This painting by the Montreal abstract artist Paul-Émile Borduas (1905–1960) is a good example of an early Automatiste work: a movement that favoured a fluid technique and the stream of consciousness. Borduas did not say to himself, “I am going to paint a female torso”; he recognized the subject in an instant when the work was completed. This is one of forty-five gouaches shown at the Ermitage, an exhibition hall owned by the Collège de Montréal, at 3510 Côte-des-Neiges. No other exhibition space could be found for this work, then judged to be “surrealist” and very “abstract.” For a long time Study for Torso or No. 14 was titled simply “Abstraction.”


Paul-Émile Borduas, Study for Torso or No. 14, 1942

Paul-Émile Borduas, Study for Torso or No. 14 (Étude de torse ou No14), 1942

Gouache on paper, 57 x 41.8 cm, private collection

Study for Torso or No. 14 presented quite a challenge to two critics in 1942, Henri Girard and Charles Doyon, despite their receptiveness to “modern art.” Photographs taken at the exhibition capture the critics standing in front of Study for Torso with Borduas. It was only after the artist’s explanations that they understood the work. Borduas explained to them that Study for Torso takes the form of a standing figure, if not a portrait: that is, the vertical orientation of the composition reflects a format that he employed earlier in his figurative works.


This Spotlight is excerpted from Paul-Émile Borduas Life & Work by François-Marc Gagnon.

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