It is a fact that whoever has seen a painting by Borduas never forgets it.
– Rodolphe de Repentigny, 1954
In 1953, the process Paul-Émile Borduas undertook to exile himself to the United States came to fruition. He first settled in Provincetown, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he rented a space for the summer. Then, in the fall, he moved to New York, where he occupied a larger studio at the edge of Greenwich Village, a district bustling with international artists at the time. On September 18, he wrote: “I spent a magnificent and extraordinary summer; 40 new paintings. It’s more than what I produced in five years in Canada. I ignored the sea, the sand, the dunes, but I think you can find some of that in my painting.” It was an exhilarating, prolific period for Borduas, who had his first solo exhibition in New York, at the Passedoit Gallery, from January 5 to 23, 1954. Le cri des rainettes (1953) (the cry of the tree frogs) was part of a selection of the 24 exhibited paintings and one of the seven works listed in the brochure printed for the occasion. The exhibition, which had been carefully laid out by the artist, garnered resounding and glowing media attention, both in Canada and in New York. At the opening, painter Robert Motherwell was said to have called Borduas the “Courbet of the twentieth century,” and art critic Rodolphe de Repentigny saw in Borduas’s stay in Provincetown “the start of his new evolution, of his revolution.”
That is to say, the Provincetown paintings, which hadn’t yet been influenced by contemporary American painting, were still closely tied to Automatisme. This first batch was the occasion for Borduas to gradually forgo pictorial depth and radically limit illusionist space. In fact, “the years 1953 and 1954 brought a resolution to problems encountered earlier with the cruciform structure by braiding gestures together more tightly,” writes Marcel Saint-Pierre. “The now exclusive use of the palette knife neutralized the space between figure and ground in a kind of more regular weave of vertical and horizontal markers, whose function emerge from the tachist proliferation.” This formal achievement is remarkable in Le cri des rainettes, in which the patches remain voluminous, dancing, even supple, but just as agitated as ever. One finds a similar architecture and palette in Les barricades (1953, 23 cm x 33 cm, private collection)—an architecture that sometimes leads to measured compositions (Les arènes de Lutèce, 1953, 81.3 cm x 106.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada), and sometimes to spectacular explosions (La naissance de l’étang, 1953, 56 cm x 46 cm, private collection).
With Le cri des rainettes, Borduas is preparing the way for the New York paintings by unleashing contrasting black and white flashes that swirl around the green, sandy reflections of the composition. Here, the “cry” is a harbinger of a profound, irreversible meditation, a choral song with which he is at one in this masterly work. While the impastos swell to the surface in some areas, they skim the surface in others, leaving silken trails in their wake. The pigment-saturated oils engage in a shimmering play of transparencies, its cadence set by the sharp trill of tree frogs who breathe life into this imaginary pond.
(Annie Lafleur / Trad.: Ron Ross)