“Since there is no universal symbolism anymore, another relationship is required. To me, it’s contact with nature.” – Jean Paul Riopelle
In 1962, Jean Paul Riopelle’s career was well underway. Barely thirty-eight, he had been living in Paris for over a decade and had established a solid international reputation. His frequent trips between Europe and North America, and from countryside to seaside, provided endless inspiration and many new acquaintances along the way. The ensuing works were exhibited on both continents. This pivotal year culminated in two important exhibitions: one at Galerie Jacques Dubourg, in Paris, and the other at the Venice Biennale, where Riopelle occupied the entire Canada Pavilion and went on to win the UNESCO Prize, a distinction no other Canadian artist has been awarded since.
The year 1962 was also highly productive. Riopelle created dozens of watercolours and oil paintings, as well as a new series of bronze works. Writing about this period, Guy Robert observes, “Figuration seems to want to discreetly peek through the tangles of palette-knife strokes, [while] other markings foretell a Jeux de ficelle” (translation ours). Indeed, references to the natural world began to multiply early in this decade, as arabesques, loops, criss-crosses, and spirals emerged both in his works on paper and on his canvases, particularly in Forteresse, painted in 1962.
In Jean Paul Riopelle, the sixties, an exhibition catalogue in which this painting appears, art critic Yves Michaud writes, “What is also striking in the oil paintings of the 1960s is the gradual appearance of forms which, superimposed on the abundance of tiny strokes, lend a second organization to the canvas and ultimately lead to the figure. This is the case in the appropriately named Tour génoise (Genoese Tower), in the triptych Les masques, in paintings such as Forteresse, Futaie, Progression, [etc.]. A pattern comes to be superimposed on the organization of the strokes of color.” In Forteresse, writing, decoupage, and mass play off one other without competing, seeking and quickly finding balance within the subject’s well-anchored uprights and organic embellishment—a kind of autumnal canopy covering an imaginary fort.
In both its literal and figurative senses, the word “fortress” refers to that which resists attack and external influence. As a structure, it is meant to protect, to defend a territory—something that is unequivocally one’s own. In this case, it may refer to both Riopelle’s freedom of expression and his insubordination to the aesthetic constraints of that period. Riopelle is “haunted by a single preoccupation,” Robert writes, “to not lock himself into a single track, manner, or style, but to constantly invent, to renew himself, to overflow” (translation ours). The paintings that emerge from this decade—Forteresse being among the most flamboyant—gain in their language what they acquired in form during the 1950s. The union of these two forces produces eminently original, distinctive works in which Riopelle’s fiery character and free expression prevail.