Oh, the art manifesto. It might seem quaint now – were the stakes of the avant-garde ever that high? But for the first half of the 20th century, radical documents, and the well-meaning, zealous artists who signed them, were everywhere. And they were Canadian, too. "Les Plasticiens and Beyond," currently on view at the Varley Art Gallery of Markham until September 2, provides an interesting and uniquely Quebecois example.
The Plasticiens emerged in the 1950s largely in reaction to another group, the Automatistes. That older group wrote the Refus Global (Total Refusal) manifesto of 1948, spearheaded by Paul-Émile Borduas and with signatories such as Jean-Paul Riopelle and Françoise Sullivan. It was a bold, expressionist reaction to the Catholic strictures of 1940s' Quebec.
By the mid-1950s, when the Automatistes' vision was finally gaining traction, the Plasticiens offered a challenge. Composed of Louis Belzile, Jean-Paul Jérôme, Fernand Toupin and critic Rodolphe de Repentigny (who painted under the name "Jauran"), the Plasticiens stressed a more anonymous, technical approach, following Europeans such as Piet Mondrian. "It was a belief that just the formal elements of painting itself – line, plane, colour and texture – could speak as dramatically and emotionally as Automatiste painting," says Roald Nasgaard, co-curator of the Varley show.
As quickly as the Plasticiens appeared, they were supplanted. After the group's first show and accompanying manifesto in 1955, painters Guido Molinari and Claude Tousignant, initial supporters, made a conscious attempt to transcend the group. By the 1960s, Molinari and Tousignant, along with Yves Gaucher and Charles Gagnon (all four became important Quebec painters), took on grander formats and harder edges. It was an attempt, in Nasgaard's words, to "turn painting into a visual event." The "Post-Plasticiens" were born – in a new decade and, completing the cultural project begun by the Automatistes, in a new Quebec.
"The beginnings of the story are perhaps best told by the Jaurans," says Nasgaard, referring to the work of the critic-painter who essentially penned the Plasticiens's manifesto in the mid-1950s. Works such as Le Chiffre magique (middle painting) are humbly conscious of surface, rejecting the "surrealist illusionism" (in Nasgaard's words) of the Automatistes. "The first painting in the show [by Jauran] is painted on raw jute with that heavy forefronting texture," Nasgaard says. "His wife was making curtains with the material, so he appropriated a piece of jute from her. And Le Chiffre magique is painted on the back of Masonite. The rough texture of the board itself reaffirms the fact that this is a surface which holds paint."
Molinari and L'Actuelle
In the spring of 1955, Guido Molinari founded Montreal's L'Actuelle gallery, probably the first Canadian gallery to devote its program entirely to abstract art. L'Actuelle was superficially aligned with the Plasticiens – Molinari showed them – but, famously, by 1956, Molinari presented a solo show of his own that, in its way, threw down the gauntlet. Included in the show was a suite of black-and-white paintings: crisply rendered blocks ("hard-edge," in abstract-painting terms) where foreground and background merged. Nasgaard explains: "Where you'd expect the black to be the figure, or the white to be the ground, or vice versa, in this case, the shapes are structured in such a way that the eye cannot decide. It's all a question of where you focus. That makes this a different kind of painting. There is no closure in these Molinari paintings."
By the mid-1960s, the experiments of Molinari and his local and international peers, such as fellow Montrealer Tousignant, hit the mainstream. Abstract art full of stripes and optical play – Op Art, as it came to be known – was all the rage, appearing in fashion magazines, and as chic décor. But the work of the Post-Plasticiens, such as the round, bull's eye canvases of Tousignant, were not, says Nasgaard, gimmicks. "They engage us in tensions between the colours, the rhythms of perception, the way that you can search and explore a painting," he notes. They also signified the exuberance and internationalism of a post-Quiet Revolution Quebec. "[These painters] really saw themselves in the grand international tradition," says Nasgaard. "Not only of Borduas, but of Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. They were the next in line. They had no small ambitions."