segunda-feira, 9 de maio de 2022

RAY ELLENWOOD | Françoise Sullivan and the question of myth


The Automatist group spoke often of the need to find a new myth capable of replacing the Judeo-Christian one they considered moribund. The publishing house that Maurice Perron established on behalf of the group to bring out Refus global [1] was named Mithra-Mythe, evoking the name of a Persian god adopted and adapted by the Romans. The word “myth” was included by Borduas in his “Comments on Some Current Words,” one of the three texts he contributed to Refus global:


At a given moment in human knowledge, a myth is the most perfect symbol of a mysterious, clear and constant reality. A symbol expressing the known and unknown of this object itself, placing it in a total context.

Past errors should not be blamed on myth from its birth to maturity, but on power groups who us it in a fossilized form, exploiting its past glory during a period when it should be replaced. Thus they maintain relationships which have become untenable, for the sake of shameless exploitation, and they retard the evolution of sensitivity.

We are tired of this stalling. Glory be to fresh relations! [2]


Looking back to the moment of the publication of Refus global from a distance of twenty years, in his “L’épopée automatiste vue par un cyclope” (The Automatist Epic as Seen by a Cyclops), the poet and critic Claude Gauvreau commented:


The automatists envisioned the universal “poetic treasure” as the source, the leaven, for a total renewal of emotional well-springs, a renewal capable of engendering a new civilization. We certainly weren’t aiming to spend our time on superficial, inoffensive aesthetic games. Anything that causes unrestricted freedom of thought is not ‘formalism.’ [. . . .] Borduas stated categorically that a new civilization with its unpredictable myth could only grow from a radical renewal of emotional sources. [3]


It is within this context that we should read Françoise Sullivan’s contribution to Refus global: her essay “La danse et l’espoir,” presented first to a small audience in the Gauvreau family apartment a few months before the publication of the manifesto. In it, she deplores the rigidity of academic dance and calls for a rediscovery of spontaneity in the individual, and in ancient traditions: “What we must do is reactivate the surcharge of expressive energy stored in that marvelous instrument, the human body. We must rediscover, in the light of our present needs, truths known to ancient, primitive and oriental peoples, truths made concrete in the dances of shamans, whirling dervishes or Tibetan tumblers, truths striking our senses through specific means.” [4] Dance, she observes, has been an integral part of religious cultures, including Christianity, but with increased secularization has come decadence and decay that can only be cured by a return to instinctive, unconscious sources of energy: “[T]he dancer must liberate the energies of his body through movements that are spontaneously directed to him. He can do so by putting himself in a state of receptivity similar to that of a medium. Through the violence of the forces at work, he may even reach a trance-like state and make contact with the points of magic.” [5] Relating more specifically to the vocabulary of her fellow-signatories of Refus global, she goes on to assert that, “[t]hrough automatism, the dancer rediscovers in his body these points and tensions, and as he follows his own individual impulses and dynamism, his work goes beyond the individual towards the universal.” [6]

The Montreal group’s interest in myth and antiquity can itself be seen in a larger context. French Surrealists had been searching since the late 1920s for ways of reinvigorating myth in contemporary society, hoping to find direction and stimulus in ancient and aboriginal cultures. Starting in 1926, the new Galerie surréaliste in Paris began showing objects from Oceania, Africa and the Americas, along with the Surrealists’ own work. [7] Kurt Seligmann and Wolfgang Paalen were the first Surrealists to travel to the north-west coast of North America in 1938 and 1939, observing, filming, collecting interviews and artifacts of many kinds, eventually publishing accounts in Minotaur and Dyn. [8] With the outbreak of war, an important cluster of French intellectuals associated with Surrealism ended up in New York, befriending the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and beginning a feverish collection of West-Coast Amerindian and Inuit artifacts while contributing to the magazine VVV, in the first number of which (June, 1942) André Breton asked the question, “What should we think of the postulate ‘no society without a social myth’; to what extent can we choose or adopt and impose a myth we consider desirable for our society?” The fourth number of the same magazine (February, 1944) included a set of three letters by Patrick Waldberg, Robert Lebel, and Georges Duthuit under the general title of “Vers un nouveau myth? Prémonitions et défiances” (Towards a New Myth? Premonitions and Distrust). And we shouldn’t forget that, through the efforts of Fernand Leduc in 1943, the nascent Automatist group had contacted Breton and taken subscriptions to VVV. It’s safe to say that, prior to the publication of Refus global, investigations of myth were “in the air.” Indeed, Myth was the stated theme of the 1947 International Surrealist Exhibition, which would have included the Montreal group had Borduas not turned down André Breton’s invitation. In the catalogue to that exhibition, Georges Bataille published a text suggesting that the absence of myth was indeed the central myth of contemporary society. [9]

Whether or not Françoise Sullivan knew all the details of this broad, international fascination, when she went to study dance in New York, in the autumn of 1945, she eventually chose the studio of Franziska Boas, daughter of the famed anthropologist, Franz Boas, well known for his studies of West-Coast aboriginals and their culture, and for his defense of the potlatch against Canadian government intervention. The Boas studio was cooperative, anti-racist, and politically idealistic in its intentions. As Allana Lindgren explains in her book on Sullivan and the Boas Group, “Boas simultaneously wanted students to learn what anthropology had to offer dance and encouraged them to attend her anthropological seminars in order to learn about the various social functions of dance and movement. To this end, in Boas’ classes, the so-called primitive was a point of departure from the aesthetic references and standards of Western dance forms.” [10] To this environment, Françoise Sullivan brought the new, spontaneous abstract paintings of her Montreal friends, hanging the work in the dancestudio in January, 1946 (their first showing outside Canada), and carried back with her to Montreal elements of the spirit and technique of Boas, ready to develop her own expressions, not only in the dances she choreographed and performed, but in such public statements as “Dance and Hope.”

Is it necessary for artists moving in the direction of abstraction to forgo the tools that have traditionally been used in the presentation of myth: depiction, narration, allusion? How can they talk of myth if they can’t incorporate it or illustrate it in some way? Most of the painters of the Automatist group would probably have answered, “Our work is part of the creation and expression of a new myth.” This, I believe, must be seen as perhaps related to, but not the same as the modernist “primitivism” that Louise Vigneault sees in the early works of Borduas and Françoise Sullivan (whose subjects or titles occasionally relate to indigenous peoples or cultural forms), or in the shape-shifting, hunter-trapper roles of Riopelle. [11] But most of the members of the group, no matter what their art form, did not seem overly concerned about the whole question. Françoise Riopelle and Jeanne Renaud, for example, Sullivan’s friends and fellow dancer-choreographers, never seem to have been interested in ancient or mythological subjects. Still, there may have been some discomfort in turning one’s back on a rich cultural heritage, an important element of the universal “poetic treasure” that Borduas and Claude Gauvreau talked about. This may have been what Riopelle felt when he began introducing masks, totemic animals, and Inuit string games into his work, beginning in the mid-1950s. [12] And it may account for a kind of alternating current in Françoise Sullivan’s visual art and dance: periods of complete non-figuration, and others when various forms of allusion to antiquity and myth are an integral element. As early as 1949, she was choreographing works with titles such as Lucrèce, Gothique, and Femme archaïque (also the title of a painting on wood by Jean Paul Mousseau which inspired the opening and closing stance of the dancer). In the version of Femme archaïque reconstructed for Dance Collection Danse in 1988, body positions and movements of the dancer recalled medieval depictions of women, and the music was of that period. Even Dédale, perhaps her most resolutely free-form choreography (often seen as the equivalent in dance to her friends’ painterly abstraction), evokes in its title the myths of Daedalus and the labyrinth. It’s true that when she began sculpting in metal and plexiglas, in the 1960s, there were no signs of such references, no figurative hints at all, as there were none when she returned to “pure” painting in the late 1990s with her large, colour field abstractions, but it is safe to say that these periods are the exception, and that throughout her career, particularly in the middle years, we see regular evocations of myth and antiquity. At times, the references are directly to specific figures, as in the ambiguous presence of Apollo among oil tanks in a 1974 photographic montage, or of Heracles and Prometheus in paintings of the early 1990s. But more often, and more extensively, Sullivan evokes antiquity and myth through particular, ritual performances without any direct reference to known mythical or historical events, or else she creates a distinct iconography based on historical/mythological figures. For example, in various settings, she performs or choreographs the blocking and unblocking of doors and windows, or the arrangements of stones or other objects, usually in circles, sometimes as an individual documented action, sometimes as part of a dance movement. The settings, the materials, the ritual actions evoke a kind of antiquity without specific depiction. [13] At roughly the same time, particularly in the 1980s, what one might call “generic” mythical figures begin to appear in her extensive series entitled Cycle crétois: the serpent, the goat or goat-man. Some of them are later etched in stone in Montagnes, the large installation made for a building of l’Université du Québec à Montréal in 1997.

 For me, a major work by Sullivan that weaves together a number of thematic threads from her visual and choreographic art, all having to do with the natural world, antiquity and myth, is a lengthy, dramatic and visually fascinating piece entitled Et la nuit, à la nuit. It was performed in 1981 by Le groupe de danse de Françoise Sullivan, with thirteen dancers, intricate percussive, whistled, stringed music by Rober Racine, and extraordinary costumes. It has not been staged since 1981, and a film documenting it, directed by Yves Racicot under the auspices of Michele Febvre and the audio-visual services of l’UQAM, has been difficult to find. [14]

At the very beginning of the piece, and at two later intervals, the natural world is represented by two dancers identified as “Mountain” and “Stream.” To perform “Mountain” a female dancer rises up within a large, cone-shaped pile of material with green and earth colours over black, her torso and outstretched arms topped by a long-necked mask that may suggest, but does not replicate, African or North-American artifacts. Around her tumbles and rolls a male dancer with ribbons perhaps suggesting ripples of water. This is followed by the entry and procession of the “Godesses” wearing full-length skin-coloured body suits with the hips and thighs padded so they resemble prehistoric sculptured fertility figures. They move slowly, undulating their hips and torsos, at once sensual and stately. They wear elaborate headdresses made of materials such as twigs, scraps of cloth, and twine, very sculptural and somehow reminiscent of the materials of Sullivan’s Tondo and Cretan cycles. [15] The male dancers, the “Hunters,” who at times also wear head gear, are much more gymnastic in their movements, sometimes with an aggressive, militaristic quality. There is a thematic movement in the work, not an obvious narrative, but something like an allegorical progression beginning with a tranquil state where the actions suggest hunting, various kinds of work or ceremony, as well as domestic activities, punctuated with erotic moments. There is much carrying, moving, and arranging of stones in circles, with energetic, free-form dances within and around those circles resembling Sullivan’s accumulation performance and dances of years earlier, with movements in individual dances echoing right back to Femme archaïque. After a second appearance of “Mountain” and “Stream” these movements begin to turn into frenzied activity with the dancers carrying cases of Molson beer, hockey sticks, brief cases, eventually pushing large, cardboard packing crates in a kind of gross parody of contemporary life (it shouldn’t be forgotten that, from beginning to end, the dance is full of homour). When “Mountain” arises during this movement, she waves her arms and shakes her bare breasts like a frantic topless dancer.

But in the last movement, things slow down again as the goddesses return with bundles of sticks on their heads, stately once more, and “Mountain” is once again wearing her totemic mask. We have not come full circle, but we are reminded of the earlier scenes. At this moment, a woman enters with a basket on her head, which she places on the ground and from which she takes young rabbits, letting them hop on the stage. In the original performance (but not in the filmed one) she is naked and fully pregnant. [16] So the dance ends, as I read it, with a re-fusion of the natural and human world, ancient, mythical, and modern; a re-assertion of primal fertility. As Françoise Sullivan explained in a note published as part of the printed program for the 1981 performance:


The wish to return to a point of origin has drawn me into evoking primordial times when Nature, in its total impact, was perceived directly. Et la nuit à la nuit was conceived in a state of semi-consciousness and built around several key images.


With the mountain, the stream, the godesses, I try to recreate for a moment a climate of emotion, of innocence and intensity, which are part of my subjective evocation of this epoch, when ritual, magic and art were intermingled. These became a power and a transformer which gave meaning to daily activity.

This piece seems to me unique in Sullivan’s œuvre, resisting comparison or even analogy with dances or artworks done by other members of the Automatist group, with the possible exception of Riopelle. It seems to draw on all aspects of her creation from the earliest years, in visual art and dance, and illustrates perfectly a remark by Annie Gérin that there is “a remarkable coherence in [Sullivan’s] work; her dance, sculpture, performance, and painting all coalesce around issues of primal energy, movement, improvisation, and art’s relationship to its environment, whether that be natural, urban, psychological, cultural, or social, always affirming life and freedom.” [17] This does not involve a depiction of specific myths in the classical manner, or the reproduction of recognized mythical objects, but a kind or apprehension of timeless myth that seeks a variety of ways, often ritualistic in quality, to communicate itself.



1. Refus global is the title used for a small collection of texts, illustrated artworks and photographs published by the Automatist group in 1948. It is also the title used for the manifesto, written by Borduas and signed by 15 others, that became the first text in that publication. Adopting the method of Sophie Dubois, in Refus global: Histoire d’une réception partielle (2017), I will use italics for the title of the book, and quotation marks for individual texts, such as Borduas’ “Refus global” and Françoise Sullivan’s “La danse et l’espoir.”

2. Paul-Émile Borduas, trans. Ray Ellenwood, “Comments on Some Current Words,” in Total Refusal/Refus global (Toronto: Exile Editions, 2009).

3. Claude Gauvreau, “L’épopée automatiste vue par un cyclope,” in Écrits sur l’art, ed. Gilles Lapointe (Montréal: L’Hexagone, 1996). Originally published in 1969, in the periodical La barre du jour.

4. “Dance and Hope” trans. Ray Ellenwood, in Refus global/Total Refusal.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. See the Introduction by Dawn Ades to the catalogue The Colour of my dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2011.

8. See Marie Mauzé, “Odes à l’art de la côte Nord-Ouest: Surréalisme et ethnographie,” Gradhiva, 26 (2017).

9. See Georges Bataille, The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism, ed. and trans. Michael Richardson (London, New York: Verso, 1994).

10. Allana Lindgren, From Automatism to Modern Dance: Françoise Sullivan with Franziska Boas in New York (Toronto: Dance Collection Danse, 2003), 95. Lindgren’s research in the Boas archives helps place Boas in the context of modern American dance and social movements, as well as showing interesting similarities and differences in thinking between the Boas Group and the Automatist group forming in Montreal.

11. Louise Vigneault, Identity et modernité dans l’art au Québec: Borduas, Sullivan, Riopelle (Montréal: Éditions Hurtubise, 2012).

12. For more information on the Surrealist-oriented artists and writers in New York during the war, and their eventual impact on Riopelle, see Ray Ellenwood, “Masks, The North, and New Configurations,” to be published in Volume Five of the Riopelle catalogue raisonné.

13. We are lucky to have this document, though Françoise Sullivan insists that the light needed for filming made it impossible to show the darkness of the stage version, which lived up to the title of the work.

14. These stunning and highly original costumes are the work of Louise Marien for head pieces, and of Lucie Matte and Sylvie Resquin for the costumes. They were inspired by descriptions and suggestions given by Françoise Sullivan, based on the types of ancient figurines and cave drawings illustrated on the programme/pamphlet handed out at the time of the performance.

15. This was Ginette Laurin who, although she did not take part in the filmed performance of the dance, was present as one of the “godesses” throughout the stage performances. Photographs of the dance, including the final moment with Ginette Laurin, were reproduced in the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art’s cataloque Françoise Sullivan: Retrospective (Québec: Ministère des Affaires Culturelles, 1981).

16. Annie Gérin, Françoise Sullivan, Life and Work (Toronto: Art Canada Institute, 2018). 


RAY ELLENWOOD | A retired professor of English, York University, and author of ten books of translation, French-to-English, mostly of Quebec literature, including the manifesto, Refus global, by the Montreal Automatist Movement. Besides a number of articles and shorter translations related to the movement, he published Egregore: A History of the Automatist Movement of Montreal (Toronto: Exile Editions, 1992) of which a French translation by Jean Antonin Billard was published in 2014 in Montreal by Kétoupa Édition and les éditions du passage. Among his most recent publications are an essay on Françoise Sullivan and myth, for the catalogue of a 2018-19 retrospective exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, and an introductory article for the fifth volume of the Jean Paul Riopelle Catalogue raisonné, published in 2020 by Hibou Éditeurs.


FLORIANO MARTINS (Fortaleza, 1957). Poeta, editor, ensaísta, artista plástico e tradutor. Criou em 1999 a Agulha Revista de Cultura. Curador dos projetos Atlas Lírico da América Hispânica, da revista Acrobata, e Conexão Hispânica, da Agulha Revista de Cultura. Realizou inúmeras capas de livros. Curador da Bienal Internacional do Livro do Ceará (Brasil, 2008), e membro do júri do Prêmio Casa das Américas (Cuba, 2009), Concurso Nacional de Poesia (Venezuela, 2010) e Prêmio Anual da Fundação Biblioteca Nacional (Brasil, 2015). Professor convidado da Universidade de Cincinnati (Ohio, Estados Unidos, 2010). Tradutor de livros de César Moro, Federico García Lorca, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Vicente Huidobro, Hans Arp, Alfonso Peña, Juan Calzadilla, Enrique Molina, Jorge Luis Borges, Aldo Pellegrini e Pablo Antonio Cuadra. Entre seus livros mais recentes se destacam Antes que a árvore se feche (poesia completa, Brasil, 2020), 120 noites de Eros - Mulheres surrealistas (ensaio, Brasil, 2020), Naufrágios do tempo (novela, com Berta Lucía Estrada, 2020), Las mujeres desaparecidas (poesia, Venezuela, 2021), e Un día fui Aurora Leonardos (poesia, Ecuador, 2022).


Agulha Revista de Cultura


Número 208 | maio de 2022

Artista convidado: Floriano Martins (Brasil, 1957)

editor geral | FLORIANO MARTINS |

editor assistente | MÁRCIO SIMÕES |

concepção editorial, logo, design, revisão de textos & difusão | FLORIANO MARTINS

ARC Edições © 2022 





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