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Exclusive Interview – Yseult Riopelle
Three Decades Promoting her Father’s Oeuvre
EXCLUSIVE – As the fifth volume of the Catalogue raisonné de Jean Paul Riopelle is still hot off the press, the team at the Riopelle Foundation interviewed Yseult Riopelle, daughter of the artist, editor and co-author with her son Tanguy Riopelle, of this monumental work bringing together all the artist’s oeuvre.
Riopelle Foundation (JPRF): Madame Riopelle, the Catalogue raisonné de Jean Paul Riopelle Tome 5 has just been published. It is the result of many years of extensive work and research. What will readers and art lovers discover in this new volume?
Yseult Riopelle (YR): In this new volume, which covers the period from 1972 to 1979, people will be able to discover a lot of evolution, perhaps even more than in the other volumes published to date, both in the techniques as well as in the themes addressed by Jean Paul Riopelle. His inspirations have changed enormously during this decade, especially through his readings, his experiences and his discoveries. He read a lot about history, about explorers, the people who went to the Canadian Far North and described everything they had seen over there. He read magazines and books. His inspiration could also come from photos, as he was inspired by many photos of Indigenous masks from the West Coast. Some of these masks are now showcased as part of the exhibition currently underway at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA).
JPRF: Speaking of this exhibition, you are acting as guest curator and have actively contributed to its development since 2003. It particularly addresses the unique relationship Jean Paul Riopelle had with Indigenous cultures. How do you think this relationship influenced Riopelle’s artistic approach during this period?
YR: Riopelle went regularly to visit André Breton and Georges Duthuit, who had collections of Indigenous masks. Duthuit’s office was filled with masks from different countries. We were really immersed in that culture. They were mostly ancient works. Riopelle’s approach was therefore rather historic. In fact, it was his admiration for these Indigenous masks and sculptures that he later transposed into his art. He also read extensively on the history of Indigenous peoples, but he was especially interested in their artistic work.
JPRF: Nature and the environment also play an important role in the oeuvre of Jean Paul Riopelle. It has been the case throughout his life, but his frequent travels back to Canada in the 1970’s, after nearly two decades spent mostly in France, were an opportunity for him to reconnect with the Northern fauna and flora, weren’t they?
YR: Absolutely. Riopelle was a visual artist; he was inspired by everything he could discover. It could be icebergs or animals. During this period, he often went to the North for fishing or hunting trips which allowed him to immerse himself in nature where he could find a lot of inspiration for his art.
JPRF: You have been working on Jean Paul Riopelle’s Catalogue raisonné for more than 30 years. How did you get to take on this important role at the end of the 1980’s?
YR: Riopelle was quite unhappy to see what was happening around his work and that of other artists. He always said jokingly: “They’re selling Cézanne’s apples by the piece!”, as if people were cutting each apple out of his paintings. In reality, it was somewhat true. Jean Paul worked a lot in diptychs or triptychs and we sometimes found dismantled works of art. All that bothered him a lot. I then said to myself “how am I going to protect his work?”, and so I looked it up and I was told that we had to do a catalogue raisonné. This is how it all started. He encouraged me to accept this impossible mission! (laughs)
JPRF: Jean Paul Riopelle produced over the course of his entire life nearly 7000 works of art which are today disseminated all over the globe. You will soon begin the development of the 6th volume of the Catalogue raisonné which will partly cover the period of the 1980’s. It will be added to the five other volumes that have been published so far, in addition to the Catalogue raisonné des estampes that you released in 2005. How do you proceed to locate and index all of Riopelle’s works?
YR: It’s a pretty complex process. First, it should be noted that prior to the 1980’s, there were no archives or traces left of Riopelle’s works. Back then, it was usually the artists’ wives who archived their works. However, the majority of the people with whom Riopelle lived during his life were themselves artists who were just as involved in their own art as he was. Thus, there was no one around him to help archive his works. So I started by going to meet some specialists. It was my first step. I didn’t have to go very far; Jean Paul took me to see experts of the oeuvre of Henri Matisse. I saw the notebooks in which all the details about Matisse’s works were compiled. It was pretty phenomenal because every time Matisse created a new painting, notes were taken, with a lot of information. For them, it was absolutely precious. I guess we can say that I went to the right school! At the time, I didn’t have any expertise in developing a catalogue raisonné and they taught me. I then started to transcribe everything I could find, the catalogs, the information… Little by little, my research became better known and it followed with auction rooms, collectors contacting me, etc. The work is done over all the periods at the same time. There is no particular period targeted, I process the information as it comes.
JPRF: In your opinion, over the past three decades of exhaustive research, what has been the most important discovery that you have made about the oeuvre of Jean Paul Riopelle?
YR: The most interesting discoveries for me are when works of art from Riopelle’s early career, some of the few that have not yet been catalogued to this day, re-emerge. These are works that belonged to what I call “real collectors”, and by that I really mean people who collect art because they love it and who have kept these paintings for their entire lives. These collectors were often unaware of the existence of Jean Paul Riopelle’s Catalogue raisonné. Usually, these works come out of the shadow during estate sales. Finding works from the 1950’s that were completely unknown to us before really is the greatest gift.
JPRF: Have you ever come across works from his very beginnings in the 1940’s, when he was studying painting in his youth in Montréal and starting to define his style?
YR: No, absolutely not. All of the pivotal works from the years around 1945, when we see a turn towards abstract art, were destroyed because Riopelle’s parents considered it to be the devil’s work. They were very happy to have him get painting lessons when he was in school, but when he started to think of making a career out of it, they would have preferred him to be an engineer or an architect, something like that, but certainly not a painter!
JPRF: A catalogue raisonné is generally an evolving compilation to which newly authenticated works can be added over time. Do you believe that there are still many works by Riopelle that are not yet known to exist in the world?
YR: There are not a lot of these left nowadays. As I progressively cover the different periods and get closer to today, there are fewer and fewer of them since it is simply better documented. But we will continue to find some, that’s for sure. Besides, I do have files, which I call “orphan files”, where we know that the works have existed, but they still have to be located.
JPRF: The development of the Catalogue raisonné de Jean Paul Riopelle is more than ever a family affair. Your son, Tanguy Riopelle, is getting more and more involved with you in order to preserve the oeuvre and the incredible legacy of Jean Paul Riopelle. Are you proud to see the 3rd generation of the Riopelle family taking an active part in these efforts?
YR: I am absolutely delighted that my son is now collaborating with me! Tanguy lives in Paris, so our collaboration is virtual at the moment! (laughs) We are getting more and more used to it. He is starting to be highly involved in the research and, more particularly, in the research that we have carried out for the current exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He helps me search archives, libraries and other places. With the pandemic, it’s getting somewhat difficult at the moment, but we hope to be able to resume our research as soon as possible.
JPRF: You also contributed, almost two years ago, to the creation of the Jean Paul Riopelle Foundation. You also act as a member of the Foundation’s board of directors. The creation of such an organization was a dream that Riopelle had cherished for many years, wasn’t it?
YR: Yes, Jean Paul had been dreaming – that’s the word – of this Foundation since 1968! His vision was based, on the one hand, on a museum space, but above all on the creation of a place where artists could meet, and to showcase international artists. He wanted to create a place where we could conduct research – he even wanted me to edit his friends’ catalogues raisonnés, as if I didn’t have enough to do with him already! (laughs). He wanted to create artist studios to teach and protect old techniques. Passing on the knowledge was what he was interested in. He really liked playing with the different techniques, whether it was mechanics, leaf gilding or even ceramics, and so he wanted to create this space to give other artists the chance to use them. He also enjoyed advancing techniques, trying new things with different collaborators and craftsmen. He had been fortunate enough to be part of the Galerie Maeght’s stable. Basically, what Jean Paul wanted to reproduce was the Fondation Maeght model but much larger. I can’t speak for him, but he would probably be glad the see that the Foundation he dreamed of for so long finally exists.
JPRF: In conclusion, as the year 2021 begins, preparations for Riopelle’s centenary celebrations in 2023 are well underway. What would be your fondest wish for these celebrations?
YR: We already have several major projects in development for the centenary in 2022-2023. The most important thing in my opinion would be to organize an international exhibition. It’s about promoting Riopelle around the world, especially since the current exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, on which we have been working for so many years, is only accessible virtually for the moment due to the pandemic. It can give an idea of the exhibition, but nothing really beats a true and complete immersion into Riopelle’s oeuvre. I hope people will eventually be able to admire this exhibition in person, whether in Montreal, Whistler or Calgary, as part of its Canadian tour.
For more information about the Catalogue raisonné de Jean Paul Riopelle or to purchase a copy of volumes 1 to 5, as well as the Catalogue raisonné des estampes, visit www.fondationriopelle.com/en/catalogue-raisonne.