Pierre the born painter. The most serene revolutionary painter possible. Dawn or setting sun.
In a corner of a cool shade, I see the tranquil dance of familiar ghosts against a fiery sky. Relaxation in the unexpected oasis. The unforeseen order of a new world in the embittered old age of the one around us.
—Paul‑Émile Borduas, Indiscrétion
This quote by Paul‑Émile Borduas, from a document titled Indiscrétion, in which the artist describes his followers in “short poetic notes,” applies perfectly to the work before us. Baie d’esprit was part of the genesis of the Automatistes movement, and, by extension, the Refus Global (1948). An indisputable masterpiece, it forms part of one the most effervescent periods in the history of art in Quebec. Here is the ultimate opportunity to acquire a piece of this history, to augment one’s collection with a remarkable, rare work.
The manifesto’s future signatories developed their thinking amidst lively discussions at their leader Borduas’s studio and around a crackling fire at a farmhouse in Saint‑Hilaire, near the mythic painter’s home. As thought comes through practice, the movement organized itself around debates and work sessions in the studio; thus, the Montreal group readied itself to transform the art world, already on the eve of a modern revolution.
In 1947, the group of artists that would become known as the Automatistes held its second exhibition in the Gauvreau family apartment, at 75 Sherbrooke Street West. Shortly after this exhibition, in fact, the group was designated for the first time as “Automatistes,” in an exhibition review by Tancrède Marsil for the newspaper Le Quartier Latin. Baie d’esprit was exhibited again in November that same year, at the same Sherbrook Street location, this time with thirty‑three other works in a solo exhibition devoted to Gauvreau. As Thérèse Renaud recalls, everything suggests that the summer retreat in Saint‑Hilaire, in 1944, furnished the necessary inspiration for this work:
For me, everything began in the summer of ’44. We’d rented a big farmhouse in Saint‑Hilaire so that we could spend our summer holidays not far from Paul‑Émile Borduas. There was Françoise Sullivan, Mimi Lalonde, Louise and Jeanne Renaud, Pierre Gauvreau, Bruno Cormier, Fernand Leduc. Other friends came to join our group from time to time but, with the exception of Suzanne and Guy Viau who were on our wavelength (without sharing our opinions on religion, however), these passing comrades didn’t think the way we did.
This notably select group may remind us somewhat of that baie d’esprit (Spirit Bay) to which Gauvreau’s painting refers. A silhouette with arms raised—Borduas, perhaps?—appears to preach to several of the elect, seated in a circle. In their midst, a cross within an ovoid shape suggests a campfire or some ashes. In the distance, great valleys and an enchanted forest crown this surreal landscape. This “spirit bay” may well have been inspired by one of those Mont Saint‑Hilaire nights. In any event, it remained a key work throughout the painter’s career, including his later work as a screenwriter and director; even his television drama, Cormoran (1990-93), was graced by a fictional village named Baie‑d’Esprit.
The artist’s 1947 solo exhibition would draw extensive press coverage, which permitted the group—through interviews with Gauvreau—to assert its vision and ethics. From this moment, an outline of the manifesto emerged. Gauvreau was only twenty‑two when his work first drew attention; but Borduas had already spotted the young artist’s talent in 1941, whilst serving on a jury for a group exhibition at the Théâtre Gésu. He rewarded the young artist with a first prize, amazed at the winning painting’s “singular quality,” and a meeting with the virtuoso student soon followed.
In The Automatiste Revolution, Roald Nasgaard writes, “Of all the young artists, it was Pierre Gauvreau who most closely followed Borduas’s painting methods, as evidenced in the early Colloque exubérant (Exuberant Conversation), 1944, and Baie d’esprit (Spirit Bay), 1944, in which, as Borduas was doing at the time, he divides foreground and background. Gauvreau’s pictorial backgrounds are abstracted landscapes that both stretch toward far‑off horizons and tilt upward to form backdrops in front of which he deploys an array of strange creatures and flora and fauna with mythic overtones and atavistic remoteness. They seem born out of doodling, flavoured with a wry sense of Surrealist humour and an invigorating childlike freshness.”