The Canadian Art Database

John K. Grande

Jean-Paul Riopelle: Nature in Abstraction

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Nov. 16, 2000 - March 18, 2001

[ 695 words ]

Newly arrived back from Europe as a teenager, I remember my first encounters with Jean-Paul Riopelle's work at the then National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, an old office building on Elgin St. Along with Borduas, Riopelle figured to my mind, to be an abstractionist who embodied a whole different set of landscape cues than the Europeans painters I had recently come to know as an art world novice. I am talking about Ivon Hitchens, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash, to name a few. Riopelle's vigorous, explosive style appealed to my youthful enthusiasm, just as did Jackson Pollock's encursions into spiritual jazzy abstraction. The difference between a Pollock and a Riopelle, to my mind, had a lot to do with the Canadian landscape, and the Canadian artist's attitude to the land, whether abstract or figurative. It was different. Vive la différence!

While the post-war European painters saw the landscape as a somewhat foreign or idyllic visual terrain they could play with thematically, American painters seemed to want to revere the power of nature by formalizing the land's wild and spiritual aspects (as if these could ever be contained, controlled or systematized). Jackson Pollock, the country boy from Cody, Wyoming who became the big city abstractionist is the primal example. American abstraction did capture the unseen mystery of nature's force, but why the need to dominate it, capture it all by making the visual vocabulary so mechanically prescribed? (Mark Rothko still is a delightful exception.)

Jean-Paul Riopelle's Canadian tableaux embodied something completely different. They captured the energy of nature that is an integral part of the life of Quebec — that rural image. It could be those aerosol spray painted geese we see in the 150 foot long Hommage à Rosa Luxembourg (1992) now at the Musée du Québec, or those splayed abstract collisions and agglomerations of palette-knife work from the 1950s and 1960s.

We must remember, as Northrop Frye recognized in The Bush Garden, that for Canadians, nature is what has historically surrounded us from all sides. Something of that legacy, that memory, that presence seems to explode out of all Riopelle's best canvasses. There is always this unbridled sense that landscape as a core source that cannot be controlled, and its joyful energy, that is inherent to the language of Riopelle's painting. This is that life, this nature, that landscape - Canadian and/or Quebec (take your pick) that once surrounded us, and still does. We know it can never be controlled, just as Riopelle never ultimately controls the outcome of his compositions. It all comes together miraculously as if by accident. You can almost hear the sound of migrating geese in the later Riopelle's, the ones that follow his return to Quebec from the Paris Galerie Maeght experience.

As a Refus Global co-signator in 1948, Riopelle became better known than its progenitor Paul-Emile Borduas, particularly outside Quebec. Yet his art always carried traces of that groundswell sea change in Canadian art that the Refus represented. Riopelle's untitled watercolours from the 1940s have a fluid, almost surreal aspect to them. The abstract paintings from the late 1940s through to the 1960s almost look like aerial views of the northern panorama as seen from an airplane. There is this feeling of space, of movement, of forms and colours shifting in time, as though one were moving or hovering above them. Riopelle's art likewise epitomizes that explosive energy that is nature in microcosm, unbridled, uncontrolled, largely invisible and unperceived. Raw transient energy and not that refined. A superb sense of colour, harmony and balance. Resourceful. Textural. Textures that collide with other textures to create material contrasts. Seen as a complete entity in a single composition, the textures and colours paraphrase the feeling one experiences in the landscape of Quebec. It is not a feeling of being controlled, but one where the chaos unfolds naturally, quietly, delicately, and with a rhythm all its own - like Riopelle's.

Text: © John K. Grande. All rights reserved.

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