See the light that emanates from Riopelle’s painting: neither that of day nor that of night, but that of a bonfire like those lit on Saint-Jean, when time is nullified. With Pollock, the drawing paints; with Riopelle, the painting draws. – Pierre Schneider
On viewing Décembre Orléans (1959), one imagines flying over the north bank of Orléans, which is bisected by the great Loire River, its waters obstructed by improbable ice jams—the kind that found so plentifully in Jean Paul Riopelle’s native country, snow-covered in December. Here, land and water mix to form an extraordinary painting. “In 1959, Jean Paul Riopelle, the navigator, sought precisely to infuse his work by intermingling transatlantic currents: European traditions, American boldness, and, lest we forget, roots in First Nations symbolism,” writes art historian and critic Monique Brunet-Weinmann (Riopelle, Jean Paul Riopelle : catalogue raisonné, volume 2, 1954-1959, Hibou Éditeurs, 2004). According to Brunet-Weinmann, “nature overflown from very high” is the acknowledged source for many of Riopelle’s works, including La Loire, executed the same year, a fluvial and summer variation on this same region of France, with its “sand and gravel colours and a wholly Mitchellian watercolour brightness in its light and islands of greenery” (ibid.). It was indeed during the summer of 1959 that Joan Mitchell settled in Paris, in the studio on rue Frémicourt, and pursued a tumultuous love affair with Riopelle.
Be that as it may, the late 1950s were marked by a hectic period of formal exploration and metamorphosis. Indeed, as Pierre Schneider writes (“Préface,” Jean Paul Riopelle : Peinture 1946-1977, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1981), “[Riopelle sought] to dislocate [the pictorial space] by plunging real blocks into it, distinct figures . . . nearly geometrical. But the fabric holds. As clearly delineated as they are, the forms cannot escape the unanimous movement: ‘content’ and ‘container’ are on the same plane, belong to the same space.” In Décembre Orléans, the palette knife, and even its handle, are used to draw hooks and fluid spans in the composition’s almost aerial impasto. The regularity of the mosaics of 1953 and 1954 here gives way to “a gesturality free to tangle with a bundle of coloured ribbons or white feathers” (Brunet-Weinmann, in Riopelle, op. cit.). To this it must be added that white is no longer the space between things, any more than black circumscribes or determines forms; these pure contrasts embody colours in their own right, just like any other. Riopelle massages and sculpts the painting to make room “for ravines and ruptures, without really fracturing the painting” (Schneider, Riopelle : Signes mêlés, Maeght and Leméac, 1972). Décembre Orléans is a tour de force in Riopelle’s body of work in the 1950s—an inspired, exhilarating, and opulent piece.