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Jean-Paul Riopelle, "Chicago II," 1958, oil on canvas. Collection of Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec. Cession á la faveur d’une contribution spécial du ministère de la Culture et des Communications du Québec. ©Estate of Jean-Paul Riopelle/SODRAC (2010).
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Jean-Paul Riopelle, "Sans titre," 1950, oil on canvas, Private Collection © Estate of Jean-Paul Riopelle/SODRAC (2010).
JEAN-PAUL RIOPELLE, The Glory of Abstraction
May 15 to Aug 1, 2010
By Richard White
Who knew Calgary art collectors are hoarding more than 30 Jean-Paul Riopelle paintings? Monique Westra, former Senior Art Curator at the Glenbow Museum and Rod Green (owner) Master’s Gallery did…and they combined forces to create an inspiring exhibition of one of Canada’s most important mid-century artists.
Though the exhibition was curated and hung according to four themes - Lyrical, Dynamic, Rigorous and Explosive - I am not sure there is any discernable difference for the average viewer, other than the Lyrical watercolours being different because of their media. What the exhibition does clearly demonstrate however is the vigour of Riopelle’s artistic vision in the 1950s. Each of the works, small and large (and some being very large, 10 ft by 10ft), resonates brilliantly with colour, movement, energy and texture to reflect a pure passion for paint and painting.
After wandering randomly amongst the artworks for 20 minutes, the work evolved away from pure abstraction to more impressionism. While most of the works are untitled, I noticed some had very specific titles – Rocky Island, Frigate’s Point and, Chicago II. These titled works were paintings of places, not pure abstractions. The more I looked at works likeUntitled (1956), the more I was reminded of Google earth images I have looked at over the past several years. Like pixels just before they come into focus, Riopelle’s palette knife marks of greens, greys, blues, whites, reds and yellows create an impressionistic image of the world from 20,000 feet.
Chicago II (1958) was even more impressionistic - the bottom left hand corner looked like blue water with reflections that could well be Chicago’s waterfront as seen from the air. As your eye moves into the center of the work, you see areas of green (parks?) and whites, greys and black (buildings?) that could be the city centre. Then there is the omnipresent red (a colour presents in almost every Riopelle work). The more I studied the red slashes, the more they appeared to be linked to each other and not just random marks. A chance glance to the right resulted in spotting a small work with a similar red motif. When I went to look at it, I was surprised at the title - Red Horse. Looking back at Chicago II, the red images in it now looked very much like a large red horse woven into the complex composition. It was then that I also realized Riopelle’s work was evoking some of the same awareness of the man/animal/nature triangle I experienced at the Ron SpickettSpirit Matters retrospective last year (Nickle Museum, Calgary).
This led me to making more connections between Riopelle and other Canadian artists. The watercolourComposition, 1954 reminded me of some of the mixed-media works of Jack Shadbolt, as well as some of the ink drawings of Marion Nicoll, Calgary’s pioneer abstract artist. Riopelle’s colour, sense of movement and rhythm, prompted me to think of the works of western Canada’s iconic painter Emily Carr. Later, wandering into theGlenbow’s Modernist Art: Glenbow Collection exhibition, I found works by Harry and Roy Kiyooka, Gershon Iskowitz, David Milne and Ted Godwin that shared Riopelle’s bold hybridization of the abstraction and impressionism. There was even a Riopelle and Paul-Emile Bordaus (Riopelle’s teacher) paintings hung side-by-side. I couldn’t help but wonder why there was no reference in the brochure. While the curatorial notes were useful for those unfamiliar with Riopelle’s painting process, they did little to provide new insights on Riopelle’s influence nationally and internationally – an unfortunate missed opportunity given his work has obviously been an inspiration for Canadian painters (and I expect European, given he spent a significant part of his life in France) over the past 50 years.
Imagine if all of the collectors (private and corporate) were to bequeath their Riopelles to the Glenbow Museum so they could establish a permanent gallery to showcase his work to the world. Imagine how this would position the Glenbow Museum as a major contemporary art gallery. Imagine.
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