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Ihor Holubizky

Jean-Paul Riopelle

Queen Street Quarterly Vol. 5 #2, Summer 2001

[ 561 words ]


Jean-Paul Riopelle was born in Montreal in 1923. He studied engineering and art, and by the mid-1940s had established his presence on the Montreal art scene. From 1948 he lived and worked in Paris, but has maintained a Quebec residence.

For many years Riopelle's work stood as the only noteworthy landmark of Canada's contribution to modern art on the international scene. An Australian colleague recently brought to my attention the fact that the seminal modernist Australian sculptor Robert Klippel (1920-2001) was so taken with Riopelle's work in the 1950s that he promoted it to his peers. Whether by intent or influence, there is much resonance in Klippel's spiky assemblages of that period. Yet Riopelle is often shuffled to the side, as if the black sheep of Canadian art. He receives but one line, and no image, in the 1983 book Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada, and is reduced to a 'tachiste' citation in the 1992 survey exhibition of 1950s painting and design,Achieving the Modern. While Canadians may be somewhat indifferent: the contempt of familiarity?

Riopelle's familiar Composition, (1952), may be the artist in full flight, away from the pressure and burdens of the nationalizing canon. His 'spatula' technique has a spiritual equivalent in the great French Romantic painting of the early 19th century. A bloodied and assertive moment, it is more than a bridge between the signs of American abstraction — personified by Jackson Pollock — and European abstraction, the so-called School of Paris. Riopelle's post-1970s work, however, has been overlooked and dismissed. In 1992, Francois-Marc Gagnon wrote that his 'achievement still stands to be well served by history and criticism.'

Perhaps it is the later work — such as Oies (Geese], 1985 — that is worrisome to the pundits who wish an artist's progress to be sequential and ever-evolving, unwilling to accept the artist's change. Is Oies too anecdotal, a folkish sentiment, evidence of the diminishing return of Riopelle's vision? The motif, an appropriate term as it is image-based, is one that occupied Riopelle's vision since the early 1980s and is consistent with his 'classic modern' period. Nearly forty years ago, Franco Russoli wrote of Riopelle's 'constant relationship between the spiritual moods ... and his interpretation of the most uninhibited and primitive characteristics of seasons and natural forms...' Russoli also wrote of the paintings capturing the mood of the 'impenetrable woods' more than the kineticism of the city-slicker, and that his work is 'not composed according to the traditional rules of art, but rather in accordance with the organic changes of nature."

The two works — distanced by the time of art's history — show evidence of comparable formal symmetry, and different facets that are the consequence of a maturing vision. Composition can be read as the splayed innards of the goose that will rise again thirty years later. It conjures the classical intermesh of the Laöcoön and a rich vein of symbolic meaning: in Chinese literature dating from the 7th century, 'wild geese weeping' represents refugees and those forced from their homes. And what can be more modern, and eternal, than to be a refugee — or to be shot out of the cannon, and the canon.

Text: © Ihor Holubizky. All rights reserved.

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