Composition 69 1960

Paul-Émile Borduas, Composition 69, 1960

Paul-Émile Borduas, Composition 69, 1960

Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 50 cm

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Composition 69 is considered Borduas’s last canvas. It was seen and described by Jean-Paul Filion, the poet, singer, and writer who visited Borduas’s studio on February 26, 1960, to attend the memorial service for the painter, who had died on February 22. Filion could not help but notice this canvas, still wet, propped up on the easel: 


The still-fresh painting that I see clinging to the easel, seems to me to be the pure and simple representation of a mortuary card. I’ll describe it: one immense black mass covering almost the entire surface of the canvas. At the top, a thin white horizon with a hint of limpid green, in which the painter has stuck two rectangular black shapes, thus creating a fascinating view out into space. What are they doing there, these two blocks, these two masks, these two ghosts like bits of shroud, stubbornly taking up all the room in a cramped space of inaccessible light, sitting like an epigraph atop a high wall of glistening coal? I am led to see this final work as the illustration of a sort of despair experienced at the limits of the cosmos. Am I wrong in imagining that?


We will never know what turn Borduas may have taken with his art; he died too young, just fifty-five years old. Does Composition 69 indicate a move toward a kind of reversal of black and white? His final, extremely simplified canvases suggest that a breakthrough toward hard-edge painting was not unthinkable for Borduas. But all this remains mere speculation. Borduas’s oeuvre culminates in an enigmatic painting, whose mystery is perfectly captured in Filion’s text. 

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