Frontlines

Catching up with Riopelle

Marci McDonald May 14 1979
Frontlines

Catching up with Riopelle

Marci McDonald May 14 1979

Catching up with Riopelle

Frontlines

PORTRAIT

Marci McDonald

He moves, as he paints, purely by instinct. Like some magnificent, untamed creature of the wilds, he raises his shaggy bison’s profile to the prevailing currents and takes his directional signals from there. One day, those who are allowed to approach that close find him in the huge airy atelier where Monet once used to sketch outside Paris, throwing himself across a canvas in a blaze of vermilion. The next, he turns up at Montreal’s Mirabel airport, passport stuffed in one shapeless jacket pocket, no luggage to encumber, destination still to be worked out. Maybe it will be an expedition with old comrades to Baffin Island in pursuit of the elusive Arctic char. Maybe he will closet himself in the log cabin studio he has built on the shores of Quebec’s Lac Masson. The details are not important. What matters is the moment. And neither fame nor fortune nor, at 55, his firm enshrinement as one of the world’s leading abstract expressionists—a term he detests to this day—has dimmed the appetite of Jean-Paul Riopelle to live it at its most intense.

That compulsion has made him at once Canada’s most celebrated and least-known painter: an acknowledged international master who remains a mystery to the better part of his countrymen. No Canadian artist has won such esteem on the world stage, from capturing the UNESCO prize at the 1962 Venice Biennale to being honored with a personal retrospective eight years ago at Paris’s Grand Palais. The galleries which represent him are the most prestigious on two continents. His commissions have ranged from the original mural at Toronto International Airport to the mammoth bronze fountain of owls, Indian figures and forest beasts which dominated the main square of Montreal’s Olympic Games.

But as his reputation has metamorphosed from feisty young buck to living legend, the public sightings have become rare and increasingly unpredict-

able. Gallery owners now know better than to expect Riopelle to turn up at his own openings. Friends never count on a rendezvous until they have focused on him in the flesh.

In the 30 years since he was first recognized as the most outstanding of a group of young Quebec artists gathered around painter Paul-Emile Borduas, who called themselves automatistes and published the explosive Refus Global—

the first act of defiance by a collective Quebec consciousness—Riopelle has emerged from the protective coloration of a small, self-created universe into the flashguns’ glare barely a dozen times. The revelations have been both pithy and cryptic, leaving scholars and biographers to scramble after scattered clues as they stalk their quarry, as if to be pinned down by explanations would be to lose the primordial energy which drives him.

Finally, after two years of negotiations, Riopelle consented to an interview, provided he could pick the time and common ground. The Muse was not making a visitation at the moment and besides there were some misunderstandings to clear up, not the least being his current exhibit at Paris’s Galérie Maeght, his first in two years.

Accustomed to his passionate outbursts of pigment, the critics ha reeled in shock when confronted with four walls hung in turbulent arrangements of black and white, all entitled Iceberg. There were hints that the artist had not, perhaps, been feeling quite himself.

Across the broadloomed afternoon gloom of a Paris wateringhole, Riopelle lets out a lusty howl. “You know, maybe I should promote that idea,” he says. “Like my friend Sam Francis [the American painter]. As soon as the critics said he was sick, the prices went up.”

In fact, there had been rumors about Riopelle’s health: his personal life was hinted to be in upheaval and last year an old hockey knee injury crippled him to the point that be could only walk with the help of crutches and could no longer paint standing up. For an artist whose mammoth canvases were as much a physical as an emotional release, it was doubly debilitating. But he refused the operation which doctors had insisted on, recoiling from the notion of being caged in a hospital, and took to painting sitting down.

Now, the crutches have been tossed away and he rolls along with a limp and a determined grimace, a stubby, eternally windblown figure, even with sports jacket and tie on, his only prop an ever present cigarette. Anecdote after anecdote spills out with ebullience in the husky Québécois accent which three decades in France have done nothing to alter. Tales of finding himself a houseguest at the grand Château de Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux: “They take your clothes out of your luggage and put them in the drawers, all ironed, even if they weren’t wrinkled before.” Enigmatic reflections on icebergs: “You know, icebergs are like ice cubes in a glass. They take on all the colors of everything around them.” And little by little, talk of painting: “Me, I always have a big problem with titles. If you put a title like Perroquet [parrot], people see only the parrot in it. They never see anything else.”

In France, the critics have always been fascinated by his Canadianness, seeing in his lyrical sweeps of color the autumn panoramas and exotic topography of tourist posters, to the point that he was finally moved to protest. “They always say in front of my pictures: ‘Ah, the Canadian forests, the vast spaces seen from so far above that they become an abstract organization.’ But I never meant to paint that.”

The Icebergs poured out in furious succession. For the first time, he found himself hanging canvases on the studio walls. “Always when I finish a painting, I turn it around, facing the walls, to forget it,” he says. “These were the first I could live with. I planned whole walls. I only stopped when I ran out of space. It was the end of the series.” In the year and a half since, all his work has been vivid and blood red. But at the gallery, it was decided not to mix them, and now he worries: ‘Tm made for color. I have the impressions that someone who doesn’t know my work at all would see this show and say, ‘Oh, he’s not much.’ ”

There have been fears that Riopelle was following Borduas, whose palette became increasingly gloomy in his later years, the final canvas on his easel when he died in 1960 totally black. But he waves off the comparison as quickly as he dispenses with the notion that Borduas was his teacher. “When we talked in his office, we never said a word about painting. I suppose he taught painting. But we talked about everything else.”

They were a merry, rebellious little band who assembled around the prickly older artist at Montreal’s Ecole du Meuble. Riopelle, the son of a prosperous Montreal staircase designer who had passed on the love of drawing, had taken art lessons since he was a child, a

city boy who fell in love with depicting nature scenes and owls. At 17, he stopped painting for two years to study mathematics, but when he saw his first van Goghs at a Montreal museum, he was lured back to the brush.

It was Borduas who—inspired by French surrealist André Breton and the movement to explore the unconscious through art—defined the term automatique as “every unpremeditated gesture or work.” Spontaneity became their polestar—to paint by the guts, never the brain. Titles were to follow. When the automatistes first showed in Montreal in 1947 people were aghast. But already the critics had singled out 23-year-old Riopelle for his energy which “burst out of the frame.” That year they were invited to exhibit in Paris and he went as their spokesman.

He took part in the last great surrealist exhibit at the Galérie Maeght and signed their manifesto on Stalinism and Trotskyism, Ruptures Inaugurales. When he brought back news of it to Montreal, Borduas decided they should have a manifesto of their own. Fifteen Quebec artists signed the Refus Global (Global Denial) which Borduas wrote, lashing out at the Quebec status quo, the Jansenism of its priests and authoritarianism of its leaders (not a word about painting), and calling for a “break finally with all the conventional patterns of society; to oppose openly its opportunistic spirit . . . We shall follow joyfully our violent fight for liberation.”

If the rhetoric is ho-hum today, it was a scandal in Premier Maurice Duplessis’ Quebec of 1948. Borduas was fired and authorities pounced on the 400 copies of the illustrated 90-page text. It was the first blow against the fabric of the old Quebec, the first step, as some see it, in the long march that was eventually to lead to René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois. But Riopelle doesn’t look on it that way. The Refus was, among other things, a protest against the deliberate cultural isolation of Quebec—a plea for larger connections.

“It was the opening for Quebec to be nonsectarian,” he says. “So if you’re going to be a separatist, you’re going on defending your own interests. It’s just the opposite.” Now, despite three decades of expatriotism, he finds himself in the curious position of a Quebec federalist—an establishment figure in the province where he was once rebel. “Artists should be apart from politics,” he says. “But I think it must be very painful to live in such a context. It’s bizarre, what’s happening. And it could be a tragedy. Me, I’m French Canadian, Catholic and Liberal, and you can put them all in capital letters. But at the same time, the only place where I feel really good myself is in France.”

He was a convert from the first moment he set eyes on the countryside from shipboard at Rouen. Borduas followed him to Paris in 1955, after seven years in New York, but they scarcely saw each other. There were rumors of a vicious rupture. But it was rather the

discomfort of a mentor who goes unnoticed while his protégé has become toast of the town. Aging and impoverished, Borduas withdrew into his private darkness, feeding a stomach ulcer with black coffee and bitterness until he died at 55, spent and alone. The subject still pains Riopelle. “I think he wanted to be left alone,” he has said.

His own works poured out in a vibrant inspired rush from the studio under the eaves in Montparnasse, and into the best galleries and collections. It was the age of abstract expressionism in New York, tachism in Paris, and despite his disclaimers, he was carried along on its tide. His small canvases sold for $1,000; his large for as much as $30,000. Time, Life and Newsweek celebrated him.

One Paris critic, on first meeting Riopelle, took him for a Hungarian gypsy: an earthy, bawling primitive of worldly tastes and education who was always pushing himself to the limits, whether in painting or in life. He could argue the night away with Giacometti, then indulge his passion for speed with a zip around a racetrack in one of his vintage cars, including three Bugattis and a 1950 Bristol which still share studio space with his canvases. He bought a seaplane wdth friends in Quebec, a 50foot sailboat for the Mediterranean and one day a few years ago, he went out for a package of cigarettes in the Laurentians and came back with a general

store that he has made into a restaurant in Ste. Marguerite.

But he has always spent his money as he spent his lyrical vision —in great splurges. To plan a painting is anathema to him. “If I hesitate, I don’t do it,” he says. He plunges into a canvas only when the need to paint has built to the crisis point: “this malady,” as he once described it. Paintings succeed one another in blind joy or fury; hours slip by, days, weeks. He sees no one; cuts himself off from life. “When someone asks me how long a painting takes, I’m

incapable of replying,” he says. “I lose all notion of time. Others can come and go for their lunch, start again, take months over a picture. Me, never. Miro can paint in front of a crowd. But to make a picture in front of people, I’m completely blocked.”

To reflect, to stand back and take a breath, is to signal that the work is finished. “To ask oneself if it’s good or not, it’s already too late.” But just as suddenly as the urge arrives, it can flee. “I’m empty, completely empty, I often go months without working. I go to the studio. Nothing. I close the door.” He roams then, the whimsical migrational patterns taking hold, waiting for the next crise that will bring more paintings. Friends say that when he’s not working he is depressed. “Artists are always depressed,” he snorts, “but if an artist is really depressed, he can’t paint at all.”

It is a heady roller-coaster existence, full of sweeping highs, but lows as well, living at the edge of experience but staying true to some mystical inner continuum. Time is the ultimate opponent. The body wearies, the knees buckle. Riopelle chafes at the leg trouble which has reduced him to the humiliation of an automatic gearshift—“that old box,” he refers sheepishly to his BMW. The sailboat, still anchored at the ready on the Riviera and swilling money, he hasn’t sailed for years.

These days grandchildren from his two daughters of a former marriage clamber through the atelier. He finds himself unaccustomedly sentimental, burdened down with chunks of property and his past on two continents, but unwilling to part with them. “I can’t stand the idea of selling,” he says. “It costs me a fortune, but I’m incapable of leaving something. Sometimes people leave me, but me, all that I have, I keep.”

He has stayed true to the automatist es' commandment more than any other artist. Today, as abstract expressionism is considered a dying form, most of its leading practitioners already buried, he remains one of the final faithful, the last of a nearly extinct species. Still, he does not shy from his chosen course. “Nothing ever changes,” he says. “There is no evolution. An artist only makes one step in life.”

The day is fading. He takes one last tug on his beer and rises to go. His plans are all open-ended. “I do nothing right now in work,” he says. “Mais ça bouge— it’s coming.” He turns to limp off into the throbbing mosaic of a Paris rush hour and disappear again. “But maybe tomorrow morning I’ll do something. Who knows?”