Jean-Paul Riopelle, "Abstract Composition(detail)," oil on canvas, 1950 IMAGE COURTESY MASTERS GALLERY, CALGARY
JEAN-PAUL RIOPELLE (1923–2002)
Taken from a purely intellectual point of view, Jean-Paul Riopelle led a charmed life. Present for a remarkable number of monumental creative discoveries during the 20th century, his work reflected the zeitgeist of a mid-century Parisian aesthetic that combined favourably with his Canadian roots. Quite possibly the most recognized internationally of any Quebec-born artist, his work still strongly resonates both in that province and across the country.
Born in Montreal in 1923, during his early studies he fell under the mentorship of the painter Paul-Émile Borduas, who himself was deeply influenced by the Surrealist work of French writer André Breton. Still in Montreal, they were experimenting with an art form that was based in free association, and moving further and further from the decorative and figurative work that both Borduas and Riopelle had been doing.
The intellectual climate was heating up in the late 1940s, and artists and writers were experimenting at an increasingly hectic pace — creatively and politically. Borduas, the leader of a group of young Quebec artists, wrote a manifesto, Le Refus Global, and got all his friends to sign it. The work essentially rejected all the norms of Quebec society — the moral, social, and particularly religious underpinnings of the culture.
In the midst of the uproar, Riopelle decamped to Paris for the life of a destitute painter, albeit one who was mixing readily with the likes of post WWII Paris-based artists in-cluding Marc Chagall, Alberto Giacometti and the expat Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Riopelle had been slowly moving from the Surrealist style to a bolder approach to abstract expressionism. During the 1950s, he was producing large-scale canvases that exploded with colour and a non-linear patterning, much of it achieved with great chunks of paint ap-plied directly to the canvas by palette knife and paint tube.
Riopelle was rightfully considered a master of the technique, and translated it into thickly textured paintings, large mosaics, sculptures and clay murals that were almost all well-received. Beginning in the late 1960s, he returned frequently to Canada, the hometown hero during a heady time in Quebecois culture. Electing to stay semi-permanently in Canada beginning in the 1980s, in the early 1990s he created his last great work, a tribute to his long-term partner and love, the American painter Joan Mitchell. Called Homage à Rosa Luxembourg, it’s a 45-metre-long fresco, much of it painted with spray paint, that is now in the permenent collection of the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec.
When Riopelle was living in Paris in the late 1940s, experiencing the intellectually and creatively stimulating life of a struggling artist, he rented studio space from a family. He didn’t have money for rent, so gave them this canvas, Abstract Composition, in payment. The family held on to the painting for 57 years, but as they were thinking of selling last year, the painting came to the attention of Rod Green, owner of Calgary’s Masters Gallery.
Arrangements were made to ship the painting to Montreal, and Green flew there to examine it. “I made an offer — in excess of $1 million, which the Paris family accepted,” Green recalls. “I presented the painting to Calgary clients the day it arrived, and the painting was sold. It was an absolute privilege to bring this back to Canada, a Riopelle work of this quality and rarity.”
— Jill Sawyer