"I do not look for beauty, I attempt to produce a painting that is vibrant."
Over the course of his career, Marcel Barbeau's artwork has taken a variety of directions as he continually responds to his creative impulse and a desire to exceed the limits of a given form. He was a signatory of the controversial 'Refus Global' in 1948, and has remained faithful to the ideals of spontaneous expression and the primacy of the arts.
Barbeau studied at the école du Meuble in Montreal from 1942 to 1947 where he was taught by artist Paul-émile Borduas, with classmates Jean-Paul Riopelle and photographer Maurice Perron. They all became involved in the Automatiste movement, which was based on the French Surrealist idea of turning to the subconscious mind for inspiration.
In 1947, Barbeau produced 'allover' paintings made up of gestural strokes, squirts and drips of paint, applied in a spontaneous manner. His friend, the poet Claude Gavreau, supported this work considering it the leading edge of the Automatist avant-garde, but Borduas, rejected it, claiming it lacked perspective, depth and balance. Barbeau destroyed these works. In the meantime, he was attending meetings with young intellectuals at the home of Borduas. These artists, poets, writers and dancers felt the need to break away from the constraints of conservative Montreal society in order to realize their creative ideas. The result was the controversial manifesto entitled 'Refus Global' (1948), an expression of their hopes and desires to change the society they lived in, encouraging spontaneity and authenticity in the arts.
Between 1958 and 1974 Barbeau lived and worked in Vancouver, Paris, New York and southern California respectively, before returning to Quebec. While in Paris, he concentrated on using pure colour and altering the viewer's optical perception. In 1963, he painted Jules, a composition consisting of three large black spots on a bright red rectangle surrounded by a white ground. After looking away from the work, the viewer experiences seeing these spots everywhere.
An exhibition of the artist's post-Automatiste work from the late 1950s and early 1960s took place in Paris in 1971 and brought Barbeau critical attention, establishing him as a contemporary artist of international stature. In the 1970s, he combined painting with music and dance to create interdisciplinary events, recovering a spontaneous and gestural approach. The artist currently lives near Paris, and returns to Quebec during the summer.
Mr. Barbeau is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He was one of the earliest winners of the Canada Council’s Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award, which recognizes the work of artists at mid-career. In 2013 Mr. Barbeau was a recipient of the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts.
Marcel Barbeau, Sutton, July 2002. Photo by Ninon Gauthier
Born in Montreal, Quebec, 18 February 1925
Library and Archives