Swans Commentary » swans.com October 9, 2006  



Total Refusal


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - October 9, 2006)  The next time you have arty friends around for dinner, ask those with a gleam of social and political awareness this question. It will get your parlor games up and running. When did artists in North America issue a manifesto that called for revolution not only in art but also in morals, religion, and politics? No one will know. The answer is 1948 in Montreal when sixteen practitioners of the arts published Refus global. (Six were women, a good percentage for the time.) The four hundred copies printed are now collectors' items that a misty-eyed Canadian artistic establishment presses to its breast. In 1948 only one Montreal bookstore had the courage to put the item on sale.

The details of this landmark event for the arts in Canada can be found in a precious article by Sam Abramovitch that originally appeared in La Magie des signes: Oeuvres sur papier de la Collection Borduas du Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, 2005, and has been conveniently reprinted in AmeriQuests Vol.3, No.1, 2006, as Borduas - Then and Now. Among much else that Abramovitch -- who was around at the time -- relates are his personal memories of Paul-Emile Borduas, the prime mover behind the Refus. Borduas loved his village home at St. Hilaire near Montreal, but Canada then didn't nurture maverick painters who said no to the reigning system. Borduas's stand cost him his teaching job. It was in any case imperative that he go abroad to make a name for himself.

The painter died in Paris in 1960. Three decades later the French cemetery where he reposed was reorganized and his remains destined for a common grave. Canadian friends decided to bring his reliquiae home. The Minister of Culture of the Province was all too willing to help. Artists had become figures of national prestige and a spur to tourism, especially if their work commanded high prices on the international market. Official enthusiasm was such that the Minister had to be restrained from reburying Borduas in Montreal's huge concert hall and museum complex, Place des Arts. The painter's friends prevailed and took him back to St. Hilaire.

Quebec Province in post WWII days still bore the imprint of British colonial policy. This astutely allowed the Catholic Church and ethnic nationalists to run the local show as they pleased, provided they kept out of the way on national issues. The result was that in 1948 a demagogue named Maurice Duplessis held Quebec in an iron grip. His Union Nationale party combined clerical domination, rabid French-Canadian nationalism and surreptitious collaboration with international corporations. The red scare that Duplessis orchestrated made Senator Joseph McCarthy seem like a sober statesman when he blossomed forth a few years later.

In Quebec no education was available in French outside of hidebound, authoritarian Catholic schools that looked back for inspiration to pre-1789 France. Censors had a heyday and worked with a will to keep French-Canadians in a state of perpetual childhood. Social pressures were crushing. A drugstore proprietor who sold contraceptives would be called to account from the pulpit on Sunday by his all powerful parish priest. On Monday morning the druggist would be put figuratively in the stocks.

Of course this clerical utopia could not last. "Respectable" liberal opinion, and modern life in its entirety were at work undermining it. But less reputable elements couldn't wait for history, and rebels in the arts delivered a resonant slap in the face to the oppressive status quo in 1948.

Refus global owes a lot to the Surrealist manifestoes that André Breton began to publish in the 1920s. But there's desperation in the Refus that Breton at ease in France never knew. It's a cry of pain by youth suffocating in a frightened society organized by the cowardly using fear of the larger world as their principal arm. There are passages in the original French where we still feel the chill of the rebels' isolation. They experience la terreur d'être engloutis vivants -- to be swallowed alive by the only society available to them. Because the artists recognized the Quebec that morally assailed them to be a complete system, they had to extend their accusations beyond the retrograde taste of the art world to politics, the church, education, and the way the ordinary citizen looked at life when he got out of bed in the morning. It was the uniqueness of Quebec society in North America that made the Refus global so different from other artistic manifestoes. "We refuse to be confined to the barracks of the plastic arts," the signatories said, because they understood that their problem was a much larger one.

The document, in mannered poetic prose with vatic echoes, smacks of naivety. But wasn't a naïve reaction inevitable in a society of ostriches with their heads in the sand of the 1700s? References to class, exploitation, and chains to be cast off recall socialist rhetoric. But the drift of the document is other. At one point we are taken back to the 13th century and told that a wrong turn had been taken just then. Men discarded intuition and passion in favor of calculation and rationality. These young Quebecois could only see their way out of the impasse of Quebec society by taking hints from Freud, the Surrealists, and the Zeitgeist generally. They sought their salvation in throwing deliberate intentions overboard and clinging to the unconscious and the spontaneous.

It will be recalled that in America at the time, Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting flourished, as did their search for the "authentic" personal gesture; Freud furnished small talk for what we'd now call soccer moms; and writers like Jack Kerouac vaunted "spontaneous prose." French-Canadian artists, however, were in a special predicament. The art of the past especially oppressed them. The Refus claims that their "confidence [had been] destroyed by memories of European masterpieces." For in addition to the constraints of an ancient-regime French society, Quebec artists and writers labored under the glare of modern French culture. A couple of million speakers of outdated French, long cut off from the mother country, were expected to meet the norms of that distant land whose language is not all that easy to master in the homeland by natives. American writers of 1948 were hardly kept awake at night by thoughts of "European masterpieces." American painters began claiming New York as world art capital from the end of the WWII. All of which explains the note of despair, solitude, and apocalypse in the Refus.

It was the hopelessness of the situation that pushed the signatories to the grandeur of demanding changes not only in art but in all of life. Archaic moral restraints and imposed formalism from abroad made the Refus artists go the whole hog. Everything had to change. Sam Abramovitch deftly sums up the manifesto as an insistence on the need to be spontaneous. That's the same as to say it's an injunction to "Be yourself." (Man would produce "a complete renewal of [his]...emotional well-springs" if he followed "the most basic drives of his nature.") To be themselves, in the wake up their artists and writers, is precisely the advice that Quebecois of the third millennium have taken to heart.

The manifesto signers of 1948 did not stay banded together for long. Borduas, gone abroad to confront the international competition, gave big ideas a rest and concentrated on painting. His acolytes went where their careers led them. The Automatists group from which the Refus came soon split over approaches to painting. Not surprisingly, the taboo on intention and abstract thinking proved a limiting factor for some artists. But the harsh infighting added immeasurably to the richness of Canadian art. After the so-called Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the society that had provoked the rebels faded quickly. Some observers went so far as to say that with Refus global "modern French-Canada began." Historian Dennis Reid called it "the single most important social document in Quebec history."


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About the Author

Peter Byrne was born in Chicago, attended universities in Quebec and Paris, and lived for long periods, teaching and writing, in Montreal, London, Paris, Italy -- north and south -- Sofia, and Istanbul. He now lives in the Italian city of Lecce within sight of Albania on a very clear day.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published October 9, 2006