Trance, Dance, and Surrealism:

Françoise Sullivan & Les Automatistes in World War II-era Montréal


Toward the end of 1941, and in the midst of World War II, a group of art school students from the École des beaux-arts in Montréal and the École du meuble de Montréal gathered in the studio of painter and drawing teacher Paul-Émile Borduas. The students wanted to meet with Borduas to discuss the fine arts scene in Quebec and hear his news about the international Surrealist Movement and the exile of many surrealists from Vichy France. Among the students was the artist and dancer Françoise Sullivan, who went on to become one of the key members of the group that formed that night in Borduas’s studio, a network of artists that eventually came to be known as the Automatist movement (1941-54).


Although ‘Les Automatistes’ were profoundly influenced by surrealism, they also sought to distinguish themselves from the Surrealist Movement and “go further,” according to Sullivan, than any of the prior avant-garde experiments. This lecture will consider Françoise Sullivan’s decades-spanning artistic production in light of the history of the Surrealist Movement, focusing on the relationship of her dance works to surrealist psychic automatism, the surrealist interest in trance states, and the surrealist sabotage of the productivist mindset of capitalism. Exploring research discoveries made during her recent extended interview with Sullivan, art historian Abigail Susik will consider Sullivan’s work in relation to relevant examples of surrealist dance and performance by Hélène Vanel, Alice Farley, and Meret Oppenheim. How did Sullivan build on the lessons of Borduas and her interest in surrealism, all the while forging new pathways that diverge away from the history of surrealist dance and performance toward a unique medium of expression?



In her wide-ranging research devoted to modern and contemporary Art History and visual culture, Abigail Susik focuses on the intersection of international surrealism with anti-authoritarian protest cultures. She is the author of Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work (Manchester University Press, 2021) editor of Resurgence! Jonathan Leake, Radical Surrealism, and the Resurgence Youth Movement, 1964-1967 (Eberhardt Press, 2023), and coeditor of the volumes Surrealism and Film after 1945: Absolutely Modern Mysteries (Manchester University Press, 2021) and Radical Dreams: Surrealism, Counterculture, Resistance (Penn State University Press, 2022). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Review of Books, and she has contributed many essays to publications on the history of the avant-garde, including Surrealism Beyond Borders (Metropolitan Museum of Art; Tate Modern, 2021). Susik is a founding board member of the International Society for the Study of Surrealism and an Associate Professor of Art History at Willamette University.



This event is presented and made possible by the collaboration and support of the Centre International d’art contemporain de Montréal (Claude Gosselin) and McGill University. Support from the Department of Art History & Communication Studies (Christine Ross, Alexandra Jurecko), the McGill Visual Arts Collection (Gwendolyn Owens) and the McGill Library (Jacquelyn Sundberg), as well as the McGill Faculty of Law and Ross House, where the event is taking place.


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