Jean Paul Riopelle: A Life of Freedom and Visual Exploration
The exhibition Riopelle: Crossroads in Time is the first retrospective dedicated to artist Jean Paul Riopelle at the National Gallery of Canada since 1963, when he was celebrated with a large-scale solo exhibition. He had just received the UNESCO Prize upon his return from the Venice Biennale, where he represented the country in 1962. At the age of forty, he became the youngest artist to be honoured in this way by the Gallery, and for good reason: he was the first post-war Canadian artist to attain international status. During his lifetime, his works were on display in the great global centres of art, including Paris, New York, London, São Paulo, Turin and Oslo – not only mapping out an exceptional career, but earning him the unique position that he occupies in the Canadian art landscape.
Riopelle’s career began when he was a youth in Montreal, taking drawing and painting classes from Henri Bisson, a naturalist figurative sculptor and painter. Already, the young Jean Paul was a keen observer, showing a strong talent for line and a rare sense of colour. Later, at his father’s insistence, he studied at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, leaving after two years to briefly attend the École des beaux-arts, an institution swaddled in old-fashioned academism. Riopelle then enrolled at the École du meuble, where he met Paul-Émile Borduas, his teacher, and soon also his mentor. Some of his friends and classmates (almost as many women as men) were members of the Automatiste movement, and with them in 1948 he would sign Borduas’s Refus global manifesto, whose cover he designed.
During this period of political and social stasis in Quebec, which would later be called the Great Darkness, Refus global created a scandal and Borduas was fired from the École du meuble. Frustrated with the noxious atmosphere that stifled freedom of expression and creativity in all art disciplines – and because “travel served as an unexpected wake-up call,” as the manifesto noted – many signatories set off for New York or Paris. These trips to the great cultural metropolises led to the circulation of radical ideas about art. Riopelle decided to settle in France, where he lived for more than forty years before moving back to Quebec for good in 1990.
In Paris, Riopelle hoped to create freely, far from dogmas and diktats, and it was there, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, that he invented his own visual language, in the wake of his Automatiste period, a brief sojourn with post-war Late Surrealism and another with the artists of the Lyrical Abstraction movement. Important figures in Canadian, French and American art encouraged and supported him – his mentor Borduas, but also André Breton; art historian Georges Duthuit, who was a friend and son-in-law of Henri Matisse; many gallery owners; the art critic Pierre Schneider; and Pierre Matisse, his New York dealer.
Always eager to learn more about techniques, Riopelle admitted his unconditional admiration for artisans, such as the steel and copperplate engravers, printers and casters of bronze who supported his practice, as well as makers of art materials and tools. Outside of the studio, he was fond of race cars (a racing aficionado, he competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1958), motorcycles, small planes, downhill skiing (the speed!), and his sailboat the Sérica – a gift from Pierre Matisse. A peerless raconteur, Riopelle enjoyed rambling conversations with his comrades: the authors Antonin Artaud and Samuel Beckett, as well as the artists Alberto Giacometti, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva and Zao Wou-Ki – all iconic figures on the European art scene. He also formed friendships with the artists Sam Francis, Franz Kline and, of course, Joan Mitchell, who would be his companion for 24 years.
Riopelle was usually tight-lipped about his creative process, which may explain why there are few clues to understanding his approach and his complex yet seamless shifting from discipline to discipline. He preferred observers to look closely at his works, and he often sowed confusion, as he did when he abandoned oil painting to turn to new techniques and adopted a more figurative form of expression.
The narrative thread of this exhibition is paced by Riopelle’s creative cycles, as he dove headfirst into his work for intensely productive periods. His friend Pierre Schneider wrote, “Riopelle paints not with a clear head but by throwing himself into the fray. At no moment must thought be introduced into the creative act. If he is interrupted, he has to start all over again. He paints his canvases in one go, in a state resembling possession ... For Riopelle, creation takes place in a volcanic cycle: sudden, violent explosions, during which several dozen canvases are produced in one flow, punctuating periods of apparent inactivity. Nothing foretells the imminent eruption, except perhaps a bit of smoke above the crater: by this I mean series of watercolours and gouaches.”
Riopelle’s contemporary visual grammar, with its diverse sources of influence, also sometimes touched the artists of his time in unexpected ways. Works by Sam Francis, Alberto Giacometti, Roseline Granet, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock, and Françoise Sullivan are included in this retrospective to establish various correspondences and distinctions. These points of confluence with his fellow artists highlight Riopelle’s free-thinking side.
The exhibition presents key moments from Riopelle’s career, which extended over more than five decades, from the works of his youth, such as Le perroquet vert [The Green Parrot] (1949), to the final works in his life as an artist in the 1990s, such as Sans titre (Autour de Rosa) [Untitled (Around Rosa)] (1992), and naturally include Hommage aux Nymphéas – Pavane [Homage to Water Lilies – Pavane] (1954) and the sculpture L’ours [The Bear] (1969–70). Laid out chronologically, the exhibition highlights key turning points, such as Refus global, which is turning 75 this year, and his collaborations with Surrealist and Lyric Abstraction artists. Above all, however, it shows his overriding desire to leave the well-trodden paths of “schools” and “currents” behind, in order to gain as much freedom of expression as possible.
And, because Riopelle’s influence is still considerable, the exhibition highlights artists of later generations whose work offers formal, material, iconographic or metaphorical affinities with those of their predecessor. Thomas Corriveau, Patrick Coutu, Brian Jungen, Manuel Mathieu, Caroline Monnet, Marc-Antoine K. Phaneuf, Marc Séguin and Aïda Vosoughi present works that evoke, in turn, the deliberate or intuitive kinship with Riopelle that characterizes their respective approaches.
If Riopelle is a pillar of our history, it is because he was first and foremost a visionary and an explorer, and that is precisely what made him an eminently contemporary artist. In both the past and the present, Riopelle stands, in this sense, at a crossroads in time.
Riopelle: Crossroads in Time 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.