Fifty years ago, on August 9, 1948, a startling document was published in Montreal. Refus global (“Total Rejection”) was an angry, poetic declaration of aesthetic independence, an assertion of passionate belief in modernism and even more in intellectual freedom. Most of the sixteen signers were painters, but they also included a poet, a dancer, and a medical student, all now celebrated names in the annals of Canadian culture. Most were under thirty, but the author of the manifesto’s most inflammatory essay, Paul-Emile Borduas, was about twenty years older, a profoundly serious and accomplished painter, trained as an academic church decorator, whose unequivocally modernist works derived from sources as diverse as Matisse and Rouault.

The signers of Refus global had come together informally in the early 1940s when many of them were students at the Ecole du Meuble, a school for cabinetmakers and craftsmen...

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