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Les masques by Jean Paul Riopelle, 1964.

Estate of Jean Paul Riopelle

Jean-Paul Riopelle had returned from Europe 12 years before his death in 2002, but Quebec is still fighting to give its modernist art star a proper home. It’s a battle, made tougher by the pandemic, to preserve a precarious cultural legacy, but the artist’s supporters are digging in on two separate fronts.

One is a major exhibition arguing that Riopelle, a painter best remembered for the aggressive abstraction he produced in the 1950s in Paris, was influenced both by the northern landscape and the Indigenous presence in Canada. That ground-breaking show was supposed to be opening this month at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), but COVID-19 closures have delayed it until January at the earliest.

The other front is the recently formed Riopelle Foundation, dedicated to creating a permanent gallery and research centre in time for the artist’s centenary in 2023. With only three years to go, the foundation is still looking for a building after the MMFA announced last week that it is canceling plans to house the project because of the pandemic’s impact on finances.

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Pangnirtung, 1977.

Estate of Jean Paul Riopelle

“I believe the work of Riopelle deserves to be better understood and presented. … His critical stature has shrunk from being an international star to a provincial legend,” Stéphane Aquin, the new MMFA director, said in an interview. Aquin believes restoring Riopelle’s lustre is probably best achieved by the foundation presenting itself as a stand-alone destination in Montreal. At any rate, he is not going to expose his institution to the rapidly rising construction costs of adding a new floor to the museum’s Desmarais Pavilion on the south side of Sherbrooke Street.

“Our attitude is very definitely to move ahead and seek other alternatives, whether to acquire an existing building or build a new one,” said Michael Audain, the Vancouver developer and collector who co-founded the foundation. He was planning to donate his 36 Riopelles to the MMFA’s cancelled project.

The rupture between the foundation and the MMFA is not irreparable, as the museum unveils its new Riopelle exhibition, albeit online only. The artist’s daughter, Yseult Riopelle, who also established the foundation, was present for the show’s media launch Wednesday.

Jean-Paul Riopelle, second from left, on a fishing trip in Quebec, about 1975.

Claude Duthuit /Archives Yseult Riopelle

Author of her father’s catalogue raisonné, she began researching his interest in Indigenous art after his death. “We imbibed that atmosphere,” she said in French, describing the Inuit and Northwest Coast art that surrounded the family during the artist’s Paris years. In 2016, she joined forces with MMFA curators already working on the thesis that Riopelle, who began returning to Canada for hunting trips in the 1970s, was influenced by the idea of the North. And so, Riopelle: The Call of Northern Landscapes and Indigenous Cultures came together, originally intended as a run-up to the new Riopelle wing.

That space was the latest of many ambitious expansions – probably too many – undertaken by former MMFA director Nathalie Bondil before she was controversially fired last summer. At Wednesday’s media conference nobody mentioned her name, but the exhibition that includes both historic and contemporary Indigenous art alongside 110 works by Riopelle seems typical of the multidisciplinary and cross-cultural directions she was championing.

The public can see the show online between Dec. 1 and Jan. 11, at which point the MMFA hopes to reopen. A full analysis of the exhibition’s thesis and art is going to have to wait for that physical tour: Riopelle’s best-known work is famous for a sculptural impasto applied with the palette knife rather than the brush.

Yet one goal of both the exhibition and the foundation is to broaden that popular image of wild-man modernism to include Riopelle’s delicate drawings and complex sculptures as well as the later landscapes and iceberg paintings. Audain, an impassioned fan, often speaks about the need to introduce the work to a younger generation across Canada. The show will tour to the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, B.C., and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, but so far not to any international venues. Still, in an era when mid-century modernism is trendy and Indigenous art is highly prized, the exhibition might yet fuel a Riopelle revival.

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Meanwhile, the foundation pushes ahead. The Quebec government has promised that the $10-million grant attached to the MMFA’s wing will now follow the foundation to wherever it lands. “Riopelle lived in France for 40 years and returned in the end for the last 12 years,” said foundation director Manon Gauthier. “It’s about bringing a great Canadian hero home to Montreal.”

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