He remains the only Canadian artist who is commonly referred to only by his family name and the first to have created a work that sold for more than $1 million, and his fame transcended Canada’s linguistic divide. Now, the centennial of Jean Paul Riopelle’s birth is being marked with a wide array of events.
Some of the tributes are unusual, like the commemorative twoonie put into circulation last month by the Royal Canadian Mint. The federal government is providing 1.3 million Canadian dollars for nine artistic events across the country that will include exhibitions, performances and residencies. Robert Lepage’s “Le Projet Riopelle,” now being presented in Quebec City and moving to Ottawa next month, is a performance of more than four hours based on the vast fresco Riopelle created when he learned the death of Joan Mitchell, the painter and his longtime partner.
The centennial events, all of which can be found in a calendar compiled by the Jean Paul Riopelle Foundation, will continue well into next year.
The one event that’s likely to attract the largest crowds, however, is “Riopelle: Crossroads in Time,” a retrospective that recently opened at the National Gallery of Canada and will travel to the Winnipeg Art Gallery in June.
The large and enthusiastic crowd that turned out for its opening night is perhaps a turning point for the National Gallery. As my colleague Norimitsu Onishi recent wrote, the National Gallery has been particularly rocked by turmoil by the push to “decolonize” museums.
Read: Turmoil Engulfs Canadian Art Museums Seeking to Shed Colonial Past
While dominated by a chronology of Riopelle’s works in a variety of media, the exhibition is also salted with works by other artists, both currently active ones and his contemporaries, who were influenced by him.
To bring a fresh perspective to the show, the National Gallery sought out as curator Sylvie Lacerte, an art historian from Sutton, Quebec, who previously lived in New York. While an expert in contemporary art, Dr. Lacerte had not previously studied Riopelle.
We spoke earlier this week. These highlights from our conversation have been edited for length and clarity.
Was it a formidable task to take on a large project outside of your previous experience?
The museum wanted to have a different voice, a different outlook on Riopelle’s practice and career. And so, of course, I had to do an incredible amount of research to begin before I could select any works.
I read and read and read. Then I went to visit the institutions and the private collectors from whom we wanted some loans to see the works in person.
I was always discovering new things. Some of his works look really fresh, as if they had been created just a few years back.
He was a trailblazer to begin with when he started in the 1950s and never wanted to stay comfortable, to sit on his laurels.
His style changed. He explored many mediums. That’s what I wanted to show: the diversity of his practice.
His energetic early paintings are sometimes compared to Jackson Pollock’s works. Is that fair?
These things were in the zeitgeist at the time, and they exhibited together in Paris in collective exhibitions. But they didn’t talk to each other all that much.
Yes, there are some similarities, and the purists on Riopelle don’t like to see that. But we can establish some link. But it was not that one was copying the other or vice versa. Not at all.
What was his working style?
He would take long breaks in between explosions of creation.
He was doing an all-out style, because whenever he was in his studios, you know, the paint would go way beyond the frame of the painting. He had paint all over the walls, on the ceiling, the windows and on the floor.
His period of creation was so intense that the man needed a break at some point. But there are around 6,000 to 7,000 works in his corpus of all mediums, and he worked continuously until — until 1992. So it was an incredible journey.
Why did he become so well known in both French- and English-speaking Canada?
Riopelle became the first Canadian artist to achieve an international status in the postwar era. People were really proud of that all over Canada. And you can see that in the different collections of institutions across Canada.
And he was friends with Giacometti, Samuel Beckett and Franz Kline. So he was part of an all-star cast, to put it in maybe a vulgar way.
Also, he never categorized himself as a nationalist nor as a federalist. He kept saying that he was apolitical and that politics didn’t interest him.