While museums and galleries around the world mark 50 years since Picasso’s death, institutions in Canada are observing a banner year for a home-grown Modern art legend: Jean-Paul Riopelle.
The celebrated Canadian Abstract Expressionist died in 2002, but he is more present than ever this year in anticipation of the centennial of his birth on 7 October 2023. The Riopelle Foundation, based in the artist’s hometown of Montréal and chaired by developer, philanthropist and collector Michael Audain, with Manon Gauthier as executive director, has been at work since 2018 preparing for the centenary (the foundation officially launched the following year).
Several events are already underway in Canada with others on the horizon. There will also be a major announcement in Paris—a city the artist called home for some 40 years—on 12 April.
When Riopelle’s painting Vent du nord (1952-53) realised a record-breaking C$7.4m ($5.4m) at auction in 2017, the catalogue accompanying the sale said as much. “In Europe and the USA, he was seen as much as a French, and specifically a Parisian artist, as Canadian,” it read.
“This is a story that resonates on both sides of the ocean,” says Gauthier, who never knew the artist. “I met him through his art—it was like electroshock.”
Last year, the foundation announced a donation worth C$120m ($88.8m) to the Quebec City-based Musée national des beaux-arts du Quebec (MNBAQ), the bulk of that in Riopelle works (as many as 70 works, according to Gauthier) that will be shown at the forthcoming Espace Riopelle pavilion.
The MNBAQ was the first museum to acquire a Riopelle, back in 1956. Decades later, the artist envisioned such a space to show works by himself and other artists. Preparatory work on the pavilion is underway, a target opening date in late 2025 or early 2026. (Another project is afoot to build a small Riopelle museum on the island where he spent many of the latter years of his life.)
A towering Marc Séguin mural in homage to Riopelle is already on view in Montréal and there’s also a tribute to him by the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, with more concerts to follow later in the year. Late last month the foundation, with the assistance of the Department of Canadian Heritage and Culture, announced the winners of a coast-to-coast cultural mediation program in celebration of the artist, called “Riopelle Dialogues”. Also forthcoming is a theatrical performance by celebrated Québecois playwright Robert Lepage with the working title Le Projet Riopelle (25 April-9 June.
The biggest celebration of Riopelle’s work will open shortly after what would have been his 100th birthday: a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada (27 October 2023-7 April 2024) featuring around 100 of his works as well as pieces by his contemporaries including Joan Mitchell (his partner of many years), Alberto Giacometti and Jackson Pollock (to whom he was often compared), as well as others by living artists.
“We need to celebrate the past and engage in conversation with today’s artists,” Gauthier says. “Our biggest dream is for people to share Riopelle.”
- Jean-Paul Riopelle, 27 October 2023-7 April 2024, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa