Marcel Barbeau: Painter was a Quebec pioneer of abstract art

“I like to surprise and be surprised, because each surprise reveals a little more of the beauty of the world.” So said Quebec artist Marcel Barbeau, who spent his life searching for the unexpected in paintings, sculptures and collaborations with performers.

Mr. Barbeau died Jan. 2 in a Montreal retirement home at the age of 90, severely stricken by Parkinson’s disease but involved in art-making almost till his last hour. His work during a celebrated career of seven decades passed through many phases and transformations, but was abstract from beginning to end.

He was a signatory of Refus global, a 1948 artists’ manifesto seen by many in Quebec as a harbinger of the Quiet Revolution, and was one of the cross-disciplinary Montreal artists known as the Automatistes. His first forays into action painting in the 1940s may have predated those of Jackson Pollock. Mr. Barbeau literally danced some of his works into creation, flitting before a huge canvas while making rapid spontaneous daubs with a brush on a pole. Film footage of him doing this, while musicians or dancers improvised nearby, is still fascinating to see, decades after the event.

Fiercely independent, he pursued his devotion to his art through many life challenges, including periodic poverty and bipolar disorder, which “affected a large part of his life,” according to Marie-Ève Tanguay, a gallery professional who worked for him.

Mr. Barbeau was born on Feb. 18, 1925, into the working-class Montreal family of Philippe and Elisabeth (née St-Antoine) Barbeau. Young Marcel lost his father at the age of 3, and was partly raised by an uncle who owned a grocery. He began drawing as a child and, at 18, while learning carpentry at the École du meuble, met the artist Paul-Émile Borduas, a teacher at the school. Mr. Borduas had trained to be a church painter, but had recently begun making spontaneous gestural works based on the “automatic drawing” practice of some European Surrealists.