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Le Grand Geste!: Automatiste for the People

Opening spread of “Le Grand Geste!” by Roald Nasgaard, Canadian Art, Spring 2011, pp 88–95 / photo John Craven

When the exhibition “The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941–1960” visited Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery last year, it was the first time that Paul-Émile Borduas and his circle were shown together in the United States. Why this group show was presented almost 70 years after the Automatistes’ formation is open to debate. A corollary question: Why has Canada’s premier avant-garde movement been largely excluded from art historical accounts that chart the international emergence of postwar gestural abstract painting? The Automatistes have, in effect, been denied their place on the world stage. At the Albright-Knox, their easel-sized paintings were hung in tandem with the gallery’s formidable collection of the grand-format Abstract Expressionists; this juxtaposition made Buffalo the ideal setting in which to reflect further on the Canadian painters’ case.

Remember that the critic and poet Claude Gauvreau made big claims for the Automatistes as early as 1946, crediting the painters with having invented Canadian art. “At last! Canadian painting exists,” he proclaimed unabashedly in his review of new Automatiste work included in a group show at Montreal’s Dominion Gallery. His point was not that there was anything quintessentially Canadian about what they were showing—quite the contrary. Canadian art had finally come into its own because it had ceased to be merely Canadian and had joined, as we would now put it, the modernist master narrative. More than that, Gauvreau believed that his young friends had begun to write modernism’s next chapter, by effectively seizing hold of the avant-garde and redirecting it from Paris to Montreal.

Montreal did not become the new Paris. New York did, and the Automatistes’ fate was consigned to the footnotes of art history. I was reminded of this as I prepared for a symposium, aptly titled “The Automatiste Revolution: Its International Resonances,” held in Buffalo last April, near the end of the exhibition. A press release arrived in my inbox announcing an upcoming show: “Le Grand Geste! Informel and Abstract Expressionism, 1946 –1964,” scheduled to open at Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunstpalast in spring 2010. This was an exhibition, then, that would cover much the same time period as “The Automatiste Revolution,” and it promised to be a big, ambitious and comprehensive undertaking devoted to the young artists who, “partly drawing from pictorial practices of Surrealism,” created postwar gestural abstract painting. Its scope would be comprehensive, “retracing the path…leading from France and the USA to Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain and other European countries.” The show’s massive catalogue runs some 350 pages and lists 199 works.

Given its premise, one would assume that “Le Grand Geste!” would have wholeheartedly embraced Automatiste practice. Yet Canada was notably omitted from mention, and the Montrealers were missing from among the 51 artists included—save for Jean Paul Riopelle, who the exhibition effectively recast as Parisian. To be fair, the Automatistes were not entirely written out of “Le Grand Geste!”; the catalogue’s extensive, useful chronology lists their exhibition “Automatisme,” held at Paris’s Galerie du Luxembourg in June and July of 1947. They may get only three lines, but the historical context in which the chronology places them shows that the Automatistes debuted in Paris in very timely circumstances. “Automatisme” opened immediately after the important first exhibition of paintings by Wols (A. O. Wolfgang Schulze) at the elegant Galerie René Drouin, and was followed by solo exhibitions by Roberto Matta and Antonin Artaud. July also saw the opening of André Breton and Marcel Duchamp’s “Exposition internationale du surréalisme” (in which Riopelle participated) and the Salon des Réalistes Nouvelles, which included a number of the upcoming abstract gestural painters; in October, Paris hosted the 14th Salon des Surindépendants (with Riopelle again). That November, Galerie du Luxembourg presented a solo show of the French painter Camille Bryen—a then-rising, if now largely forgotten, star—who, along with Riopelle and Fernand Leduc, participated in Georges Mathieu’s “L’Imaginaire,” which rounded off the gallery’s 1947 schedule. “L’Imaginaire” effectively gave birth to Lyrical Abstraction, also called Tachisme or Art Informel. (I will use the latter term to distinguish European postwar gestural painting from New York’s Action Painting, or Abstract Expressionism.) 1947 was a very good year for the rebirth of artistic Paris.

Even so, the “Automatisme” exhibition seems to have aroused no curiosity from the curators of “Le Grand Geste!” The catalogue pays homage to the adventurous Galerie Schmela, which opened in Düsseldorf in 1957 and soon exhibited shows by Jean Fautrier and by major post-Informel artists such as Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni and Lucio Fontana. But the catalogue fails to notice Borduas’s 1958 exhibition at the gallery, and the chronology’s generous list of early solo museum shows by Informel artists similarly overlooks the Canadian painter’s posthumous exhibition at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 1961. Last spring, I was perhaps especially alert to such curatorial sleights. “Le Grand Geste!” followed hot on the heels of a much-heralded exhibition at the Newark Museum, “Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in South and North America, 1920s–50s.” Despite its title, the show had conspicuously mapped North America as a continent that begins only below the Canada-U.S. border. The curators, whose eyes were trained on the exotics of Latin American art, knew nothing about—or had no interest in—the dramatic, constructive turns undertaken by Leduc, Guido Molinari and Claude Tousignant in Montreal in the mid-1950s.

Perhaps the Automatistes (and their successor generation, the Plasticiens) are destined to remain another local Canadian story. Nevertheless, the Montrealers aspired to international recognition; the group wanted to prove its mettle on the world stage. That is why Riopelle and Leduc fixated on Paris in 1946, following the example of artists from the far corners of Europe and from the Americas, who set out for the City of Light as soon as international ship and train routes were restored after the end of the Second World War. Borduas chose New York in 1953, sensing that the scene had shifted there—a truth he came to understand better once he relocated to Paris in 1955. The Swedish museum director Pontus Hultén commented on the dilemma of small nations when curating a 1982 exhibition of Nordic contemporary art, “Sleeping Beauty-Art Now,” for New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Hultén, the founding director of Centre Pompidou in Paris (and before that, director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, where he built an impressive, forward-looking collection of contemporary American art), was hardly a petulant Scandinavian nationalist. But as he wrote in his catalogue introduction: It is axiomatic that the less known art from peripheral countries always imitates the better known art from the center. It is of no importance if dates and documents presented prove the contrary. Even the attempt to prove the contrary is regarded as a regional busybodiness or, in the best cases, as touching wishful thinking.

It is too soon to tell whether the Buffalo exhibition will have larger historical reverberations. The Automatistes’ paintings held their own, but the staff of the Albright-Knox later reported that many visitors assumed that this work relied on New York’s influence. When these viewers were alerted to the mid-1940 dates of the Montrealers’ breakthrough experiments—demonstrating that they either preceded or occurred alongside the Abstract Expressionists’ work—the light went on. The Automatiste works could then be seen to possess their own integrity. Despite the relatively small format of their paintings, the Automatistes were capable of standing their ground on American soil. But why, exactly? On what terms did the Automatistes survive the AbEx challenge? For me, a way to think further about this question is to try to imagine how the Automatistes might have fared in “Le Grand Geste!,” had they been included in that show. The exhibition offered another legitimate testing ground, insofar as it seemed to present itself as a document of lasting historical value.

Of course, the Automatistes were not in the Kunstpalast show, so I flew to Düsseldorf in June in a disgruntled state of mind. By then, I had read the catalogue and had started to suspect that I was not alone in my historio-graphic frustrations. This qualm was confirmed almost immediately when I met with Kay Heymer, the show’s co-curator, for a walk-through of the exhibition. If I complained about international inattention to Montreal, the German curator was quick to counter with his own lament, explaining that the curators had mounted “Le Grand Geste!” to rectify the fact that Germany’s generation of Informel artists had themselves been denied their proper place in postwar art history, in Germany and elsewhere.

It was not surprising, then, that almost half of the works were German. A quarter were from the U.S., 15 percent were from French and other Paris-based artists, and one or two works were from the CoBrA and Gutai groups, as well as from Antoni Tàpies of Spain and Emilio Vedova of Italy. The exhibition was expertly selected and installed, and the curators were clearly staunch in their convictions. They challenged the German and other European Informel paintings with exemplary American Abstract Expressionist works placed throughout the exhibition, usually in privileged locations. Superlative works like Jackson Pollock’s Number 32, from the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, confirmed the show’s overall high standard. Pollock’s painting is a dance of black Duco drawing on a background of raw canvas: open, spatially airy, graceful and perfectly poised, but with edgy energy, and erratic and unpredictable moods. Whatever its specific German agenda, the exhibition spoke with authority and did not pull punches. It made its case in a way that an earlier, comparable Parisian show, “L’Envolée lyrique, Paris 1945–1956,” staged at the Musée du Luxembourg in 2006, had failed to, due to its indifferent selections and crowded, incoherent installation.

Although both exhibitions credited Wols’s and Fautrier’s first postwar exhibitions in Paris with the European inauguration of Informel painting, the Düsseldorf show augmented this history with the contributions of pre-war German abstract painters like Willi Baumeister, Ernst Wilhelm Nay and Fritz Winter. The principal postwar German Informel painters included Peter Brüning, Karl Fred Dahmen, Winfred Gaul, Karl Otto Götz, Hans Hartung, Gerhard Hoehme, Bernard Schultze, Emil Schumacher, K. R. H. Sonderborg, Fred Thieler, Hann Trier and Fritz Winter. I venture the long list only to underscore the fact that very few, if any, of these artists are household names in North America. This inventory seems as arcane, dare I say, as a list of the Automatistes’ names would seem outside of Canada.

The German artists were never meant to descend into historical obscurity. documenta 2, held in Kassel in 1959 under the leadership of the eminent art historians and museum directors Arnold Bole and Werner Haftmann, had been programmed as a celebration of Informel; the exhibition aimed to declare firmly that the European artists were equal with New York’s Abstract Expressionists. But something went awry. The American works were—no doubt for practical reasons—not selected in person by Bode and Haftmann, but were chosen by Porter McCray, director of the international program at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). When the paintings arrived from the U.S., the German organizers were shocked to discover how big they were. According to anecdotes, MoMA had measured their dimensions in inches, which the Germans had misread as centimetres. The German organizers quickly rearranged the hanging, and by necessity put all the American paintings into the best lower-floor galleries, consigning the majority of the smaller European works to the Fridericianum’s less prominent upper floors. The Abstract Expressionists consequently came across as the stronger artists, and their international pre-eminence henceforth prevailed. (Other, skeptical voices have suggested that it was not just the unsatisfactory hanging that disadvantaged the Europeans, but that the selection of the Informel artists was too diverse and voluminous.)

On its website, Canadian Art described “The Automatiste Revolution” as an exercise in retrieval; given its focus on German Informel, “Le Grand Geste!” could be similarly characterized. Although the German Informel painters were accorded a place in major international survey texts from the late 1960s and early 1970s by on-the-scene writers like Haftmann, their presence began to fade in the mid-1980s. They were more or less completely excluded from the otherwise encyclopedic exhibition “German Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1905–1985,” on view at London’s Royal Academy in 1985. The early pioneers—Baumeister, Nay and especially Wols — were given their due, but Götz, Hartung, Schultze, Schumacher, Thieler, Werner and Winter were relegated to an appendix in the catalogue. This is no small consideration, as the exhibition was organized by Christos M. Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal. Just a few years earlier, these same curators had initiated the revival of contemporary gestural painting in “A New Spirit in Painting” (held in London in 1981) and “Zeitgeist” (held in Berlin in 1982), putting their curatorial reputations behind the so-called “Neue Wilden” like Georg Baselitz and A. R. Penck, the Italian Transavantgardia painters, Americans like Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl, and older masters like Willem de Kooning and Cy Twombly. Meanwhile, in the larger effort to refocus contemporary art history, it was not the Informel’s personal handwriting, but the autonomous objectivity of the next Düsseldorf-based movement, Zero—led by Otto Piene, Heinz Mack and Günther Uecker—that was held up as the true dawning of postwar German art. In North America, the discovery of contemporary German art began with the Joseph Beuys exhibition at the Guggenheim in the late 1970s.

The German Informel painters got their start in the early 1950s; they are, like their Toronto contemporaries the Painters Eleven, a second-generation movement. In the aftermath of the repressive interregnum of the Hitler regime, and after the traumas of the Second World War, it is hardly surprising that the Germans were late in arriving at gestural abstraction. When they came to find fresh beginnings, the most immediate new models came from Paris and New York. Postwar circumstances, and their dark palette, also helped to account for the sense of existentialist cheerlessness often attributed to their work. That reading can be overstated, but it nevertheless suggests that the German Informel painters occupy a different psychological space from Montreal’s Automatistes. Listen to Molinari in 1953: “Existentialism regards life as a fatality, whereas Automatisme wants to recreate life.”

“Le Grand Geste!,” however, revealed more fundamental stylistic differences between European Informel and its North American manifestations. The Düsseldorf curators openly invited transatlantic comparisons by strategically pairing Abstract Expressionist paintings with European works, as if to present the American pieces as standards by which to evaluate Informel. Take the almost inevitable juxtaposition of Philip Guston and the Düsseldorfer Winfred Gaul, two artists who both compose with an upfront grid, centring their paintings on clusters of criss-crossed brushstrokes that overlie more neutrally nuanced grounds. The single Guston painting, The Clock (1956–57), is rich and luscious, but maintains its stance as a bluntly literal construction of paint that is somehow both spontaneous and inevitable. Meanwhile, Gaul’s paintings (from 1958 and 1959) look worked-over and adjusted, as if the artist has fussed over details, anxious to coax each painting into deeper meaningfulness. Such self-conscious striving for effect on the part of the German artists emerged from other pairings: Pollock with Götz, Twombly with Brüning, and so on. (It was really only Emil Schumacher, juxtaposed to Joan Mitchell, who, having outgrown his early dependence on Wols, held his own.)

If these international disparities apply to New York, they may be equally apt for Montreal. The curators cast Riopelle as a French painter, and thus neglected to examine him from a broader international perspective. Nevertheless, the influence of his palette knife technique is apparent in paintings such as Gerhard Hoehme’s Fest der Jungfrauen (1958), which is constructed like a wall of colour-streaked Tachist strokes. It could be argued that Riopelle’s stylistic deportment softened the longer the artist was separated from his Canadian roots; Hoehme, in comparison, looks typically meticulous and miniaturist. The contrast between the two artists, then, is starker than their affinity, and supports Michel Ragon’s 1971 observation that a typical Riopelle painting resembles “mason’s work. It is a peasant texture, made up of cracks and furrows.” Even with regard to Riopelle, then, “Le Grand Geste!” served to reinforce the distinction Rudi Fuchs once made between American matter-of-factness and a European worry about style, a “worry about whether a painting is right.”

The exhibition also juxtaposed a stunning Riopelle ink-and-watercolour drawing from 1946—one of those black, spidery webs over a ground of spotted colour, which is typical of his mid-1940s work and which he initially exhibited in Paris—to two comparably sized automatic drawings by Camille Bryen. The Bryens are pretty impressive, too, but their surrealist sources are up-front and quasi-figurative, and they feature miniaturist detailing indebted to Max Ernst. (Upon first viewing works by Ernst in New York, Claude Gauvreau said he was impressed, but avowed that “they were from a universe different from ours.”) Riopelle’s difference also stands out sharply in comparison to the work Wols was showing in 1947. Wols’s drawings, ultimately inspired by Klee, can be similarly spidery. But whereas Riopelle’s compositions reach out toward the edges, decentring themselves, Wols’s hang there in the middle, unable to let go of the morphology of image-ground relations. Riopelle had found a form of pure abstraction, while Wols remained haunted with imagery. By 1947, the youngest Montrealers had—like the Americans, albeit in an easel-size format—arrived at a new way of non-representational, material-based composing that the younger Europeans had yet to discover.

This raises the question of Riopelle’s role in the Informel story. The Automatistes’ summer 1947 exhibition in Paris would certainly have looked innovative; it is difficult to judge, however, whether it had any real impact. We know that the Montrealers’ paintings lingered in the memories of critics who saw them and wrote about them—but it was probably too early for these painters’ work to be properly understood. Perhaps it simply got lost in so precipitously busy a year, or perhaps Riopelle’s presence and growing reputation itself embodied the lessons from Montreal that Paris would find useful. In filmed interviews screened in Museum Kunstpalast’s lobby during “Le Grand Geste!,” both Götz and Schultze attest to Riopelle’s influence on how they adapted surrealist automatism. In 1949, there was some market value to Breton characterizing him as “un trappeur supérieur” straight from the Canadian woods, but Riopelle more commonly downplayed his Canadian background in favour of assimilation. It was through the lens of Paris that he exercised his influence on the Germans.

Riopelle never found much critical support in the U.S. He soon became a grand-format painter in the late-Monet/AbEx sense, and started showing in New York in 1953. His work was initially exhibited in the show “Younger European Painters: A Selection” at the Guggenheim (at the same time as Borduas’s first New York exhibition at Passedoit Gallery), and he was later represented by the estimable Pierre Matisse Gallery. The Guggenheim show aroused some controversy about the quality of the new European art, but the prevailing U.S. opinion was that of Clement Greenberg, who dismissed the work of Riopelle—along with other artists like Pierre Soulages and Nicolas de Staël—as merely “the pallid French equivalent” of Abstract Expressionism. The taint of the French association would be long-lasting; as late as 2010, visually astute critics such as Peter Schjeldahl allude to the “insular preciousness into which [French art]…sunk after the Second World War.” Robert Pincus-Witten similarly suggests, in a faintly dismissive tone, that artists like Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell belong “in a French story.” They are “Paris painters despite their deep American roots.”

Although Greenberg judged Riopelle “an empty artist,” he seems always to have retained a certain, if conditional, respect for Borduas, despite passing judgment on what he referred to as the artist’s “Gallicizing” facture. Speaking in 1963 about the Regina Five and Ron Bloore’s white paintings, Greenberg lamented how Borduas’s “influence may carry some Paris ‘pastry’ with it,” even if “Borduas’s integrity…prevented it from having too deleterious an effect.” But Greenberg also saw how Borduas’s technique here derived from New York, and how it was really Pollock, “as polished and interpreted by Borduas’s palette knife,” that was behind the “all-over” pictures that Regina artists like Ted Godwin and Arthur McKay were making in the early 1960s. Within this scenario, it is Borduas’s American-ness—his decision to swim in the mainstream that narrowed its flow through New York— that saves him from Riopelle’s fate. In New York, it ceases to be useful to keep thinking of Borduas as a Surrealist-inspired Automatiste. If, during the 1940s, he was never as formally daring as his younger colleagues—perhaps, as Gauvreau ventured, because his “surrealist heritage was too heavy”—New York helped him to find his way. This is how his story differs from Riopelle’s. If Automatisme carried Riopelle’s style throughout the 1950s, Borduas embarked on a new trajectory in New York. His discovery of Pollock’s “accident” de-Surrealized him and stripped him of his need to coax out imaginary content, allowing him to focus on the matter and body of paint.

Ultimately, this focus became the Paris “pastry” that Greenberg disparaged; Borduas did not go thin, did not follow the path into stain painting, which became Greenberg’s cause in the early 1960s. But the artist’s matter-heavy materialism was no less American for that; as I have previously argued, it could be understood as a kind of proto-minimalism. In the “Automatiste Revolution” catalogue, I also speculated on whether Borduas had been interested in the post-Informel work of Alberto Burri and even Lucio Fontana, and their literal, often quite violent interrogation of pictorial space. René Viau subsequently drew my attention to the testimony of the French critic Charles Delloye, who wrote in 1960 about how far Borduas had distanced himself from both Action painting and Lyrical Abstraction. Delloye also noted that Borduas had long admired Piet Mondrian, and had established rapports with Burri in New York and with Fontana in Paris—these latter artists are often considered precursors of Arte Povera. It is in this context that his 1958 exhibition at Galerie Schmela, which the “Grand Geste!” chronology fails to mention, is especially interesting. Insofar as Borduas’s late material robustness, so distanced from the spatial poetry of Informel, testifies to qualities of Americanness, we will remember how the next generation of Montreal painters—like Claude Tousignant and Yves Gaucher—went to Paris in the early 1960s in search of their cultural roots, only to discover that they were not French, but French-speaking North Americans.

Meanwhile, in 1954, MoMA acquired as gifts Borduas’s Morning Candelabra (1948) and Riopelle’s Forest Blizzard (1953). When I first arrived in New York in October 1967, the Riopelle had recently been taken off view, but the Borduas was still hanging in the permanent collection galleries. Soon, however, William Rubin replaced Alfred Barr as the Museum’s chief curator. He reinstalled the collection in order to lay out a purer line of modernist development, and Morning Candelabra also vanished into storage. Almost half a century later, neither painting has again been seen in New York.

How are we to react to such disappearances? Should we pack our international bags, go home and cultivate our gardens? Or should we continue to act on our belief that what happened in Montreal in the postwar years did matter in the larger scheme of things? It is, perhaps, our task to choose this latter route, to prompt the world’s future international art historians to acknowledge what we Canadians already know.

For more archival photos of the Automatistes taken by the noted photographer Maurice Perron, visit

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