I have often described how the expression of movement is at the heart of Marcel Barbeau’s artistic practice, and has been since his earliest gouaches of 1944-45. Movement is also a theme developed by art historian and philosopher Carolle Gagnon in a chapter of our monograph Marcel Barbeau le regard en fugue . The centrality of movement in Barbeau’s work is brilliantly demonstrated in the dazzling retrospective Marcel Barbeau en mouvement, curated by Éve-Lyne Beaudry and currently on show at the Musée National des beaux-arts du Québec.
The exhibition Jours d’envol traces this theme through the artist’s later works, created at the height of his powers both creatively and in terms of his career. Taking flight (l’envol) suggests the beginning of a light, fluid, free movement; a lift, a throw, a leap. This refers to his exaltation at the start of a new approach, whether of a series or a single work. It also evokes, in a minor key, the energy of his twilight years: he kept his intellectual curiosity and his passion for his art, carrying on his work whenever he could in the face of Parkinson’s disease. His powerful drive to create was linked to the feeling of freedom that creating art gave him. His face would light up then, marveling at having created this new work and at the prospect of sharing it with the world. His greatest wish was to share his joy at pushing back the limits of seeing.
In his final two periods of work, exemplified at Galerie d’Este, Marcel Barbeau sought to take stock of his practice up to that point, and to further challenge the boundaries of the discipline and the aesthetic. By 1990 and especially 1991, he had begun to revisit previous ideas in new forms. Already, in 1988, he reincorporated the polychromy of his 1984 sculptures in a series of sculptural maquettes in which gradients of complementary colours directly mirror each other, creating illusions similar to his optical paintings. Then at the end of 1990, and in 1991, he included, in paintings, spatiotemporal elements such as openings and figures that had appeared in his recent sculptures. These paintings, which he called Anaconstructions, appear to the viewer to resolve into an interplay of two-dimensional structures, and then to dissolve again. They create a fascinating ballet of abstract object-forms which oscillate forward and back again into the picture plane.
From 2011, Barbeau reintroduced the gesturality and freeform abstraction of his youth in conjunction with neatly defined elements: arcs, undulations, oblique sections, in isolation or repeated rhythmically to create an optical effect. In this way, he was able to demonstrate how the entirety of his practice had been to seek to express movement and life; in effect, to express becoming, which is the hallmark of our universe and ourselves.
Marcel Barbeau, OC, ONQ, RCA, Prix Borduas, Prix du Gouverneur Général et Prix Louis-Philippe Hébert, was born in Montreal on February 18, 1925. He studied with Paul-Émile Borduas at École du Meuble in Montreal and then, between 1945 and 1953, attended his personal workshop where he met the young intellectuals who formed the Group of Automatists. He participated in all the activities of this movement between 1946 and 1955, including his first two exhibitions of April 1946 and February 1947, and signed the manifesto Refus Global in 1948. Since then, he has questioned his achievements. Constantly in search of new forms and new modes of expression, guided by a repeated impulse of "passage to the limit" according to Charles Delloye. In this sense, he is fully an "exploratory" artist, according to the term of the poet Claude Gauvreau. Nomadic by his curiosity of the other, Vancouver, Paris, New York, Southern California were alternately his home ports, although he always maintained deep ties with Quebec where he returned for long annual stays. Back in Montreal in 2008, he died on January 2, 2016, having continued to practice his art in his final weeks, as he wished. Major figure of Canadian art, we can find his works in most of the museums in the country and in numerous reputable international institutions. The Musée National des beaux arts du Québec is currently presenting a major retrospective of his work.