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Claude Duthuit's photograph of Paul Rebeyrolle, Riopelle, Jacques Lamy and Champlain Charest on a fishing trip, about 1975.Claude Duthuit – Archives Yseult Riopelle /Estate of Jean Paul Riopelle / SOCAN (2021)

In the final room of the current Jean-Paul Riopelle exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the curators remind us that the artist was a man of his time. That’s by way of an explanation or apology for drawings and lithographs of the late 1970s that borrow images of masks from the Inuit and the Kwakwaka’wakw and Tlingit nations of the West Coast. Riopelle, who was born in 1923, did not share the current sensitivity to white appropriation of Indigenous culture.

And yet these works feel more tentative than presumptuous. Late in his career, two decades after the height of his abstraction and his fame, the artist seems to be fishing for new representational subjects. The faithful illustrations of masks and leaves – the latter in a reference to a poem by the Quebec poet Émile Nelligan – are delicately pleasing but not much else. There’s an unfortunate sense, as the exhibition closes, that the once mighty Riopelle was something of a spent force just as the 1980s were about to revive painting and representation.

That is not, of course, the intention of curators Andréanne Roy, Jacques Des Rochers and Yseult Riopelle, the artist’s daughter. Their show, entitled Riopelle: The Call of Northern Landscapes and Indigenous Cultures, examines his lifelong Canadian influences and focuses on the work produced as the artist resettled in his native Quebec after decades at the centre of the Parisian art world. With a kaleidoscopic palette and an aggressive palette knife, Riopelle had been the first Canadian artist to build a genuinely international reputation when he moved to Paris just after the Second World War. Yet by the 1970s, as both the hegemony of abstraction and his relationship with the American ex-pat artist Joan Mitchell waned, the old Quebecker increasingly returned to Canada, to work, to travel to the Arctic and to hunt and fish with friends. (The 25-year relationship with Mitchell, and the links between their two artistic practices, was the subject of a major show organized by Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in 2017, and shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in 2018.) In 1990, Riopelle finally came home for good.

This show is partly sponsored by the Riopelle Foundation and the family foundation of British Columbia collector Michael Audain, who are planning a new Riopelle museum in Montreal with an eye to re-affirming the artist’s flagging international reputation. In the meantime, this exhibition mainly informs Canadians that Riopelle was one of them. Its opening delayed by COVID, it closes soon in Montreal but will then tour to B.C., New Brunswick and Alberta, so that many Canadians can get reacquainted – or acquainted – with a lesser known side of the artist’s oeuvre. They will find it hard to argue with the curators’ thesis: The exhibition clearly demonstrates that Riopelle had a lifelong interest in Inuit and Northwest Coast art, and that Northern landscapes hover beneath much of his abstraction. You can take the man out of the country …

The trouble is, when the country finally erupts, in his paintings devoted to the image of the owl in the early 1970s and to icebergs later in the decade, the impasto and heavily contrasting colours all seem a tad obvious. There was often a sense, even in Riopelle’s most lyrical abstractions of the 1950s, of some kind of representation, a figure on a ground, a landscape or cityscape. It’s an ambiguity that animates a painting such as Point de Rencontre (Meeting Place), the large mural from 1963 originally created for Toronto’s Pearson Airport that is one of the high points of this show. In a much-quoted statement, Riopelle confused the two styles, suggesting his supposedly representational paintings were his most abstract and vice versa, but the owls and icebergs lack the dynamism of the abstractions and feel slack in comparison.

Jean Paul Riopelle's Masque Eskimo (Eskimo Mask) from 1955.archives catalogue raisonné Jean Paul Riopelle/Estate of Jean Paul Riopelle / SOCAN (2021)

Abstraction was something of religious tenet in the 1950s and there are lots of examples of abstractionists – Philip Guston in New York; Paterson Ewen in London, Ont. – who were liberated in the 1970s when they abandoned the faith. Yet for Riopelle, the shift feels less like a liberation and more like a compromise. He was always a macho painter but the representational styles can seem downright coarse while this exhibition, in its weakest moments, takes on the unfortunate pallor of those routine exercises in drumming up interest in an artist’s late career.

Meanwhile, Riopelle’s relationship with Indigenous cultures is tricky territory. This show does include one contemporary work at the start – Cree artist Duane Linklater’s A Gift from Doreen, a deconstructed teepee that hangs evocatively, like an unprepared canvas, at the start – but generally does not attempt the contemporary Indigenous commentary on a colonial project that is more or less successfully embroidered throughout the new Rembrandt show at the National Gallery of Canada.

Instead, the curators content themselves with careful display cases of the traditional Indigenous art – mainly masks – that inspired Riopelle. There, the show’s first room is one of its most intriguing as Riopelle, engaged with the Paris Surrealists in those early days, looks to Inuit and Northwest Coast art for the same “exotic” authenticity that Europeans had found in African art. The results, some small, light-handed gouaches such as Masque Eskimo (Eskimo Mask) from 1955, where the references are barely discernible, and a bold tripartite semi-abstraction from 1964 entitled Les Masques (The Masks) are evidence the inspiration was fruitful and profound, even if the Indigenous artists were not acknowledged.

Still, it’s slim pickings and the didactic displays – including the books of Archibald Belaney (the notorious “Grey Owl”) as evidence of the wartime generation’s introduction to ecology, the information that Riopelle often hunted with Indigenous guides and a photo of him and buddies on a fishing trip – do little to suggest this relationship was anything but one-sided.

Part of the Riopelle Foundation’s mission is to bring the internationalist home to Canada. And yet, the paradox of this exhibition is that once home, Riopelle seems less capable of the persuasive painting that made his global career.

View of the exhibition Riopelle: The Call of Northern Landscapes and Indigenous Cultures, which runs until Sept. 12.Denis Farley - MMFA/Estate of Jean Paul Riopelle / SOCAN (2021)

Riopelle: The Call of Northern Landscapes and Indigenous Cultures closes at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Sept. 12. It will travel to the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, B.C. from Oct. 23 to Feb. 21, 2022, to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton in spring 2022, and to the Glenbow Museum in Calgary in summer and fall 2022.