By RAY CONLOGUE
From the Toronto Globe and Mail. With reports from Canadian Press and Reuters
Thursday, March 14, 2002 Page R1
Jean-Paul Riopelle, a great but impulsive artist who even when famous would burn his paintings to heat his apartment, died on Wednesday at his home on the Ile-aux-Grues in the St. Lawrence River. He was 78. In a tribute, Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson called him "matchless. His ability to fill huge canvases until the end of his life, even when he was physically not strong, attested to his mastery."
Riopelle was born in a conservative and clerically dominated Quebec in 1923. Contemporary art was all but suppressed. By 1948, his rebellious temperament erupted and with other painters including his mentor, the abstractionist Paul-Emile Borduas, he signed the Refus Global proclaiming the freedom of Quebec's artists to: "Break permanently with the customs of society. . . . Refuse to live knowingly beneath the level of [their] physical potential."
He was part of a group called the Automatistes, who believed in spontaneous transcription onto canvas of whatever one's spirit suggested. The willful Riopelle carried this spontaneity into everyday life, adopting a bohemian indulgence in food, drink and women that he never abandoned. This both fuelled the vigour of his early, most celebrated work, and undermined his health to such an extent that he spent his final two decades diminished in strength; he could no longer handle a brush, but had to work in stencil and spray paint.
His most valuable work was the Mosaïques series from the 1950s, where he squeezed whole tubes of paint directly onto a very large canvas, often using four tubes at a time clamped between the fingers of his hand and moving with a dancer's grace and energy. His daughter Yseult has observed that these works are almost impossible to counterfeit because so few artists could match her father's physical strength. One of them became the first Canadian work of art to sell for more than $1-million (U.S.), fetching $1.6-million in 1989 at an auction at Sotheby's in New York.
"He will ultimately be seen as one of the very important figures working in Paris in the postwar years," said Art Gallery of Ontario chief curator Dennis Reid. "I think he was the first really successful Canadian artist internationally. His paintings went at auction for record prices for a living Canadian."
By the mid-1940s, the young Riopelle was in contact with André Breton, leader of the Surrealist movement in France. In 1947, he moved to Paris and used his image of an artist maudit from the wild northern woods of Canada to attract notoriety and commissions. Moving in a circle that included Samuel Beckett and Alexander Calder, he had his first solo show in Paris in 1949 and, by 1954, was a client of the dealer Pierre Matisse (son of the artist) in New York. Matisse helped spearhead Riopelle's growing reputation in the United States.
"The Automatistes and the Surrealists were trying to make images that were both about the material object, the painted thing, and yet were about the imaginative life as well," said Reid. "Riopelle's paintings of the period really achieve that. They're a successful resolution of the Surrealist quest."
However, he received little recognition in Canada until the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts gave him a show in 1963. By then, he was already famous and wealthy and enjoyed a series of lovers and fast cars, usually Bugattis, which he drove far too fast around Paris. His patron, the critic George Duthuit, spoke disapprovingly of Riopelle's "suicide cars" and alcohol-drenched lifestyle. Riopelle, who had a devastating sense of humour, said of himself: "I'm not so much an Impressionist as a Depressionist."
Riopelle's prodigious talent expanded into new media during these years. After 1960, he became interested in sculpture, printmaking and multimedia work.
In 1955, he found the love of his life, moving in with the tempestuous American artist Joan Mitchell and living with her for 30 years. In a gesture typical of their stormy but devoted relationship, he took letters written to her by a male admirer and stapled them on the floor so that guests had to walk on them. He was devastated by her death in 1992. The year before he had returned permanently to Quebec. Even though his health was in a serious decline by that time and he had lost much of his creative vitality, he was inspired to produce a 45-metre-long painted triptych in her memory. Called Homage to Rosa Luxembourg, it has been described as a "fresco of his life." It was acquired two years ago by the Museum of Quebec and installed in a room devoted to Riopelle's work.
Undermined by osteoporosis, he passed his final years in a wheelchair but refused to leave his home on the remote Ile-aux-Grues, downstream from Quebec City. The island, a migratory stopover for white geese, was essential to him: The geese were a leitmotif in many of his late works.
Museum of Quebec director John Porter said Riopelle was a "monument" who "revolutionized" painting in the 20th century. "He was a giant of nature. He was Quebec's and Canada's greatest painter," Porter said. The Quebec City museum has a permanent collection devoted to Riopelle and Porter said the gallery would host a special exhibit on the artist in September.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien praised Riopelle as one of the greatest artists the country has known and called his passing "a big loss for Canada." Chrétien met Riopelle in Paris years ago when he was Minister of Northern Affairs. "He was fascinated by Canada, he was a very proud Canadian," the Prime Minister said. "He was an incredible personality. He wasn't one of my intimate friends but I followed his career with great interest. Riopelle paintings were unique."
Riopelle leaves his three adult children and his final companion, Huguette Vachon.