Fifty years ago, a group of passionate Montréal painters rallied together around a manifesto called "Refus global". They denounced the paternalism and intellectual repression of Quebec institutions and advocated the right to personal freedom in cultural and spiritual expression. The efforts of this group of French-Canadian artists and intellectuals, named the Automatistes, reflected the growing desire for social and cultural change in the province. Their ideas and actions revolutionized Canadian art, and their manifesto - perhaps the single most important social document in Quebec history - helped pave the way for the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s during which the province embraced sweeping social change.
On the occasion of the manifesto's 50th anniversary, Canada Post is releasing a commemorative booklet of seven domestic-rate stamps featuring the exquisite paintings of seven Automatistes.
The Automatistes were led by Paul-Émile Borduas, a painter and the author of "Refus global". A mentor to aspiring artists, Borduas invited students to his studio to discuss art, philosophy and social theories. Inspired by the stream-of-consciousness writing of poet André Breton, Borduas and his pupils developed a new method of painting based on the surrealist notion of passions hidden below the surface of conscious reality.
"We invented the technique ourselves", said painter and group member Pierre Gauvreau, "because no one in Canada had done anything like it before".
The Automatistes endorsed modernism, abstract painting and the recognition of art as a liberating force. They exhibited paintings in Montréal, New York and Paris, published newspaper articles, and staged dance and theatre productions. They held the first ever Canadian exhibition of abstract painting in 1946. But it was not until the publication of "Refus global" that the group received serious attention. The manifesto, published as a collection of essays, plays and illustrations, called for individual freedom and attacked Quebec's church and state. The document was condemned by politicians and clergymen as extremist socio-political propaganda. Despite this criticism, the Automatistes continued to exhibit their work and spread their message. In 1954, they held their last exhibition as a group before going their separate ways to pursue individual careers.
Now, decades later, Pierre Gauvreau reflects back on the impact the Automatistes made on Quebec: "Society has achieved some of the changes we aimed for in the manifesto but, after 50 years, there is still a long way to go".
Designed by Raymond Bellemare of Noyan, Québec, the Automatistes stamp set features seven works of art. Each painting is presented within a gold-coloured frame to simulate a three-dimensional appearance, and against a white background that is lightly tinted with varnish. Available in panes of seven, the Automatistes self-adhesive stamp set will be issued August 7.