When did the visual arts become so encrusted with words? Not just the decent apparatus of a label with notes on artist and artwork, or the more expansive catalogue essay, or even the occasional book celebrating an artist or exploring a scene or movement – but this whole dense verbal screen, like a mass of aggressive kudzu through which the visual tries to peep.
The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal, 1941–1960
Roald Nasgaard and
Douglas & McIntyre, 2009
hardcover, 160 pages, $60.00
Artists I know sweat and worry over their print or painting, performance piece, or video installation; but they agonize and despair over their artist statement, which, they’ve come to know, has the power – this adjunct thing of words, a de rigueur imposition between their work and its hoped-for viewer – to charm or doom them with gallery owners and arts grant juries. At a recent dual-focus show at the Art Gallery of Ontario, pairing etchings by Rembrandt and Lucien Freud, patrons could be seen huddled in dismaying numbers in the show’s vestibule where books and videos discussed the two artists, or around a padded bench, mid-gallery, where there were more videos of artists and arts commentators describing their reactions to the show. At the etchings themselves, which seldom had anyone in front of them for long, a commonly seen maneuver was the glance-and-duck, whereby a seconds-long perusal of the work was followed, as if the square on the wall was magnetized in reverse, by the sudden throwing of the patron downwards and to the side, to read with slow care the description of the work on the wall. The show was well-attended, but it was never difficult to examine a work at length, since the wordless zone directly in front of each etching was usually unoccupied.
I know this because I was one of the side-ducking, video-watching, talking-head-auditing, wall-reading and, fitfully, etching-viewing patrons. Needing, or choosing anyway, all this yakkety-yak about images that needed little or none of it: Freud’s big fleshy nudes; Rembrandt’s miniatures of Saskia or himself or his mother with her knobbly arthritic fingers.
When did it get so hard to just look at art? Was it ever possible? How long before the Lascaux bulls became the Lascaux bull session?
Or, if looking really is so hard, what sorts of words help us, encourage us, to look better? Are there any? Let’s try an oversimplification for its heuristic potential. All words occur after looking; they are autopsies of seeing. In the best cases, these perceptual post-mortems can sharpen our understanding of what must have occurred in the moments of seeing (including clues about how and why seeing stopped); they build the experience retroactively, or they go on building it, by reformulating it; and, when they reach their limit, they provoke the viewer into more looking. They return the eyes to their object. We bounce between looking and talking. (So quickly the processes blur; they blend in a single activity.) To facilitate that bounce, to speed and invigorate it: it is the most words can do, and it is no small service. At their worst, words trap the bounce and pin it in the arms of the verbal; they commandeer looking and will not give it back. They replace it. Art-experienced sails into the fog of art-discussed (it can do so with a solitary viewer, and usually does; the modes of discussion have been internalized since childhood), and it can wander in those mists forever without emerging again; usually it does.
Is it done with malice to looking – this fogging, this trapping? To consider it would take us too far afield, but it had better be admitted that there are many reasons, not many of them pretty, to tame the wildness of art, to reduce it from a living looking to a talking living. And it had better be admitted, too, that looking isn’t always pleasant; it can be uncomfortable, painful, even harrowing. It can be a raw wound and a scream. There are strong, and not always ignoble, compulsions on us all to flee the power of looking, to dress it in a poultice and bandages, to muffle it. It’s no betrayal of, and might be our most eloquent testimony to, art’s power to want to flee it sometimes; but it’s a betrayal if flight becomes the primary experience, if we never try, or even long, to return.
The so-called Automatistes, a group of abstract expressionist painters and other artists centered in Montreal (though often living elsewhere) during the two decades covered by The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal, 1941-1960, were much concerned with the power of words to liberate or constrain art. Which words help, and which words hinder, the making and experiencing of art? The question, with all its trailing doubts and challenges, haunted the Automatistes, and it shadows their recent commentators Roald Nasgaard and Ray Ellenwood.
Words that help, and words that hinder. The Word being a shifty and a jealous God, examples of both kinds are plentiful in the volume, sometimes sliding together so promiscuously that they are hard to disentangle. But let us, citing a few instances, try.
First, though, a bit more on looking (it is hard not to stray). This book is beautiful to look at, a joy. Visually, if not verbally, art books have advanced steadily – the dinky repro, of dim or otherwise wonky coloration, squinting through mats of text, formerly so common, is now, outside of history texts or dictionaries under compulsions of space, rare if not extinct – and The Automatiste Revolution meets a high standard in its visual presentation. Into 140 pages of text (excluding bibliography and index), it packs 60 colour and 20 black and white illustrations. Packed is the wrong word, though; the book has a roomy, sensuous feel. Many of the colour plates are presented in optimal format: alone on the page, bordered only by glossy white. Others include a discreet text block giving information such as would appear on a museum label: artist, title, media and dimensions, lender and photographer. Only in a few instances (a commendable resistance to financial constraints) are images shrunk amid text or doubled up on a page. These never work as well; the eye roams among them, and the resulting collage, however well it works as a new multi-media work, always leaches autonomy from the individual elements. The book looks good. So good I find myself reluctant to single out individual pages for praise; as in an actual gallery visit, one work steps forward to delight on one pass, then another on the next.
Do they delight in the ways the original paintings would? Do they even look like them? I have no idea. That is, I trust in a certain fidelity; but that trust is based mostly on a general faith in our technological prowess at controlling images. I asked my wife, a painter and printmaker, what she means by “good repro,” an idol which, against its evil twin “bad repro,” she and other artists we know invoke regularly. She answered without hesitation. “Clear, no blurring, bold colours” – now she paused; what if the colours in the original weren’t bold? – “. . . giving some sense of texture.” “Clear . . . giving some sense of texture,” I returned, editing. She nodded. No mention of fidelity. How can you tell? It’s a new work on the page. So while I sometimes assume, lazily, that I’m walking through the show in miniature, I’m only leafing through a book. It’s good to remember that almost everything about the experience is different. Scale, just for starters. Paul-Émile Borduas’s Bercement silencieux (Silent Rocking), is a lovely 8-by-10 inch page on my desk, beside my coffee mug. It was an oil painting, a metre by a metre and a half, on a wall.
The Automatiste Revolution is attached to – pendant to? precursor of? reason for? – a “corresponding” exhibition of Automatiste works, we are told by John Ryerson, Director of the Varley Art Gallery of Markham, in his short forward. The book’s text consists of two essays: “The Automatiste Revolution in Painting,” which has the colour reproductions, is written by Roald Nasgaard, professor of art history, former Chief Curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the author of Abstract Painting in Canada among numerous other publications; “Automatisme Beyond ‘The Barracks of Plastic Arts,’” which is illustrated by black and white photos and which considers the artists as individuals and as a collective working in multiple disciplines, is by Ray Ellenwood, professor and author of Egregore: The Montréal Automatist Movement as well as translator of numerous works including Refus global, the seminal 1948 manifesto of the Automatistes.
(Can we pause here for a moment? Ryerson says “the Automatistes . . . are under-recognized outside the Province of Quebec and, as a group, are deserving of recognition internationally.” Their work, he continues, “parallels and is equal to any of the art coming out of Paris and New York at the time,” a contribution to Canadian art history that “outshines that of the Group of Seven in its significance.” It may be true, for all I know; I’m open to believe it. But the exhibition of 2010 went just to Markham and to Buffalo? That is outside Quebec, but just barely; a modest van ride in either case. After all the storm the book chronicles, such a belated drizzle – it seems sad and puzzling and I don’t know quite what. Long ago I read a story by Henry James, “The Beast in the Jungle,” whose protagonist, John Marcher, discovered that his terrible destiny (forged by a terrible complacency forged by a terrible fear – it was vintage James) was to be “the man to whom nothing on earth was to have happened.” Sometimes I wonder – call it insane or merely goofy – if Canada is the John Marcher of countries. No refus is as global as the determination to let nothing rock your world. Only rarely does a tail-slap even ripple the pond; seconds later, it is glassy again.)
The photographs accompanying Ellenwood’s essay are poignantly evocative. They conjure people and a scene, a time. A distant time; the images are infused, for me at least, with the slightly luscious melancholy of the gone. Collars are wide, skirts knee-length or longer; young men often wear ties, even at casual gatherings. A group photo, six friends clustered in an apartment corner, with cigarette and empty bottle and a sketch tacked to a wall between paintings. A page from the student newspaper Le Quartier latin, showing an article on automatism and two advertisements, one for a printery (LA PATRIE) and one for Neilson’s Jersey Milk (Le Chocolat de Qualité). A Jean-Paul Mousseau drawing illustrating a chapbook of poems by Thérèse Renaud. A shot of Muriel Guilbault and Claude Gauvreau acting (holding a tableau, it looks like) in Gauvreau’s play Bien-être. Photographs of the seemingly irrepressible Françoise Sullivan dancing in the snow (Danse dans la neige), dancing in a Queen of Sheba/Robocop getup (Black and Tan); and of her pencilled choreography notations for The Planets. The people look young, fervent, intelligent. Like people you’d be stimulated to meet, to know.
This review could end here, happily. After all, with very few exceptions, pictures are what we have and keep art books for, aren’t they? On the other hand, almost all of the yellow Post-Its now defacing the book are about the words between the pictures. While I contentedly – complacently? – drank in the images, I struggled with the words. Frowning in puzzlement or disagreement, nodding eagerly, peering and re-reading, yawning and slumping. Is that why we have them, the words? To roil things up before they fade? To agitate our gaze; to activate to an alerted will the voluptuous disregard of the eye’s sphincter, contracting and expanding on its own, ingesting the visible like an optical python?
In case that’s true, even a little, I’ll let some of those notes speak for the rest of this.
1. a savage need for liberation. Those are the last five words of Paul-Émile Borduas’s Total Refusal (Refus global), the first and central blast in the collection of documents (including three short dramatic pieces, two essays, and a poem-declaration by four other authors in addition to Borduas) called Refus global. On August 9, 1948, three years to the day after the Nagasaki bomb, the Montreal group labelled automatistes by a young journalist published Refus global in a mimeographed edition of 400 copies. It shook things up. Within a month, Borduas was fired from his job as instructor at the École du Meuble “because, as the official government [my emphasis] letter to his principal said, ‘his writings and the manifestos he publishes, as well as his state of mind, make him unsuitable . . . for our students.’” Over the next year, 100 articles and letters appeared in magazines and newspapers arguing, pro and con, the case of Borduas and Refus global.
2. It is one of the chief virtues of The Automatiste Revolution that it keeps reminding you of a time when art tried to, and sometimes even could and did, shake things up. And it mentions Refus global so often that this reader, at least, was compelled to look up a document about which I’d heard so much but had never seen. Uneasy about my decaying French, I was happy to find Ellenwood’s English translation, first published in 1985 and reissued in 2009. On the first page of the introduction, I found this: “After causing an uproar in the press (and in the lives of some of the signatories), the manifesto was lost from public view for a number of years until its importance began to be acknowledged in the sixties and seventies.” And this: “This is the first time that the entire Refus global pamphlet has been available in English.” (Even in French, it was not until 1972, in a museum catalogue, that the entire pamphlet was reprinted.) Huh? For all the differences in genre and cirumstances, I felt, somehow, as if Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, after grabbing its post-war lockdown by the lapels and declaring its savage need for liberation, had gone out of print for decades.
3. There is a poignant sequence of five black and white photos prefacing Ellenwood’s translation. They are from a two-week exhibition the Automatistes held, in the winter of 1947, at the Gauvreau apartment. The sequence goes like this: Nine artists (well-dressed, those dresses and suits) sit on the floor beneath a wall hung with paintings. Four of them lounge – waiting? – against another wall, Borduas stretched out on what looks like a bed. Madeleine Arbour sits alone on a chair by a door between rooms, like a superfluous security guard in an unattended gallery, reading. A view of paintings in an empty room. Another such view.
4. Yet . . . and so? . . . Borduas insists: “Magic spoils . . . lies ready for our use . . . .” “MAKE WAY FOR MAGIC!” “MAKE WAY FOR NECESSITIES!” “We’ll settle for unpredictable passion; we’ll settle for total risk . . . .” It is not a coherent programme; what total refusal could be? But in its lashings out one hears, confusingly and unmistakably, the voice of authentic rebellion: “To hell with holy water and the French-Canadian tuque!”
5. Artists rebel, above all, against conditions that hinder them from making art. The unconducive conditions exist, inevitably, both inside and outside the artists. When they find conditions hostile to art, they will fight hard to change them; if the conditions prove immutable, they will stop making art or move to where conditions are better. Almost all of the members of the Automatistes kept making art, but many of them had to move to do so. Borduas moved to New York City in 1953, then to Paris, where he lived and worked from 1955 until his death in 1960. Almost all of Riopelle’s painting was done in France, where he lived from 1948 until 1989. Several of the other signatories of Refus global left Duplessis Quebec in the 1940s to live in New York or France for extended periods.
6. Roald Nasgaard calls Refus global “vehemently revolutionary in spirit [but not] finally a call for political revolution.” What, then, was the revolution about? The best clue to the Automatistes’ aims comes from the word which in varied form recurs most often in their writings: “spontaneously,” “spontaneous,” “spontaneity.” The movement was, ultimately, a cry to the artistic spirit itself; a rebellion, as Nasgaard observes, against the “repressive social, political, historical and religious forces that shaped daily life in Quebec,” but particularly against the overall “utilitarian spirit” these represent (as opposed, one assumes, to the liberation of non-utilitarian art). Though Borduas’s manifesto rejects “all forms of INTENTION, the two-edged, perilous sword of REASON. Down with both of them back they go!” – his was not, finally, a rebellion against reason but only against a certain kind of reason; a small-minded reason, if I can put it that way. Indeed, putting “rational effort . . . in its proper place” is the precondition of a larger intelligence: “Make way for the intelligence of the senses.” Unifying the often contradictory utterances of the Automatistes is the impulse to alter conditions so that they can make the art they want and need to make. Of the many significances that could be claimed for any art work, one of the deepest and most universal – at once grandiosely ambitious and pathetically humble – is surely this: the creation of a world in which such a creation exists.
7. The text in art books is most helpful when it sticks to the basics: establishing a chronology (timelines are good; this book has one at the back), introducing the main and secondary characters, and conveying some sense of the cultural climate in which the artist lived. To do just this, otherwise letting the pictures speak for themselves, would in most cases result in a better, and much shorter, book. It is when the text goes beyond this brief to describe or, worse, interpret the image in front of you that words become not only dispensable but misleading and obstructive. They become the fat shoulders you’re trying to peer around to see the art. Following are a few instances where I wish Nasgaard and Ellenwood had subjected received wisdom to a more rigorous scrutiny, contrasted with a couple where they did in fact sharpen my own looking.
8. The “automatic” part of Automatisme, its thematic core, needs a harder and more nuanced look than the book gives it. Of the poem by Renaud and its accompanying drawing by Mousseau, Ellenwood writes, “Drawing and poem were done rapidly, automatically, with no preconceived idea in mind.” Rapidity of execution is verifiable, but what is the connection of that to automatism? The lack of a preconceived idea? What does “done” mean when it comes to art? How long might image or poem have been gestating in the artist’s mind before being transferred quickly to paper? Automatism cannot be understood as simply equivalent to “spontaneous,” if by that is meant the unconstrained and unconceptualized. It doesn’t make sense neurologically or behaviorally. When conscious control is absent or suppressed, isn’t the mind thrown back on its most durable and ancient loops and circuits; doesn’t it, in fact, act from its most preconceived routines? That is the basis for any validity there may be in the power of free association tests to reveal personality. It is also why, socially, when someone who is usually reserved blurts out an opinion, it is generally regarded not as something newly minted but as the expression of a long-held bias. It is because automatism gives access to deeply ingrained psychic structures that, as Breton claimed, its utterances are to be valued as part of “the collective treasure . . . the collective myth.” If the grammar and diction of Renaud’s rapid poem are, as Ellenwood points out, suggestive of “dreams or fairy tales,” this implies that rapidity (more than the vague “automatism,” I would argue) throws the writer back to the oldest and longest internalized narrative structures, those of deepest childhood. If automatism does not generate pure nonsense (if such a thing is possible), then it must be accessing sense-making structures already so firmly in place that they can be accessed instantaneously and without conscious control.
9. Whatever is automatic is under the strictest control. Instinct is the most constrained, the most necessary. The involuntary blink as a foreign object speeds toward the eye is not rational, and it is not free. Automatism, in art, might mean digging below choice to find compulsion. Getting beyond what we merely wish to do, choose to do, to find what we have to do, i.e. wants that are indistinguishable from needs. This seems to be the conclusion that Refus global gropes toward, and finds near its end: “We reject all forms of INTENTION . . . MAKE WAY FOR NECESSITIES!”
10. “. . . they have been left challengingly raw. They have dared to be exhilaratingly ugly.” This is an example of the kind of art writing I find helpful to looking. Said by Nasgaard about Riopelle’s new oil paintings of 1947-48, it stimulates me to look again (and again) at the example on the facing page. The brio of the line splashes down next to Riopelle’s strokes. It takes a metaphoric leap, exciting in itself, and useful questions climb after it: How can rawness challenge? How does ugliness exhilarate? Is it “ugly” if it pleases my eye? Etc.
11. Here is an example, from the same page, of the kind of art writing I find fatuously unhelpful: “Chance, accident and emotional fervour have motivated the facture, but control is there as well.” Except for the word “motivated,” which can only be speculation posing as certainty, this is a vague formulation about the mix of elements in any work of art (try to imagine a piece you could not say it about). It is a void posing as a net, and only after disentangling its mesh do you realize you’ve caught nothing.
12. Unfortunately, the void-nets and fat shoulders outnumber the metaphoric leaps. It is why my attention flagged so often reading the text. Often the fat shoulder is a phrase or sentence that is puffed up to appear to be saying much more than it actually is. “Riopelle entered the 1950s in Paris about to embrace an alternative formal order.” If this means anything more than Riopelle changed his style in Paris in the early 1950s, I haven’t been able to discover it. Likewise: “Riopelle’s painting was not about chaos or disorder.” Whose painting is? Why not say that painting is always about formal order and structure, and call “automatism” a way of finding and entering new structures?
13. Is art writing so often opaque because a fear of seeming simple-minded or unoriginal has led to a distrust of all clarity? Or is it art itself that spawns the distrust, the paranoia? So much of looking (and the more powerful the looking, the more apt this is to be true) leads to the verbal bare rock of can’t-say or can’t-say-differently or don’t-need-to-say, that those determined or required to say something are sent scrambling to find crannies to stuff words in.
14. And so: “he wanted to capture something of nature’s essence on a grand scale.” Which essence is that? And yet, dammit, from the same page, there is this helpful comment about Monet as a forerunner of abstract expressionism: “Here was painting that, without resorting to Cubist structure, nevertheless resolved itself into powerful and overall seamless compositions made with colour and texture.” Is the Word a rambling drunk that, every so often, just when you’re about to wheel away in disgust, spits out something perfectly lucid?
15. The artists often sound just as confused as their explicators. Or just as confused when they become their explicators. If the method is, as Borduas insisted, to think in “‘painterly thoughts’ – having to do with the act and the material components of painting – and not in ‘literary ideas,’” then why title your painting La Grenouille au fond bleu (Frog on a Blue Ground), making it all but impossible for the viewer to see anything but a whimsically charming pondscape? Likewise with Leduc’s La Dernière campagne de Napoléon (Napoleon’s Last Campaign) or Barbeau’s Rosier-feuilles (Rose-Bush Leaves) – if you really want to let paint be paint, and not make it point to something else, then it seems Sans titre or some suchlike is the only way to go. You can’t have it both ways, renouncing the literary but leaving a trail of verbal breadcrumbs away from the purely visual. If, for instance, Borduas’s 1958 painting Corner Stones really is “utterly devoid of narrative or sentimental associations,” why opine that “At a glance these black slabs might read eponymously, like stone quoins forming the corner of a plastered wall”? Why, indeed, if you are Borduas, do you call it Corner Stones, a title that summons not only homely memory but, easily and quickly, fragments of nostalgic narrative? It is a sly way of having picture hold hands with the picturesque; and it is a perfectly good visual-literary artistic strategy, perfected by Klee who set up intricate dialogues between title and image – but not if you, or your explicator, renounce it.
16. If Borduas’s last painting, left unfinished on his easel, is going to be read as “thick, broad and chunky masses of black paint that rise like a wall threatening to shut out forever the last illusionistic promise of the white ground underneath,” why pretend that you are eschewing the literary or the narrative or, for that matter, the sentimental?
17. (I feel confused writing these notes. Reading most art criticism, I feel confused when not bored. Not challengingly or stimulatingly confused, just confused. The limbs of cognition caught up in bolases of jargon and assumption, tumbling through dull space.)
18. Borduas disparages de Kooning’s gestures as “literary.” Nasgaard analyzes a 1953 Borduas painting that is supposed to be an important step away from “figure-ground structure” in these words: “individualized taches still assert themselves as signs of a sort playing out their own little narrative.” Yet here, a page later, is Nasgaard saying, helpfully, that in another Borduas painting, “The composition . . . had become decentred and dispersed.” That helps me see, by crystallizing how I see, The Amphitheatre of Lutetia.
19. (I’ve gone on far too long here. The last thing art needs is another fat shoulder, another wheeling Word-drunk. Let me wrap this up and step aside.)
20. To get more rigor, more clarity, into our conversations about art, we have to risk appearing stupid by interrupting the art-spiel to ask basic questions. “Barbeau, among his many experiments from 1947, had already produced some striking little paintings in which he quite undermined spontaneity, using the palette knife quasi-mechanically, laying down his nearly identical strokes in a regular, repetitive pattern.” This is puzzling in its assumptions about what constitutes spontaneity. In what sense are regular, repetitive strokes by a painter opposed to spontaneity, any more than one or two notes repeated by a jazz soloist would be? (Or one word by a writer: “Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.”)
21. Refus global marked an end as well as a beginning to the Automatiste revolution; soon after it the artists mostly went their separate ways. Francoise Sullivan: “It’s very strange, but there were seven magic years from 1941 to 1946 when it really existed, when it was getting stronger, and then it exploded.” Did it come to end because it couldn’t be completed, couldn’t happen, in the Quebec of those years; or simply because an artist’s forceful articulation of his/her aims always spells the end of that phase of aiming?
Towards the end of The Automatiste Revolution, there is a full-page, soft focus, black and white photograph of Francoise Sullivan and Jeanne Renaud standing on a city street, each looking at a bitten-into apple in her hand. The women look chic and pensive, sun and shadow play behind them over a bulbously gleaming car and what looks like a four-story apartment building. The picture is lush with the passionate and self-conscious commitment of young artists yearning for and forcing change. The date is uncertain: “probably in 1946.” The place is not: It is “in New York.”