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News / January 6, 2016

Marcel Barbeau, Painter Till the End, Dies at 90

One of the first Canadian painters to embrace abstraction died on January 2 in Montreal following a seven-decade career.

Marcel Barbeau, one of the first Canadian painters to embrace abstraction, died on Saturday, January 2, at the age of 90 in Montreal. His career spanned seven decades.

Born in 1925 in Montreal, Barbeau was one of the first non-figurative painters in Canada, embracing abstraction before it became popular. During his life, his art was exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and was collected by the British Museum, among other institutions.

Barbeau’s more than four thousand artworks also include sculpture, sound art and public art.

Taught in his teens by Paul-Émile Borduas, Barbeau was part of the Automatistes, a group led by that artist. Like Borduas, Barbeau was also an original signatory of the Refus global manifesto of 1948, which called for liberation from typical Quebec values of the time.

“When I was younger, I spent a lot of time on my works, and sometimes I actually ruined them by doing too much,” Barbeau commented in a 2013 Canada Council video made on the occasion of him winning a Governor General’s Award.

“I don’t look at [art] as work. It’s never work—it’s a need.” Barbeau told filmmaker Luc Bourdon. “What interests me in what I do is to always make sure there is that magical aspect where the work takes me by surprise.”

“It’s like a gift. The will disappears completely, making way for joy.”

Though hampered by Parkinson’s disease in his later years, which according to his daughter Manon Barbeau, prevented him from speaking or walking, he continued to paint.

As his daughter told the CBC, “He even went to Omer des Serres in a wheelchair to buy new brushes recently.”

In addition to continuing to practice, Barbeau also attended openings of his work this past fall at Montreal’s Galerie Michel-Ange and at the Maison des arts de Laval. The Laval exhibition, a group show focusing on op-art, continues until February 7.

The Barbeau family will receive visitors on January 23 at 1 p.m. at Salon Dallaire Memoria on Boulevard St-Laurent in Montreal. This will be followed by a more formal homage starting at 5:30 p.m. Then, on January 25, Barbeau’s funeral will take place at the Mount Royal Cemetery.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via