Flies on the Wall: Jean Paul Riopelle Goes Fishing
In addition to being one of the best-known Canadian painters in his own country and internationally during his lifetime, Jean Paul Riopelle (1923–2002) remains one of Canada's most important printmakers. His national stature was measured by his participation in two key events in modern Quebec history: the emergence of the Automatiste art movement, of which he was a member, and publication of the Refus global manifesto (1948), to which he was a signatory. The state funeral held for him in Montreal after he died at age 78 amply symbolized the province’s respect for him as an artist and the mark that he left on the society and cultural history of Quebec.
Riopelle’s large abstract “mosaic” canvases are uppermost in the Canadian collective imagination because he “painted” them not with a brush but with a palette knife; however, he was also a prolific printmaker, with some 300 prints produced over three decades. Beyond abstraction, nature and the animal kingdom were among his favourite subjects. There were, for instance, countless portrayals of owls in his paintings, prints, and sculptures. He explained their recurrent presence to author Gilles Daigneault this way: “If someone were to ask me why I’ve drawn two thousand owls, I’d say, it’s to make lithographs. But really, it’s having made those two thousand owls that interests me. Not because they’re owls. I couldn’t care less about owls. Nor are they symbols. I didn’t think about what they meant when I made them. I made them.”
Insects – especially flies – were another of Riopelle’s animal leitmotifs, especially between 1985 and 1991. In 1985 alone, he produced twenty-five etchings on the theme of flies, all dedicated to his friend Paul Marier, the Canadian fly-fishing champion and master of fly tying – an activity “that Riopelle thought of more and more as a true art,” writes Yseult Riopelle in her catalogue raisonné of her father’s prints. Marier, in turn, made a model of artificial fly that he called “Riopelle.”
In the eight-print set Les mouches à Marier [Marier’s Flies], included in the retrospective exhibition Riopelle: Crossroads in Time, Riopelle sought, specifically, to “record the eminently fleeting pattern made by the artificial fly when it touches the surface of the water,” a phenomenon that he had observed many, many times. “I’ve fished all my life,” he recounted in the catalogue raisonné published by Yseult Riopelle, “and when I was a child I fished with a line with no hook ... It’s the gesture that counts, a certain perfection of the gesture, a certain harmony with the world, and that goes very far.”
Both enigmatic and gently humorous, Les mouches à Marier [Marier’s Flies] gives the impression, Yseult Riopelle feels, of connecting with the “abstract” writing of the early etchings produced in 1967. About the etchings inspired by artificial flies produced from 1985 to 1991, she adds, “In that sense, these prints, small but impeccably made, summarize some key moments of a life devoted to creation.”
Les mouches à Marier [Marier’s Flies] exemplifies Riopelle’s idiosyncratic style, which was one of his fundamental contributions to the modern Canadian aesthetic. With their vibrant, animated compositions, the prints showcase his energetic expressiveness, his great talent as a colourist, and his superimposition technique. Indeed, each of the eight prints is the result of printing several matrices in two different formats on a single sheet of paper; the black is harmonized with at least two other colours – grey, green, yellow, blue, orange, ochre, or gold – each having been printed from its own plate. Riopelle’s infinite compositional variations are also highlighted in this set: marks, lines, borders, paper left untouched, and other printing forms and techniques are stitched together differently in each print of Les mouches à Marier.
Until recently, the National Gallery of Canada’s collections included only five of Riopelle’s prints – four from 1967 and one from 1976 – but the addition, in 2018, of one of the Les mouches à Marier sets (out of an edition of seventy-five) broadens the representation of his graphic production over the thirty years that he worked in the etching medium. These works join the twelve paintings and five drawings by Riopelle that were incorporated into our collections between 1954 and 2009.
Riopelle: Crossroads inTime is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until April 7, 2024. For a full listing of lectures and related events, see the Events page. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.