Artwork by Jean Paul Riopelle,  Polyvalencia

Jean P. Riopelle

oil on canvas
signed lower right; inscribed “PM 20” on the stretcher; catalogue raisonné #1961.024H.1961
16 x 12.75 ins ( 40.6 x 32.4 cms )

Auction Estimate: $200,000.00$100,000.00 - $200,000.00

Price Realized $120,000.00
Sale date: June 15th 2022

Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York
Gallery Moos, Toronto (1963)
By descent to the present Private Collection, Ontario
Yseult Riopelle, “Jean Paul Riopelle: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 3”, 1960- 1965, Montreal, 2009, reproduced page 128, cat. no. 1961.024H.1961
Guy Cogeval and Stéphane Aquin (eds.), “Riopelle”, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2006, page 85
A prominent member of the Automatistes and a signatory of the Refus Global, Jean Paul Riopelle was a lifelong avant-garde and experimental artist. Riopelle’s works are both expressive and formal, responding to the art historical and socio-political environment of the post-war era, unique from his abstract-expressionist peers. Jeffery Spalding writes on the artist’s work: “Each and every painting was an individual creation, not merely a member of a set or series. Yet, simultaneously each painting remained unquestionably identifiable as signature-brand Riopelle.”

Among the avant-garde Quebec abstract artists, Jean Paul Riopelle was the most celebrated figure on the international scene. He first travelled to France in 1946 and returned to Montreal for only a few months before settling in Paris until the 1970s. Riopelle soon met the Parisian art dealer Pierre Loeb, owner of Galerie Pierre, who promoted major Surrealist and Cubist artists, including Picasso and Miró. It was through Loeb that Riopelle met André Breton, who invited Riopelle to participate in the major Surrealist exhibition of June 1947 held at the Galerie Maeght.

The following decade brought further success for Riopelle due to increased contact with prominent members of the New York School and international art scene. In 1951 his work was shown in the international exhibition, “Véhémences confrontées (Confronted Vehemence)”, alongside Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and others. He was then discovered by the art dealer Pierre Matisse (grandson of Henri Matisse), who held regular solo exhibitions of Riopelle’s art in New York in the mid-to-late 1950s. His famous large-scale ‘mosaic’ paintings of the time caught the attention of many, reinforcing the manufactured rivalry between the Paris and New York post-war movements.

“Polyvalencia”, completed in 1961, illustrates a new direction which Riopelle began to take in his paintings of the late 1950s. Though maintaining aspects of his mosaic-like paint application known as tachisme, Riopelle abandoned an all-over structure and atomized brushstrokes in favour of lines. In “Polyvalencia”, the lines almost resemble shapes and letters; these loose depictions of indistinct forms would gradually evolve into figuration, which appear in his works towards the end of the decade, most commonly in the form of birds and animals. Created during a vital and transitional period, “Polyvalencia” highlights the artist’s consistent and rapid evolution in oil painting, which has been described as “startling in both its lightning- like progression and its consistency: no degree of success seemed to detain the young painter or restrain his absolute desire to explore the medium’s possibilities even further.”

This oil painting also dates to a significant period in Riopelle’s personal life. By 1959, Riopelle had finalized his divorce from his wife Françoise Lespérence and began a romantic relationship with American abstract painter Joan Mitchell. In the same year, Mitchell settled permanently in Paris to live with Riopelle. They travelled together and influenced each other’s artwork throughout the following decade. There is no doubt that Mitchell’s intellectual and artistic presence inspired Riopelle’s rapidly evolving style of the late 1950s and early 1960s, as seen in works such as “Polyvalencia”, which led him from abstraction back to figuration.

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Jean Paul Riopelle
(1923 - 2002) Les Automatistes, RCA, SCA

Born in 1923, Jean Paul Riopelle is one of Canada’s most significant artists from the twentieth century. Born in Montréal, Quebec, Riopelle was educated at the Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague school. In 1936, he began taking painting and drawing classes on the weekends that Henri Bisson, a sculptor who often drew from life, taught in the Riopelle family home. Much of Riopelle’s early works can be traced to his time spent learning under Bisson and are attempts at direct representations from life. For example, Nature bien morte (1942) is a copy of Bisson’s work. Riopelle, advised by his parents, enrolled in the École Polytechnique de Montréal in 1941 to study architecture and engineering. However, he did poorly in his courses and enrolled in the École des beaux-arts and then the École du meuble.

At the École du meuble, Riopelle was taught by Paul-Émile Borduas. Initially, Riopelle could not let go of the academic style taught to him by Bisson in favor of Borduas’ abstract style. Eventually, inspired by automatic writing and painting exercises Riopelle embraced his unconscious imagination and began working in an abstract style. Riopelle was also inspired by the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. In 1944, he produced his first abstracted work in Saint-Fabien. The painting, now lost, was a representation of a water hole left on the shore of the Saint Lawrence River. Riopelle, alongside other young Automatistes, spent part of the winter of 1944-45 with Borduas in Mont-Saint-Hilaire exploring radical ideas about art and politics, which would eventually manifest themselves in the Refus global manifesto.

In early 1946, Riopelle took part in the first Automatistes exhibition, Exposition de peinture, in Montréal. In the same year, Riopelle travelled to France for the first time while working as a horse groomer and became enamored by paintings of horses by Théodore Géricault and by Impressionist works at the Musée de l’Orangerie. Riopelle returned to France in December 1946 and met André Breton who invited Riopelle to participate in a Surrealist exhibition in the following year. Because Breton was somewhat dismissive of the Automatistes, Riopelle was the only Automatistes to participate in the Exposition international du surréalisme in 1947. Inspired by the French Surrealists, upon Riopelle’s return to Canada he encouraged the Automatistes to produce their own manifesto. The manifesto, Refus global, was an anarchistic proclamation published in 1948.

Georges Mathieu invited Riopelle to participate in an international exhibition titled Véhémences confrontées alongside Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Feeling detached from Breton’s Surrealism Riopelle began producing a body of work that would eventually be known as mosaics. Favoring a pallet knife over a brush, Riopelle was renown through the 1950s for his larger than life canvases. In the summer of 1960, Riopelle began sculpting. Riopelle represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1962; exhibiting both paintings and bronze cast sculptures earning him the UNESCO Prize. After appearing in the Venice Biennale, throughout the late 1960s, Riopelle began working in a fragmented style that is reminiscent of collages. In 1969, Riopelle began working on La Joute, which would eventually be installed in the Olympic Park at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montréal. The installation features a fountain surrounded by abstract animal and human figures.

Beginning in the 1980s, numerous Canadian institutions began retrospective exhibitions of Riopelle’s work, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, and the Art Gallery of Peterborough. The Musée national d’art modern de Paris organized a retrospective of his work that would travel to Montréal, Mexico City, and Caracas, Venezuela. In 1981, Riopelle was presented the Prix Paul-Émile-Borduas due to his contributions to cultural life.

Literature Source:
Gagnon, François-Marc. Jean Paul Riopelle: Life and Work. Art Canada Institute, 2019

We extend our thanks to Danie Klein, York University graduate student in art history, for writing and contributing this artist biography.