In the spring of 1949, the anglophone Montreal painter Paterson Ewen (1925–2002) attended a talk where he met Françoise Sullivan (b. 1923), a painter, dancer, and member of the Automatistes, a group of avant-garde Québécois artists. Ewen was completely taken by Sullivan, and she by him. Soon she introduced him to other Automatistes.
Inspired by the European Surrealist movement, they had released the Refus global in 1948. The manifesto advocated freedom by using the subconscious as a tool of liberation against the oppression of the Roman Catholic Church and the traditionalist conservative politics of Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis. The latter had dominated the political landscape from 1936 to 1959, a period referred to as La Grande Noirceur (The Great Darkness). Artistically, the Automatistes sought to develop an abstract language of the subconscious that avoided the perceived ineffectiveness of figurative analogy, just as the Abstract Expressionists were attempting to do in the United States.
The Automatistes had a profound impact on Ewen, who explained, “I integrated into the French side without completely losing the English side. [. . .] I would sit without taking part in the conversation all that much, but of course it was very enriching.” As can be seen in Portrait of Poet (Rémi-Paul Forgues), 1950, the influence of the Automatistes on Ewen’s work is not obvious at first; his work remains figurative. However, stylistically his brushwork becomes far looser, to the point that one strains at times to identify specific objects in a scene, and he begins to experiment with colour combinations and contrasts that recall those in the abstract paintings of the French Canadian artists. The Automatistes recognized this affinity, writing favourably about Ewen’s figurative paintings and inviting him to exhibit with them.
By the fall of 1949 Sullivan was pregnant, and she and Ewen married in December. The following year, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts chose two of Ewen’s works for its 67th Annual Spring Exhibition, held in March. The jury, however, rejected all of the Automatistes’ submissions, except one by Paul-Émile Borduas (1905–1960). The group countered with its own show, L’Exposition des Rebelles, which included a couple of Ewen’s landscapes. Borduas and Ewen were the only artists represented in both exhibitions, and these were the first public showings of Ewen’s art.
Ewen painted his first abstract work near the end of 1954. His involvement with the Automatistes certainly contributed to his move away from the figurative, though he could never paint as spontaneously as they did since he always needed structure to form his images. Nor could he fully embrace the hard-edged geometric canvases of the Plasticien painters, led by Guido Molinari (1933–2004).
Nevertheless, or maybe because of this, Ewen moved fluidly between the waning Automatistes and the emerging Plasticiens. He showed his abstract work for the first time publicly at Espace 55, organized by Claude Gauvreau (1925–1971) at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Soon afterwards he exhibited at Molinari’s newly opened Galerie L’Actuelle, and he became a founding member of the Non-Figurative Artists’ Association of Montréal that Molinari helped create in February 1956.
Over the next ten years Ewen’s artistic output was limited but nevertheless impressive. But by the mid-1960s his family life was crumbling, and in November 1966, Ewen and Sullivan formally separated. Ewen fell into a deep depression. He would eventually seek treatment in London, Ontario, where he underwent electroconvulsive therapy, with encouraging results. He had thoughts of returning to Montreal and rejoining his wife and family, but his doctor strongly advised against it. Ewen decided to settle in London, where teaching and connections to a thriving regional art scene would provide stability as he carried the influences of his abstract work into new, figurative, realms.
This Essay is excerpted from Paterson Ewen: Life & Work by John G. Hatch.