I saw that actually, the white paint overlapped the black at the edges, and the black paint was actually the background.

  detail Paul-Émile Borduas,  3+4+1 , 1956, oil on canvas, 199.8 x 250 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa  

detailPaul-Émile Borduas, 3+4+1, 1956, oil on canvas, 199.8 x 250 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa  

At the moment of this realization, I think many things happened in my 6 year old brain. I understood that by looking closely, I could see the steps in the creation of the painting. This was in essence a kind of process-oriented art. Secondly, the sort of visual trickery, that was the opposite of what was expected - that is, that normally white is the background, like the pieces of paper I was drawing on at the time. I imagined something more than the visual image of the painting - I was looking at its surface.

I actually pictured the artist painting the entire canvas black, and then obscuring most of it in white.

And thirdly, I could bathe visually in the luxury of the thick white paint, slathered on and looking like it was still wet, creating a mini world of mountains and valleys and unfathomable depths.

detail   Paul-Émile Borduas, 3+4+1, 1956, oil on canvas, 199.8 x 250 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa