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Pierre Gauvreau in 1998. (Library and Archives Canada/Library and Archives Canada)
Pierre Gauvreau in 1998. (Library and Archives Canada/Library and Archives Canada)

Obituary

Pierre Gauvreau helped launch Quebec's Quiet Revolution Add to ...

Pierre Gauvreau was a Quebec abstract painter and a pioneer filmmaker who also enjoyed a successful career as a Radio-Canada television scriptwriter and director. He was best known in French-Canada for his popular series, Temps d'une paix, a homespun saga set between the two world wars. During a stint at the National Film Board, he also produced Claude Jutra's 1971 classic, Mon Oncle Antoine.

In 1948, Gauvreau was one of the 16 prominent artists who signed Le Refus Global, the historic manifesto that laid the groundwork for Quebec's Quiet Revolution. He remained a life-long nonconformist. "Techniques may differ, but all artistic expression is the same," he once said. "All artists are all searching for truth, or at least for a reality that brings us closer to the truth."

He was 88 when he died on April 7.

"He was fiercely intelligent, articulate, determined and very charming," said Francoise Sullivan, a dancer and sculptor who also signed Refus Global. "We all knew what we were doing at the time was politically, very dangerous. We knew our ideas would be rejected by society and that we would pay a price for what we believed. But we all felt very strongly about it. Pierre not only nurtured the feelings that were already there, but he made them bloom. Not only did he type up the Refus Global, but printed it in his apartment on Sherbrooke Street.

In the beginning, when he started making art, his paintings were very exciting. He might have become a great filmmaker, but at the time filmmaking in Quebec wasn't very developed. There was no film industry to speak of."

Pierre Saint-Mars Gauvreau was born in Montreal Aug. 23, 1922. His father, a travelling salesman, abandoned the family after Pierre's younger brother, Claude, the future poet and playwright, was born. The boys were home-schooled during the Depression by their headstrong mother who had inherited an extensive library from her free-thinking father.

Described as "curious, intelligent, and stubborn," Gauvreau was sent to College Sainte Marie, where he was expelled after he was found reading Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal and a volume of poetry by Rimbaud, books that were then forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church. At 17 he enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts, and exhibited his work for the first time in 1941.

His formal studies were interrupted by war when he volunteered to join the army. His mother also enlisted and was prominent in the fight for French-language equality in the Canadian military. Gauvreau spent two years overseas, where he toured museums and continued to paint.

While still in England, he submitted a canvas to the first show in Montreal to display works in an fledgling art category known as automatism, defined as "a happy surrender to spontaneous impulses." The painters held another group show the following year in the apartment Gauvreau shared with his mother.

After the war, he joined forces with fellow artists including Paul-Émile Borduas, Françoise Sullivan, Fernand Leduc and Jean-Paul Riopelle in protest against the repressive religious and political atmosphere in Quebec. The artists put their names to Refus Global and declared their creative and intellectual independence, brazenly putting their faith in anarchistic freedom.

To support himself, Gauvreau found work at Radio-Canada when it went on the air in 1953. He abandoned his painting and turned out children's television shows, including Pépinot et compagnie, Radisson, and D'Iberville.

He worked briefly for the National Film Board, but returned to Radio-Canada where he made his mark as a pioneering television producer and director. His career soared with Temps d'une paix, a téléroman that ran for seven years in the 1980s and had three times as many viewers as Hockey Night in Canada. There were two other series in his television trilogy, Cormoran and Le volcan tranquille, but they never enjoyed the same ratings as the first.

Gavreau returned to painting again full time when he was in his fifties. His wild-eyed works featured bright forms and patterns that critics variously described as piling up like neon snowflakes or resembling the psychedelic visions of an acid trip.

Gavreau seemed immune to advancing age. In the 1990s he began experimenting with new techniques, including spray paint.

Denise Leclerc, a curator of modern Canadian art at the National Gallery in Ottawa, says that while Gauvreau never quite achieved the same recognition as his contemporaries, Riopelle and Bourduas, he was nevertheless a seminal figure. "Riopelle and Bourduas consecrated their lives to their art. Gavreau had a lot of careers. He was really ambitious," she says.

"He was there as a painter in the beginning and he returned to his paintings again when he was older. His early small and medium-size drawings and paintings represent a great contribution to the period when the group's ambitions for their art were greater than what they could technically accomplish. In the 70s, when he worked on a much larger scale and format, he stayed faithful to the art of spontaneity."

Ever the iconoclast, Gauvreau sparked a controversy in 2002 when he boycotted Riopelle's funeral because the service was held in a Roman Catholic church. Gauvreau argued that it would be sheer hypocrisy to walk into a church to attend a funeral for his friend who was a life-long atheist.

Gauvreau's career was the subject of a Charles Binamé documentary, l'obligation de la liberté, and a biography. One of his works, The Bottom of the Closet, was reproduced on a 45-cent postage stamp in 1998. His name was in the news two years ago when three of his paintings were stolen from a Yorkville Gallery in Toronto.

He was present for the opening of an exhibition of his works at a gallery in Montreal three months ago. "Death doesn't exist, I have never worried about mortality, as most people do," he once told a reporter. "Death is merely a transition into something greater."

He leaves a son and a daughter from his first marriage to Madeline Arbour, a costume designer and interior decorator, as well as his second wife, Janine Carreau.

 

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