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LOT 019

Paul-Émile Borduas
1905 - 1960

Sans titre
oil on canvas
signed and dated 1958 and on verso stamped indistinctly (canvas manufacturer)
24 x 19 5/8 in 61 x 49.8 cm

Estimate: $300,000 - $500,000

Sold for: $781,250

Preview at: Heffel Toronto – 13 Hazelton Ave

Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto
Drabinsky Gallery, Toronto
Miriam Shiell Fine Art, Toronto
Collection of Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg, Montreal, 1993
Estate of Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg, Montreal

François-Marc Gagnon and Dennis Young, editors, Paul-Émile Borduas: Écrits / Writings, 1942 - 1958, Nova Scotia College of Art, 1978, page 34
Maurice Gagnon, “Conversation with Borduas,” May 1, 1942, quoted in Ray Ellenwood, Egregore: A History of the Montreal Movement, 1992, pages 14 and 15
Paulette Gagnon and Yolande Racine, L'oeil du collectionneur, Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, 1996, listed page 58

Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, L'oeil du collectionneur, October 18, 1996 - January 5, 1997

Paul-Émile Borduas produced the painting Sans titre, from 1958, in Paris, where he had been living since 1955. He moved to Paris after having spent two fruitful years in New York, expecting that the French capital would still be, as it had been before the Second World War, an international centre of advanced artistic production. But Paris disappointed him. Not only did its artistic offerings pale in comparison to what Abstract Expressionism had achieved in New York, but the city also failed to give his work serious critical recognition. His Paris years were nevertheless remarkably creative. He consolidated the lessons he had learned in New York, and struck out in new directions that make his paintings still startling in the audacity of their immediate material presence. In his Paris period Borduas produced some of his most masterful works, markers of a new adventure that remained unfulfilled by his early death in 1960, at age 55.
The strength and the beauty of Sans titre are rooted in how physical the painting is. Borduas has spread his oil paint into thick folds and creases that often rise into high relief. His predominant colours are black and white; but he also lets some red-brown and grey streaks and patches play their roles in a roughly gridded, but perfectly poised composition. The masses of black sit, dense, within their equally palpable white surrounds, not optical holes – as they have sometimes been described - but compact insets, obdurate and solid.
The most dramatic change in Borduas’s work in Paris occurred when he substituted gesture for more deliberate construction, building his surfaces with a palette knife. His new way of spreading and covering, while by no means systematic, is less personal than it is workmanlike, drawing attention to the paint’s own presence. More than ever the space of the painting occurs in the same space as the viewer’s, light tickling the raised ridges and casting shadows behind them, light sparkling off the white, and slowed down and absorbed into the mattes of the blacks. What finally matters about Sans titre is the expressive potential of the paint itself – no distracting imagery, no storytelling, just stuff – and the way that Borduas has laid it down. It is not only about what we see, but what we feel to our very fingertips.
The painting belongs solidly within the story of how, over the course of the 1940s and 1950s, Borduas translated his long-standing aesthetic theories into actual studio practices, and how in doing so he broached fundamental issues about how we experience abstract painting. In 1942, in Montreal, he announced his avant-gardism with an exhibition of gouaches, Les Oeuvres surréalistes, and soon after would become the leader of the Automatist movement. But already then, even as his work was still full of poetic evocations, he took pains, when he described his automatist methods, to insist that as a painter he started out from “painterly thoughts” and “not literary ideas.” In the process of working, he argued, “the painter’s song” becomes “a vibration imprinted on matter by human sensibility. Through it matter is made to live.” Borduas’s resounding conclusion: “Therein lies the source of all mystery in a work of art, that inert matter can be brought to life.” Matter, material, matière.
The next year, in 1943, in a lecture entitled “Ways to Appreciate a Work of Art,” he underscored how, whatever materials an artist used - metal, stone, wood, paint, paper, charcoal, etc. - the “art object is made of two things, each equally real: tangible material and the sensibility of the artist.” But “sensibility,” he carefully clarified, is not about “personal expressiveness.” Instead “the more universal the sensibility, the more lively, more identifiable and more pure it will be.”
When in Paris Borduas fully turned his long-standing theories into concrete studio practice. Could he have looked with curiosity at Lucio Fontana’s work at the time or, more aptly, at Alberto Burri’s burlap collages with their black interstices, examples of which he surely saw in New York and Paris? Even if until the end of his life he never felt the need to move beyond oil paint, his visual practice, nevertheless, had more in common with those Italian, pro-Arte Povera artists than it did with anything by the French tachists. Let us not forget that Borduas never doubted that his art engaged in aesthetic problems that were shared universally by artists whether from, as he noted, Montreal, New York, Paris or even Tokyo.
We thank Roald Nasgaard, author of Abstract Painting in Canada, for contributing the above essay.
This work is included in François-Marc Gagnon's online catalogue raisonné of the artist's work at http://www.borduas.concordia.ca.

Estimate: $300,000 - $500,000

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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