Yesterday (October 7) would have marked the 96th birthday of legendary Quebec artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, and it was a relatively quiet affair. But not so for 2023, as Michael Audain's newly established foundation is starting work now to turn his centenary into a national affair.
The Vancouver philanthropist, art collector, and chair of Polygon Homes has founded the Jean Paul Riopelle Foundation to raise the artist's profile and inspire a new generation of Canadian artists.
"In 2023 we'll be celebrating across the country and use the event of his centenary to make Canadians aware that Riopelle isn't just a great Quebec artist, or even a great Canadian artist, but also, of course, that he's considered a very important artist of 20th century modernist art," Audain told the Straight over the phone, adding special nationwide exhibitions will mark the occasion.
Joining Audain in the creation of the foundation are other businesspeople, art collectors, and philanthropists, including Liberal Senator Serge Joyal, Andre Desmarais of Power Corporation, art historian Dr. John Porter, and Riopelle’s daughter, Yseult Riopelle. Montreal-based Manon Gauthier will serve as the foundation's inaugural executive director.
In addition to steerheading the centenary celebrations, the foundation will be dedicated to forming a repository for the Riopelle archives and a centre of scholarship in the documentation, publication, and discourse on his work.
Riopelle was born in Montreal, later beginning art studies and becoming a member of Les Automatistes' movement. In 1949 he moved to Paris, where he would live for four decades, his work evolving from surrealism to abstract expressionism, the artist often working with a palette knife or spatula on large canvases that would sometimes drip with paint.
"As a young man he went over to Paris on a ship transporting horses," remarked Audain. "There were no Canada Council grants in those days; he made it on his own and it wasn't easy for a young man from the East Side of Montreal going into Parisian society."
In 1969 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, and began to spend more time in Canada, his focus turning to ink on paper, watercolours, lithography, collage, and oils, and experimenting with sculptural installations, including a fountain in Montreal's Olympic Stadium, La joute. Later, he even delved into ceramics and aerosol spraypaint. Along the way, he hung out with legends like Samuel Beckett, André Breton, Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti, Pierre Matisse, Joan Miró, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the naturalist Archibald Belaney (aka "Grey Owl").
Riopelle enjoyed major retrospectives at museums from Russia to France, spending his last years at Isle-aux-Grues, an isolated island in the St. Lawrence River, dying in 2002.
The late artist's work now sells for massive amounts on the art market; in 2017, Heffel Fine Art Auction House sold Riopelle's painting Vent du nord for $7,438,750, the second-highest price to date for a Canadian work of art. (Lawren Harris's Mountain Forms holds top spot.)
"He was always challenging himself, moving from one way of makign art to another and his style changed over time," comments Audain, who has had an almost lifelong long for the artist's work, surrounding himself with it at his Vancouver office and acquiring a personal collection of over 30 paintings.
Audain recalls seeing his first Riopelle work as a teen. "What startled me was the vibrance and colour," he says, adding he misinterpreted it as straightforward abstract art for decades afterward. "It was a new way of depicting nature, the feelings and aspects of nature."
Now, he's hoping the new foundation can help spread that appreciation. "We want to take him out of Quebec--surveys have indicated there's a wide familiarity with his work in Quebec, and in France as well," Audain says. "We want to raise that profile but also we want to do something that will encourage younge Canadians to get involved in art making.
"In Canada we frankly don't celebrate our cultural heroes enough," he adds. "This work was collected by scores of museums around the world."