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Marcel Barbeau’s work underwent many phases and transformations over seven decades, but was abstract from beginning to end. (Lipman Still Pictures)
Marcel Barbeau’s work underwent many phases and transformations over seven decades, but was abstract from beginning to end. (Lipman Still Pictures)


Marcel Barbeau: Painter was a Quebec pioneer of abstract art Add to ...

“I like to surprise and be surprised, because each surprise reveals a little more of the beauty of the world.” So said Quebec artist Marcel Barbeau, who spent his life searching for the unexpected in paintings, sculptures and collaborations with performers.

Mr. Barbeau died Jan. 2 in a Montreal retirement home at the age of 90, severely stricken by Parkinson’s disease but involved in art-making almost till his last hour. His work during a celebrated career of seven decades passed through many phases and transformations, but was abstract from beginning to end.

He was a signatory of Refus global, a 1948 artists’ manifesto seen by many in Quebec as a harbinger of the Quiet Revolution, and was one of the cross-disciplinary Montreal artists known as the Automatistes. His first forays into action painting in the 1940s may have predated those of Jackson Pollock. Mr. Barbeau literally danced some of his works into creation, flitting before a huge canvas while making rapid spontaneous daubs with a brush on a pole. Film footage of him doing this, while musicians or dancers improvised nearby, is still fascinating to see, decades after the event.

Fiercely independent, he pursued his devotion to his art through many life challenges, including periodic poverty and bipolar disorder, which “affected a large part of his life,” according to Marie-Ève Tanguay, a gallery professional who worked for him.

Mr. Barbeau was born on Feb. 18, 1925, into the working-class Montreal family of Philippe and Elisabeth (née St-Antoine) Barbeau. Young Marcel lost his father at the age of 3, and was partly raised by an uncle who owned a grocery. He began drawing as a child and, at 18, while learning carpentry at the École du meuble, met the artist Paul-Émile Borduas, a teacher at the school. Mr. Borduas had trained to be a church painter, but had recently begun making spontaneous gestural works based on the “automatic drawing” practice of some European Surrealists.

Mr. Borduas welcomed the younger man into his circle of followers, which included Jean-Paul Riopelle, and became his “spiritual father,” as Mr. Barbeau later said. In 1946, Mr. Barbeau painted his vigorous, calligraphic Rosier-feuilles, which curator and art historian Roald Nasgaard calls a sign of his audacious command of what later became known as all-over gestural painting.

“It looks like an all-over Jackson Pollock, but it’s not a drip painting,” said Mr. Nasgaard, who included the work in his 2009 exhibition The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941-1960. “When I asked him what he had done, he said he had turned the brush around, and scraped and drawn in the paint surface with the wooden end of the brush.”

In 1947, Mr. Barbeau and others in Mr. Borduas’s group exhibited at the Galerie du Luxembourg in Paris, under the title Les Automatistes. The following year, with a public profile much enhanced by their success in Paris, the group launched Refus global in a Montreal bookshop. The manifesto, written largely by Mr. Borduas and featuring illustrations that included an image of a Barbeau sculpture, blasted the narrowness of Quebec society and its lack of artistic and educational freedom. It also dramatized a feud between regionalists in art and more internationally minded “Parisianistes,” which had been raging in Montreal for at least three decades.

Refus global “wasn’t so much [an act of] courage, as a necessity,” Mr. Barbeau recalled in 1998. “It was the need to breathe, in a social structure that was very closed.”

Mr. Borduas lost his job in the aftermath, and others in the group suffered privations that might have been in store anyway, given the nature of their work and the sparse gallery scene in Montreal at the time. Mr. Barbeau exhibited his work at yearly spring group shows at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, joining a Les Rebelles counterexhibition when he was passed over. He also managed to get a show in New York’s One Wall gallery in 1952, even though he had signed a joint letter condemning persecution of Communists, at the height of the Red Scare.

In 1948, Mr. Barbeau married the poet Suzanne Meloche, after her landlord threatened to evict her unless she legitimized her relations with the young painter. They had two children, whom they soon gave into the care of others: foster parents for son François, and Mr. Barbeau’s two sisters for daughter Manon, who as an adult explored the trauma of that abandonment in her 1998 documentary Les enfants du Refus global.

Mr. Barbeau, whose wife left him after she had an affair with Mr. Borduas, adopted the nomadic life that would be his pattern for much of his life, living in Vancouver, New York, southern California, Paris and various parts of Quebec. His art remained mobile, too, cycling through hard-edged abstraction, Op art and the spacious soft-edged paintings he made near the end of his life.

The painter often challenged the viewer with illusions of depth and figure, while remaining committed to the materiality of the painted surface. Natashkouan, a typically large oil from 1956, seems to flicker between all-over patterning and unique gesture, while Kitchenombi No. 4, one of his live “choreographic” paintings from 1972, teases the eye with spindly marks that also suggest figures dancing across the canvas. Rétine ma jolie (1969) presents a curvy system of parallel lines that implies folds in a sheet of paper. Sometimes he expanded that motion into sculptures such as Liberté, Liberté chérie, an elegant steel construction installed on the banks of the St. Lawrence, not far from his last home.

Mr. Barbeau’s works are lodged in dozens of public and private collections, including those of the National Gallery of Canada, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. The sheer diversity of his art, however, may have blurred his profile as a leading Quebec painter.

“Riopelle developed a signature style that was always recognizable,” said Mr. Nasgaard. “Barbeau didn’t do that, and that’s always made it harder to have an overall understanding of his work.” His career was well documented, however, particularly by his second wife, Ninon Gauthier, an art historian who based her doctoral thesis on his work.

In 2000, his daughter Manon made a biographical film called Barbeau, libre comme l’art. It shows her father as a very self-possessed man, sometimes brusque but also able to be amused by a little girl’s confident account of the landscape she sees in one of his geometric abstracts.

The film is punctuated by Mr. Barbeau’s jovial-sounding vocal improvisations, sometimes as an after-lunch serenade.

He received many honours, including the Order of Canada and the Paul-Émile Borduas Prize, and saw one of his paintings reproduced on a stamp from Canada Post. He waited longer for some of this recognition than he thought fitting, as he made plain in his response to the Governor-General’s Award for Visual Arts and Media in 2013: “I find that this comes a bit late. I’m 88 after all. I would have liked to have received it earlier.”

But those prizes were not just belated recognition for achievements long past. “The work in the last decade is very strong,” Mr. Nasgaard said. “It was a career that ended on a high point.”

At his passing, Mr. Barbeau was hailed in his home province as a grand old man of Quebec art and one of the last of a pivotal artistic generation. He was a tireless creator, who doggedly made himself available to what he called the “perpetual ballet of forms lines and colours.”

A visitation for Marcel Barbeau will be held at Salon Dallaire Memoria in Montreal on Jan. 23 at 1 p.m., followed by a memorial event at 5:30.

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