Canadian Grand Master painter, Marcel Barbeau is an automatist painter born in Montreal (Quebec, Canada) in 1925 (died in 2016) . Between 1942 and 1947, he studied furniture design at the École du Meuble de Montréal. With his art teacher, contemporary painter Paul-Émile Borduas, he initiated himself to art, particularly modern art, and discovered his artistic calling. Marcel Barbeau participated in all activities of the group Automatist, a multidisciplinary artistic movement with social resonances inspired of surrealism and he signed the manifesto “Refus Global” published in 1948.
“The artistic career of Marcel Barbeau has more than 70 years of creation. Painter, sculptor, dancer, performer, his contribution to our history of recent art and in our modernity is undeniable. And goes far beyond the automatist period. His pictorial and spatial language is modulated over time in a variety of formal and chromatic research which still enriches his entire approach. Indeed. Looking back, we observe the tremendous diversity that characterizes his long artistic reflection. A journey that, without the abstract, goes as far as the aesthetic dimension.
Original, daring, a great lover of dance and contemporary music, Marcel Barbeau never stayed in his comfort zone. Over the years and periods, he constantly kept abreast of new territories of creation.Winner in 2013 of the Paul-Émile-Borduas prize, the highest award for a visual artist in Quebec, Marcel Barbeau is undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of our modernity still alive. Moreover, recent years have been particularly fertile in all kinds of awards, and across the country.” Robert Bernier
He is a true creator who is always looking for new forms and new ways of expression marked by intuition and experimentation. His mastery of colours, lines, forms of space and great sensitivity make him one of Canada’s grand masters of abstract art in Canada. From 1958 and from 1974 and 1991 to 1996, he lives and works in the United States and in Europe.
The years 1980 to 1984 are among the most colourful. The artist says: “I tart with the primary colours, and I emphasize with secondary and tertiary.” His paintings are often composed of contrasting colours (white, blue, gray, yellow, pink, green, orange, etc).
The Quebec painter’s works will be featured in several exhibitions in Canada, the United States and Europe. These works of art are among several major museum collections, private and public, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), the British Museum (London), the Chrysler Art Gallery (Norfolk), the Museum of Fine Arts Lyon (Lyon), the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (Quebec), the Museum of Fine Arts (Montreal), the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal (Montreal), the Museum of Fine Arts Canada (Ottawa), the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), etc.
Marcel Barbeau was born on February 18, 1925, on Saint Hubert Street on the Mont Royal plateau in Montreal. His father, Philippe Barbeau (1886-1928), was a carpenter and a veteran of the First World War, who volunteered for the Royal 22nd Regiment on February 2, 1915. As we know, riding the crest La Belle Époque giving rise to the first vital signs of modernity, that war would also be the theater of many atrocities as new technologies gave birth to devastating armaments and military strategies, such as toxic gasses and destructive trench warfare. Countless survivors were left with serious after-effects. Philippe Barbeau died of them in June 1928, at 42 years of age. Marcel was three. Élisa, his mother, and her four children were taken in by her brother, Georges Saint-Antoine, who had promised Philippe he would look after them. Georges had a grocery and butcher shop on the Plateau, close to the Barbeau home on Saint Hubert Street.
According to Ninon Gauthier and Carolle Gagnon, authors of an important work on the artist1, Marcel did not get along well with his uncle. The atmosphere in the house was stormy. Uncle Georges was constantly complaining about the weight of his “family obligations”. Though he was single, he was engaged, and couldn’t marry his sweetheart until the last of the Barbeau children had left home, in the late 1940s. Georges was quite a character: patient, and also a proud man of his word, tenacious and strong-willed. He kept his promise, but not without difficulties. He would have a strong influence on the young Marcel, who worked for his uncle from the age of 9 until he was 25, in 1950. Marcel was no doubt inspired by his uncle’s tenacity, his honesty, and his sense of responsibility, not to mention his independence mind and stylish dress on holidays.
To make a stormy climate, even worse, the economic situation in Montreal in the 1930s was catastrophic. The city under Camillien Houde (elected in 1928 and in 1930, defeated in 1932, re-elected in 1934, defeated again in 1936, elected again in 1938…) was in a constant state of crisis. In fact, it was put under receivership in 1940, overwhelmed by the needs of its social programmes. The young Marcel Barbeau lived in this depressing social environment, alongside a terribly unhappy mother. An interest in music and dance was almost all that helped this adolescent tolerate his intolerable life. Slowly, the rebel in him was taking shape. And so was his desperation.
“The difficult one, the complicated one, who will have a long road to travel before he attains serenity in a more stable, perhaps less precious, equilibrium. Intense emotion in the process of evolution. Priests and priestesses, having arrived somehow from legendary Byzantium, stand motionless watching a strange seance of transmutations. Occasionally, from its pedestal, the moon watches through the window, puzzled. Awakening at dawn out of these bright interior scenes from the depths of the night, we found ourselves in countless multicolored castles built on inaccessible rocks between sky and earth. We believed that the age of transmutation was at hand. Ever since, Marcel continues to not spare us his surprises. » Paul-Émile Borduas, Indiscretions2
The Borduas Group
In 1941, at sixteen years of age, Marcel Barbeau graduated from grade ten. He was the only man of the house in a time when that meant much more than it does now. He had to prepare for the day when he would contribute to the economic well-being of his family. He was troubled, passionate and impatient. Talented, sensitive and skillful, he dreamed of starting an artistic career in music or dance … On the other hand, this carpenter’s son was inclined naturally to make a conscious or unconscious link with his absent father and considered studying at the École du meuble (the school of applied art and design in Montreal). With his mother’s support, in 1942 he enrolled in the programme of fine cabinet-making.
Having chosen the Apprenticeship Programme, the meticulous Marcel Barbeau soon distinguished himself indeed was seen as a future candidate for a faculty position. At the time, he had no interest in fine arts, not until he met Borduas in the autumn of 1944, changing the entire trajectory of his life. The young man who might have made a career as a in teacher of fine woodworking was completely blown away by the master-painter from Saint-Hilaire. Suddenly, his passionate nature was carrying him into a world he knew nothing about. Borduas was teaching drawing in the Arts and Crafts section where students were supposed to have at least grade twelve. Barbeau only had grade ten, but good grades persuaded the school authorities to allow him to transfer. The dice were cast.
In Borduas, Marcel Barbeau found both a guide and a father. No matter what the future brought, he always maintained a profond admiration and immense respect for Borduas. And his discovery of fine art had all the qualities of a revelation, especially since Borduas was inviting him to celebrate nothing less than a huge revolution in the way art should be seen, understood, and made.
For a sense of the impact of Borduas as a teacher, here is a statement by Fernand Leduc: “Most of us were painters who got our start at the École des Beaux-Arts. With all our aspirations essentially frustrated, our attitude was changing from contempt into a need for revolution. We’d had enough painful years trying to make our way through the foul labyrinths of a rotten education. One day, we met Borduas the Surrealist painter, and he became our master. One by one the veils fell from our eyes and truth was revealed in all her limpid nudity.”3 Marcel Barbeau began painting and sculpting in 1944, but few works from that year have survived. In fact not many are left from the period between 1944 to 1947, most have been destroyed. The artist was a passionate and impulsive man who was literally transported by the discoveries he was making. During the winter of 1947 he was especially active, painting a whole series of pieces he thought were truly innovative. From one canvas to the next, without having a name for what he was doing, starting as early as 1946, he was actually creating “all-over” paintings before the term was coined, in such works as the one entitled Rosier-feuilles. In May he invited Borduas and the other members of the group to come and see what he’d been up to. Total disaster. Borduas rejected them all. Only Claude Gauvreau came to their defense. Disillusioned and badly hurt, Barbeau destroyed the works. As for his sculptures, the fragile materials they were made of didn’t help their longevity.
On June 7, 1948, Barbeau married Suzanne Meloche, to whom he’d been introduced by Claude Gauvreau. On August 9, Refus Global was published by Éditions Mithra-Mythe. Barbeau was one of the 16 who signed the manifesto. One of his sculptures, Coquille évolué des mers brûlantes, can be seen in a photograph in the pamphlet. Refus Global appeared at the moment when the Borduas group was nearing its end. Jean Paul Riopelle, who had gone to Paris in 1946 “as a scout,” returned to Montreal, went back to the old country for a while in 1947, then to Montreal again before eventually establishing himself firmly in the City of Lights in 1949. As for Fernand Leduc, he had been living in Paris since 1947. Defenders of the cause were dispersing. What’s more in spite of their earlier collaborations and the publication of Refus global, the group was splitting into two because of disagreement over one of Borduas’ texts. In the final analysis, Refus global represents the end of one adventure and the beginning of several others: those of individuals who would each leave a mark on modernity in Quebec, each flying with his or her own wings.
The following years were not easy for Marcel Barbeau. He was working hard to support his family with little time for artistic creation. His marriage was in trouble and final blow came in the summer of 1952, when Suzanne Meloche left him with the care of their two children, Manon (born 1949) and François (born 1951).
In 1952, Marcel Barbeau was 27 years old with his morale as low as it could be. He had to give up his two children, Manon going to his two sisters and François given up for adoption. Financially, he was at rock bottom. His relationship with his family (mother and sisters) was almost nil; his contacts with Automatist friends were all but dead. Emotional and sensitive, he was badly shaken, and his reputation as a “difficult person” would only get worse. What followed was a period of psychological wandering during which he moved many times, first to Quebec City, then to Rouyn-Noranda (where he got a job teaching drawing), followed by several periods in Quebec and Montreal. Starting in 1953, he found work as an assistant to the photographer, Gaby, learning new skills that he would later use, right up into the beginning of the 1960s.
1. Gauthier, Ninon and Carolle Gagnon. Le regard en Fugue, Éditions du Centre d’étude et de communication sur l’art, 1990.
2. Indiscrétions is a hand-written text composed by Borduas in the winter of 1947-1948, according to Jean Fiset. In it, he describes a few members of his group: Marcel Barbeau, Bruno Cormier, Claude Gauvreau, Pierre Gauvreau, Fernand Leduc, Jean-Paul Mousseau et Jean Paul Riopelle.
3. Leduc, Fernand. Vers les îles de lumière - Écrits, 1942-1980. Montréal, Hurtubise HMV, 1981. p.10.
Throughout his adult life, from the beginning of his career as an artist right up to the final years, Marcel Barbeau maintained links with a large network of people in the artistic community throughout the world. And he inhabited that wide world, as a look back over his impressive career will show. He lived in Vancouver, New York, California and several times in Paris, which was his second home, after Montreal. From the early 1960s, his work was well represented in Toronto, where he had regular exhibitions at major galleries such as Dresdnere and Kaspar. In New York, he requented several important American artists and critics. For many years he was associated with the East Hampton Gallery, which sold a number of his works to important American collectors. Later on, in the early 1990s, he was shown at Westbridge Fine Art in Vancouver.
In Paris, where he lived a number of years on different occasions, he was a very close friend of the art critic Charles Delloye. He was represented by the Iris Clert Gallery, whose associations included Yves Klein, the Nouveau réalisme movement – the avant-garde in general. In 1964, Marcel Barbeau participated in a “Floating Biennale” event that Iris Clert organized on the margins of the Venice Biennale. After Mme. Clert died in 1986, he was represented by the Donguy Gallery until it closed its doors in 2000. Today he is represented in the City of Light by Chauvy Gallery. A complete list of his collective and solo exhibitions in Europe, Canada, and the United States would be too long to include here. For a complete overview, see the website dedicated to him: marcelbarbeau.com. […]
[…] Marcel Barbeau did his creations in several places, and here the word “several” is not a euphemism! He was especially fond of some of these places, such as Saint-Irénée (often), Pointe-au-Pic, and Baie-Saint-Paul, in Charlevoix, where he stayed many times during the course of his life. Through the 1950s there was Saint-Matias-sur-Richelieu, Quebec City , Abitibi, and Saint-Hilaire. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was Bic, and Rimouski. From the end of the 1970s to the beginning of the 1980s, there was Sherbrooke; and from the middle of the 1980s to the early 2000s, there was Sutton.
In Paris, he lived in many places, including the Cité universitaire. And let’s not forget the Netherlands, where he worked on a regular basis early 2000 to 2007; or the south of France, etc. Over the years he had different studios in Montreal, such as is wonderful retreat on Amherst Street and, later on, the one on Saint-Ambroise Street.
It should be emphasis that his wife, Ninon Gauthier, wrote her Ph.D. thesis, Marcel Barbeau, échos et métamorphoses, at l’Université de Paris-IV-Sorbonne, in 2004. Marcel barbeau was a person driven by curiosity, which may explain his propensity to make use of all kind of influence in his arts. He was interested in contemporary music, science, poetry. He loved to cook…. In short, Marcel Barbeau traveled the world, and was nourished by many things. In the coming years, illuminated by the large retrospective that will be devoted to him by Quebec City’s National Museum of Fine Arts, there is no doubt our collective appreciation of his work will be evolving for a long time. Thank you Marcel Barbeau.
Source : Robert Bernier, Revue Parcours, Parcours regard, numéro 88, avril / mai 2016, Hommage / Tribute Marcel Barbeau (1925-2016), recherche Ninon Gauthier, page 60-63.
We usually think about painting when we talk about Marcel Barbeau. He was one of the visual artist among the signatories of Refus global in 1948, when he was only 23 years old, and he certainly is one of our most important painters. But he is also a distinguished sculptor, something that is too often forgotten. In fact, seen as a whole, his work stands out against the general pattern of our modernist art because of its trans-disciplinary quality. He has expressed himself equally trough print-making, graphic arts, collage, photography, performance and installation. His artistic production is recognized for a variety of qualities including the breadth of his pictorial/spatial research and the diversity of his technique over time. And let’s not forget the sheer length of his creative life, spanning more than 70 years! The result has been a rich assortment of pictorial languages, sometimes radically different one from the other, changing gradually in many ways from one decade to the next, yet always fundamentally unified by a vital link: space.
For Barbeau, structure is not an end in itself but a means, a tool, a way of making space significant, perhaps even conscious. Matter thinks. His creative process is resolutely intuitive – a grand alliance between the conscious and unconscious, between implicit and tacit understanding. When Marcel Barbeau embarks on a project, his task is to give form to empty space, to obliterate awareness of the instant and its context. This codified space is his link with the exterior world. The space Barbeau seeks to delineate in his own. His research takes him along a non-verbal path of spatial and pictorial language. In fact, especially after the 1980s, his painting is all about the encoding of space on a surface. A place? A sentiment? All that and much more.
Seen from this angle, his work doesn’t have much to do with abstraction. It is, in fact, as concrete as can be. To illustrate the point, consider a surprising comparison with the game of golf Barbeau liked so much. What has golf got to do with painting? In both cases, we space encoded according to specific rule. In both, there is also that moment when the mind and the tools it uses have to be one, a coordination of action working through time and space. And of course, as in all games, mental control is crucial.
All things considered, his work invites us to experience a kind of formal maturity. Welcome to the creative universe of Marcel Barbeau.
The Automatist period. The period when everything began. In August of 1948, the month members of Borduas’ group signed Refus global, Marcel Barbeau was 23 years old. He was one of 16 signatories, almost equally divided between men (9) and women (7). The basis of the movement was liberty in all its forms, whether connected to works of art, to thought, or to action. The ongoing impact and influence of this movement can be explained largely by its essence, its core values. The automatic gesture was, before anything else, a liberation. That gesture became a tool for demolishing old, deeply imbedded reflexes. The spirit of Automatism thus became a vehicle for going towards something that was not a destination. It was the beginning of a journey towards oneself, towards a new world that could never be the same after the Second World War and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even at that early stage, the exploration of space was crucial to young Barbeau’s creative approach and to his research. But for him this was also a very intimate quest. It involved connections with pictorial space, of course, but also personal space, in the sense of metaphorical connections with his state of mind and his needs. By hindsight, it’s not surprising that is investigations led him in the direction of “all-over” painting (a revolutionary technique often attributed to the American painter Jackson Pollock) as early as 1946. This argument is made strongly by Ninon Gauthier, who points for example to Rosiers-Feuilles, one of the few surviving Barbeau works from 1946 -1947. At the time of the Automatists, each painterly gesture left its mark on an anarchic, agitated surface. (Incidentally, let’s make it clear that Barbeau’s artistic production should not be carved up into clusters of works leading in one direction of another. It can be useful, however, to point our tendencies in each period that may be looking to the future.)
The tendency in this period was sometimes toward greater formal control. His series of black drawings (also gouaches and paintings) from the end of the 1950s is especially important in that sense. This was also the period when he returned to « all-over » constructions. The surface may look finished, but it leaves open possibility of continuing. Conventional painterly strokes are once again being challenged.
The painting of this period (continuing with the intention of identifying expressive tendencies without stigmatizing any) is characterized by minimalism, hard-edge techniques, and op art. This is also the decade when Barbeau’s works begin to be recognized, at various time, throughout the western world and especially in Paris and the United States. For him, space (both pictorial and mental, emotional and exterior) was a constant inspiration, and he saw the kind of work he was doing at the time as a new way of increasing awareness of the present. This was also an age of profound questioning of Western values.
This is certainly the artist’s most expressive period. “It was in Paris that I did my most violent paintings.” 1 His gestures become expressive and dramatic. Also, in 1972, he does is first performances, with spectacular results. But gradually the bold gesture becomes a point of departure leading to a more thoughtful approach, moving the entire work in a more structural direction. Violent movement eventually gives way to…
The beginning of an important period from the standpoint of technique. Movement and gesture becomes less pronounced, form becomes more structured, but most important, color begins to brighten the surface in a new and different way, with harmonizing tones of varying intensity perhaps reminiscent of certain directions taken by Henri Matisse. Barbeau has stopped being spectacular, Nonetheless, his approach is very efficient, plastically, even though it is poetically muted. More than ever, he eradicates all resonance between color and form. Solid. Firmly rooted. Then the format starts to get bigger…
Already announcing itself at the end 1980s, this period has mark an impact on the artist’s entire work. Barbeau is shuffling the cards again. This is a period of synthesis in which minimalism resurfaces…but in kind of formal complexity. A time when space can breath. Color remains a key element, but has to cooperate with form and surface. Each of these elements has an impact on the others within a rhythmic structure that reminds us of the contemporary music Barbeau love so much. In general, these works make us think of collage and in fact Barbeau was also experimenting with that medium at the time. A more structural, more spatial series.
A period of continuity. Blue backgrounds predominate and Barbeau expands his investigation of the relationships between color, form, and surface. A rich period in the sense that he continues to explore his previous findings. He modulates his visual language by focusing on space and the intimate and physical bond he maintains with it.
Throughout this decade there is more and more concrete evidence of recognition by his peers. Among other honours he receives the Governor General’s Award, the Louis-Philippe-Hébert Prize from the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, and the Paul-Émile-Borduas Prize from the government of Quebec.
The Borduas Prize none too soon, given the fact that Barbeau had been nominated twenty times! Of the 16 signatories of Refus global, he was the fifth to receive this important honour. At the time of this writing, he is not in good health, but he’s still painting, with a return to brisk strokes across his formal structures.
1.Gagnon, Nicole and Ninon Gautier, Marcel Barbeau, Le regard en fugue, Edition du Centre d’études et de communication sur l’art, 1990, page 116.
Source : Robert Bernier, Revue Parcours, Parcours regard, number 88, April / May 2016, Hommage / Tribute Marcel Barbeau (1925-2016), recherche Ninon Gauthier, page 66-69.