Jean Paul Riopelle

1923 – 2002

Born in 1923 in Montreal, Canada, Riopelle studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and the École de Meuble, where he attended classes given by master Automatist Paul Émile Borduas. In 1947, Riopelle travels to Paris, where he briefly joins the Parisian Surrealist movement, signs the manifesto Rupture Inaugurale and presents his first solo exhibition at La Dragonne gallery in 1949.

Riopelle's famous mosaic period (1949-59) launched his career and had a decisive impact on his reputation. In 1952, the young 30-year-old worked in his very first studio, located at 52, rue Durantin, in Montmartre. Energized by this newfound freedom and the effervescence of Parisian life, he succeeded in perfecting a unique style, based on the use of flat spatula paints evoking the tesserae of mosaics. In 1954, he began exhibiting regularly at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, and represented Canada at the Venice Biennale with Paul-Émile Borduas and B. C. Binning.

The 1960s was a decade rich in formal and aesthetic experimentations. Eschewing readymade formulas—and, by the same token, the prevailing artistic trends—Riopelle was continuously reinventing himself through a multitude of techniques: watercolour, pastel, oil, engraving, collage, sculpture. Round and oval shapes appear in Riopelle’s paintings in the early 1960s and references to nature became more prominent in his work over the years. Testifying to a maturity and a profound versatility, his multidisciplinary approach nourished each body of work, piece by piece, leaving manifest traces of his prior accomplishments and hints of developments to come. A sign of his acclaim, Riopelle represented Canada at the Venice Biennale along with his former instructor Paul-Émile Borduas and B.C. Binning in 1962.

After his trips north of the 55th parallel in the 1970s, Jean Paul Riopelle fell under the influence of Inuit art, as evidenced by the Jeux de ficelles series (1971–72). This vast body of work, which includes around a hundred acrylics on paper mounted on canvas, stands out for both its technique and its source of inspiration—string—which serves as a motif and point of departure for pictorial improvisation.

A signatory of the 1948 Refus global manifesto, Riopelle’s work boldly challenged the conventions of Canadian painting and sculpture. He was named to the Order of Canada in 1969 and his work has been the subject of major retrospective exhibitions at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Centre Pompidou. 

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