Riopelle: The Quintessential Modern Artist

Resting low down a few steps on Crescent Street descending from Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is the charming Galerie d’Arts Contemporains, where I found myself drawn in by the Riopelle painting in the window and discovered they indeed were having an exhibition dedicated to the Canadian artist.

March this year marked a decade since the artist passed away, and it encourages a look back at his life and work, which were equally fuelled by politics and revolutionary ideas. Riopelle was one of the instigators of change in Canadian art, and significantly contributed to bringing Canada in line with the international avant-garde scene.

Born into a Montreal family in 1923, Jean-Paul Riopelle dabbled in art as a child, an enthusiasm which was to shape his life later on. He pursued Engineering at École Polytechnique with courses in Architecture and Photography, but kept up with painting as a hobby, calling himself a Sunday Painter. 

In 1942 Riopelle enrolled in École des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, where he became familiar with academic painting which was to be expected at the time. He trained under the academic painter Henri Bisson before switching teachers to study with Paul-Émile Borduas who was interested in the avant-garde and experimentation.

Borduas, a competent artist and teacher, was generously dedicated to his students, allowing them a great deal of freedom when it came to art. Borduas believed in the separation of Church and State at a time when Church had great influence on schools, government and society of Quebec.

Borduas had formed the group Les Automatistes inspired by the Automatic writings and drawings of the Surrealists in Europe who believed in the power of unconscious as put forward by Freud. Riopelle joined this group of artists, a move that would dictate his life’s work.

In 1948 Borduas penned the anti-establishment and anti-religious manifesto “Le Refus global” which highlighted the dire circumstances the Quebec society was being forced into by the religious establishment, warning of a bleak future should things go on as they were. Riopelle was amongst the signatories, setting himself as an advocator for change in Quebec.

The problem which had plagued Canadian art was precisely the problem that had plagued American art before the Second World War, which was the lack of fresh ideas when it came to the vision to be had.

Generation after generation of artists were stuck in the same unimaginative routine of exaggerated, romanticized reproduction of life and nature in academic or impressionistic styles, with a few exceptions of course, however those few were marginalized at the time.

Artists like Riopelle managed to break away from the insipid norm, and produce works that were as important as their European counterparts. Riopelle paved the way for future Canadian artists who were tired of idealized snow scenes and those ever dull lone cabins, and simply needed a fresh vision of what art can be.

Religion played an undeniable part in dumbing down the arts in Canada for many years, and it was only with the diminishing influence of the so called omnipotent that once again artists started to look closer at their mortality and find their connection with humanity.

The first time I encountered a piece by Riopelle, I was drawn to its primitiveness and expressionistic nature. I could have easily believed the later bird drawings were produced by an Inuit or a First Nation artist; for Riopelle, just like other avant-gardes, found his way back to his most essentially basic self by bringing to life what can be communicated universally without fuss and with as few details as possible.

It is wrong to label him an abstract painter, because he was more than that. The figures and symbols never left his art, even when the works are at first sight formless. The most unstructured pieces by Riopelle speak to our unconscious. We recognize them just like Australian Aboriginals recognize dot paintings as maps of the homeland. We connect with Riopelle on a human level, and that is fundamentally what he wanted us to do.

I could not care less for the market that has given fame to the Canadian artist, what I care about is the feeling that I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Riopelle through his art, and say without fear he was compassionate and passionate as a man and an artist.

The Jean-Paul Riopelle exhibition at Galerie d’Arts Contemporains, 2140 Crescent, is on until the end of June 2012

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