Marcel Barbeau

Image © Copyright Marcel Barbeau (2015)

“Dents de sable à cran d’acier / Le langage des sources”
Oil on canvas, laid on panel, 1947.
30 x 42.5 cm, 11 3/4 x 16 3/4 in.

• Private collection,Toronto

• Marcel Barbeau Derives et variations, Galerie Jean-Claude Bergeron, Ottawa, May 11 – 28, 2000.

• Marcel Barbeau : échos et métamorphoses. Catalogue raisonné des peintures (1944-1971)
et catalogue raisonné des sculptures (1944-2000) Ninon Gauthier, #PE47.


Here, Marcel Barbeau has authored a true plastic manifesto, a precursor to the pictorial explorations that would soon push the visual arts in Quebec and Canada irreversibly toward modernity. This masterpiece definitively marks the genesis of the Automatistes, whose works were in many ways indebted to this piece. It is also a rare work from 1947, which, being on loan at the time, escaped the mass destruction of his oeuvre the following year. The artist located and reclaimed this piece more than thirty years later, in 1976.
With Dents de sable à cran d’acier, its title inspired by Claude Gauvreau’s poetry, Barbeau’s palette brightens: blacks give way to radiant whites, which illuminate the entire surface. This pure contrast, enhanced with blue and orange pigments, permits the artist to push the limits of all over painting and tachism, hitherto barely explored. A tensile network of palette knife strokes sweeps into the fray in a lateral thrust, while dabs of bright colour joyfully punctuate this embattled checkerboard. The markings’ oblique orientation lends great density to the dazzling and eminently expressive baroque surface.
Like beach stones polished by the tidal to and fro, the impastos, ribbons, and rolls of coloured matter pursue an organic, east to west course, from upper right to its opposite extreme. Enlivened by superb shimmering and transparency where the paint is scraped down to the canvas, this piece anticipates Marcelle Ferron’s works in oil of the late 1950s, if only for its quality of light, which shapes and sweeps the surface in a bold, mature, implacable gesture.
Here is an essential, historic work for the audacious collector—assured and singular, like Barbeau himself.
(Annie Lafleur)

Marcel Barbeau signe ici un véritable manifeste plastique, précurseur des explorations picturales qui feront basculer les arts visuels dans une modernité irréversible tant au Québec qu’au Canada. Ce chef d’oeuvre marque la genèse des Automatistes, dont les oeuvres lui seront redevables à plusieurs égards. Il s’agit de l’une des rares peintures de 1947 ayant échappé, par l’entremise d’un prêt, à l’hécatombe de l’année suivante, au cours de laquelle plusieurs tableaux ont été détruits. L’artiste a par ailleurs retrouvé et récupéré cette pièce près de trente ans plus tard, en 1976.
Avec Dents de sable à cran d’acier, titre d’origine inspiré de la poésie de Claude Gauvreau, la palette de Barbeau s’éclaircit : le noir cède la place au blanc, dont la lumière irradie la surface. Ce contraste pur, additionné de pigments bleus et orangés, permet de repousser les limites jusqu’alors peu explorées de la technique all over et du tachisme. Le réseau distendu des bandes de spatule se jette dans la mêlée sous l’emprise d’une poussée latérale, tandis que les touches de couleurs vives ponctuent joyeusement ce damier en bataille. L’orientation oblique des traces donne de la densité à la trame baroque, éblouissante, éminemment expressive.
À l’image de pierres polies tournées et retournées sur la grève par le va et vient d’un ressac marin, les empâtements, rubans et rouleaux de matières colorées suivent un mouvement organique d’est en ouest, du coin supérieur droit à son extrême opposé. Animée par de superbes effets de miroitement et de transparence, là où la matière est raclée jusqu’à la toile, la pièce annonce notamment les huiles de Marcelle Ferron de la fin des années 1950, ne serait ce que par la lumière qui façonne et balaie l’espace d’un geste assuré, mature, implacable.
Une oeuvre historique et incontournable pour le collectionneur audacieux, à l’image de l’artiste inclassable que fut Barbeau.
(Annie Lafleur)


Marcel Barbeau ( 1925 – 2016 ) was born in Montreal on February 18th, 1925. Between 1942 and 1947, he studied painting and sculpture with Paul-Emile Borduas at the Ecole du Meuble in Montreal, where he was a student in furniture design. At that time and until 1953, he regularly visited his master’s studio where he met other young artists and intellectuals, all members of the Automatistes. As a member of that major Canadian contemporary art movement, he participated in all exhibitions featuring the group and signed its manifesto,”Total refusal”. Some art historians consider that he was and remains its most innovative artist. He also was a junior member of Montreal Society of Contemporary Art with which he exhibited between 1945 to 1948.

From 1958 to 1974 and 1991 to 1996, he lived and worked in the United States and in Europe. Visiting New York (1951) and San Francisco (1957), he met with some artists from the Abstract Expressionists movement and the Pacific School. In Paris, he met again with Fernand Leduc from the Automatists’ group and he associated with minimalist and cinetic artists from Galerie Iris Clert where he exhibited. Among these artists, Lucio Fontana signed an introduction for his one-man show catalogue at Iris Clert gallery. In New York, Barbeau consorted with members of the french cinetic movement, GRAV (Groupe de recherche d’art visuel), and exhibited with the American op art school throughout the United States. After his retrospective show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1969, he spent a year in Southern California where he created photography and sculpture projects. While living in France between 1971 and 1974, he started his major series of monumental sculptures and did his first performances. Since then, he shares his time between painting and sculpture. In 1991, he returned to Paris where he then worked for a few months, annually until the spring of 1996. In the fall of that year, he established himself in Bagnolet, a Paris suburb, continuing to visit Canada each summer.

Mainly known as a painter, he has been involved in most visual art Media: drawing, sculpture, print, photography and performance. He has created many monumental works. His art has been exhibited in Canada, in the United States, in Europe and in Northern Africa where he had many one man shows. He has also participated in several international exhibitions. His works have been widely commented on in newspapers, magazines, catalogues and art books published in Canada, France and United States and in a fully illustrated monography, Marcel Barbeau: Fugato/ Le regard en fugue, published by CECA (Montréal, 1991), and in France at the Cercle d’art (Paris, 1994). He was also the subject of a few art films and videos among which renown film maker Manon Barbeau’s Barbeau “Libre comme l’art”. This was a 49 minutes film on his work and career co-produced by Informaction and National Film Board of Canada (2000).

In 1963, he received the Zack Purchase Prize from the Royal Canadian Academy. In 1973, he was given a Lynch-Staunton Foundation Grant by Canada Council. In 1985, he was awarded the sculpture purchase award of the McDonald Canada Art Competition. He was invited to join the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in August 1992. In 1995, he received the Order of Canada as an officer(?). In 1998, Canada Post reproduced one of his works on a stamp as part of its series in honor of the automatist painters, signatories of the manifesto Total refusal. He was the special guest artist at the 2003 Montreal Jazz Festival which published a limited numbered print, Django Blue, on this occasion.

His works are in many private, public and corporate collections in Canada, in the United States and in Europe among which are: the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), the British Museum (London), the Chrysler Art Gallery (Norfolk, Virginia), the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts (Lyon, France), the National Gallery of Canada ( Ottawa), the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Montreal), the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (Montreal), Quebec National Fine Arts Museum (Quebec), the Rose Art Museum,(Waltham, N.J.) and the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam).

Biography courtesy Ninon Gauthier: