Marcel Barbeau was born in Montreal on February 18th, 1925. Between 1942 and 1947, he studied painting and sculpture with Paul-Emile Borduas at the Ecole du Meuble in Montréal, where he was a student in furniture design. At that time and until 1953, he regularly visited his master’s studio where he met other young artists and intellectuals, all members of the Automatistes. As a member of that major Canadian contemporary art movement, he participated in all exhibitions featuring the group and signed its manifesto,”Total refusal”. Some art historians consider that he was and remains its most innovative artist. He also was a junior member of Montreal Society of Contemporary Art with which he exhibited between 1945 to 1948.
From 1958 to 1974 and 1991 to 1996, he lived and worked in the United States and in Europe. Visiting New York (1951) and San Francisco (1957), he met with some artists from the Abstract Expressionists movement and the Pacific School. In Paris, he met again with Fernand Leduc from the Automatists’ group and he associated with minimalist and cinetic artists from Galerie Iris Clert where he exhibited. Among these artists, Lucio Fontana signed an introduction for his one-man show catalogue at Iris Clert gallery. In New York, Barbeau consorted with members of the french cinetic movement, GRAV (Groupe de recherche d’art visuel), and exhibited with the American op art school throughout the United States. After his retrospective show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1969, he spent a year in Southern California where he created photography and sculpture projects. While living in France between 1971 and 1974, he started his major series of monumental sculptures and did his first performances. Since then, he shares his time between painting and sculpture. In 1991, he returned to Paris where he then worked for a few months, annually until the spring of 1996. In the fall of that year, he established himself in Bagnolet, a Paris suburb, continuing to visit Canada each summer.
Mainly known as a painter, he has been involved in most visual art Media: drawing, sculpture, print, photography and performance. He has created many monumental works. His art has been exhibited in Canada, in the United States, in Europe and in Northern Africa where he had many one man shows. He has also participated in several international exhibitions. His works have been widely commented on in newspapers, magazines, catalogues and art books published in Canada, France and United States and in a fully illustrated monography, Marcel Barbeau: Fugato/ Le regard en fugue, published by CECA (Montréal, 1991), and in France at the Cercle d’art (Paris, 1994). He was also the subject of a few art films and videos among which renown film maker Manon Barbeau’s Barbeau “Libre comme l’art”. This was a 49 minutes film on his work and career co-produced by Informaction and National Film Board of Canada (2000).
In 1963, he received the Zack Purchase Prize from the Royal Canadian Academy. In 1973, he was given a Lynch-Staunton Foundation Grant by Canada Council. In 1985, he was awarded the sculpture purchase award of the McDonald Canada Art Competition. He was invited to join the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in August 1992. In 1995, he received the Order of Canada as an officer(?). In 1998, Canada Post reproduced one of his works on a stamp as part of its series in honor of the automatist painters, signatories of the manifesto Total refusal. He was the special guest artist at the 2003 Montreal Jazz Festival which published a limited numbered print, Django Blue, on this occasion.
His works are in many private, public and corporate collections in Canada, in the United States and in Europe among which are: the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), the British Museum (London), the Chrysler Art Gallery (Norfolk, Virginia), the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts (Lyon, France), the National Gallery of Canada ( Ottawa), the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Montreal), the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (Montreal), Quebec National Fine Arts Museum (Quebec), the Rose Art Museum,(Waltham, N.J.) and the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam).
In 2018, the National Museum of Fine Arts of Quebec honored Marcel Barbeau by presenting a major retrospective of his works entitled Marcel Barbeau: En mouvement.