As an iconoclast and libertine who drank hard, drove fast and signed revolutionary manifestos, Riopelle personified a golden age of artistic revolt. And as a Quebec painter whose career erupted in Paris, he bridged the intellectual landscapes of the New and Old Worlds. Who else could claim to have hung out with André Breton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Alberto Giacometti, Gilles Vigneault and Grey Owl? "He was a unique blend between the European and North American avant-garde, a cross between Jackson Pollock and Matisse," says curator Stéphane Aquin, who will present a Riopelle show in June at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. "Like Matisse, he had a hedonistic approach to painting - he reinvigorated the great French tradition - but he also had the sheer brutality and monumentalism of Pollock."
When Riopelle's star first rose in Paris, Breton, the "pope" of the surrealist movement, baptized him "un trappeur supérieur" (a superior trapper), and the phrase stuck. Piling paint on canvas in shuddering cascades, the artist created savage abstractions that suggested a wilderness of Shield rock and autumn foliage without ever depicting it. More than one French critic embraced this notion of a Quebec "trapper" landing from the bush onto the pavement of Paris. Despite his passion for the outdoors, however, Riopelle was a cosmopolitan. "Everyone described him as a force of nature," says François-Marc Gagnon, Quebec's leading art historian. "But he was more clever than he pretended. He was an intellectual who knew that in the Parisian avant-garde it wouldn't work to act like one."
Born in 1923, the son of a prosperous architect, Riopelle grew up with a love of drawing and nature. Through his father, he met Grey Owl, the legendary naturalist. And he developed a passion for painting landscapes and owls. After toying with ambitions to be a hockey player, a mechanic and an engineer, Riopelle entered Montreal's École des Beaux-Arts in 1942, then moved on to l'École du Meuble, where he was influenced by painter Paul-Émile BORDUAS. Inspired by Breton's automatic-writing method, Borduas led the automatistes, who advocated unconscious, unpremeditated art. With their 1948 manifesto, Refus Global, featuring a Riopelle drawing on the cover, they fired the opening salvo of Quebec's Quiet Revolution - attacking the Catholic Church, and calling for "resplendent anarchy."
After several pilgrimages to Paris, Riopelle moved there in 1948 with his new wife, dancer Françoise l'Espérance, the mother of his two daughters. And in a Montparnasse studio, he created a series of huge abstracts. Muscling colour onto canvas with an organic sense of composition, Riopelle would create his "action paintings" in intense surges of activity, working 24 hours at a stretch. He abandoned brushes altogether and squeezed colour directly from the tube onto the canvas, using palette knives to model paint into mosaic reliefs. "When a painter does a good painting," he said, "he does it in the throes of terror."
With the help of gallery owner Pierre Matisse (son of the famous painter), Riopelle's reputation soared in Paris and then New York. He represented Canada at the 1954 Venice Biennale, and in 1963 became the youngest artist to be honoured with a retrospective at the National Gallery. Riopelle's lifestyle, meanwhile, was as vivid as his paintings. As his work sold, he collected vintage cars, a 50-foot sailboat, and various girlfriends. He was the archetype of the raging bohemian, an image he loved to cultivate.
In a 1957 Maclean's piece titled "The native genius we've never discovered," journalist Catherine Jones compared him to Chico Marx, and gushed about being driven around Paris in his Bugatti "with the same force, exuberance and freshness of spirit that characterizes his paintings ... daring dashes, unexpected stops, rhythmic turns and soaring runs." Curiously, she also noted that Riopelle "dislikes all forms of dancing. ... He has never watched his wife dance although she herself practises four hours daily in a studio."
That same year, 1957, the artist split up with l'Espérance and entered a turbulent, 24-year relationship with the American painter Joan Mitchell, who would die in 1992. In 1972, Riopelle moved back to Quebec, creating a studio-residence in a renovated barn overlooking a Laurentian lake in Ste-Marguerite. There, he revived his passion for nature, depicting snow geese and owls in a series of figurative paintings and lithographs. He also designed sculptures, including a bronze fountain of owls, natives and forest animals for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. And in 1979, he shocked critics with Iceberg, four walls hung with turbulent arrangements of black and white.
As the pigment bled from his work, Riopelle's health was also fading. Afflicted by osteoporosis, this artist who once treated painting as an act of physical exorcism had to work sitting down, with spray paints, markers and stencils. In 1993, as if migrating back to his roots, he settled on Île-aux-Grues, in the St. Lawrence, which is where he died. "What's surprising is that he lasted so long," says Aquin. "His regime would have killed most people at 40." The curator believes Riopelle remains underappreciated: "His contribution has to be redefined. People tended to get overwhelmed by his charisma. The legend has obscured the work."
Maclean's March 25, 2002
Author BRIAN D. JOHNSON