The Call of the Wild
An exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts draws attention to the influence of the Arctic on Jean Paul Riopelle, Canada’s greatest postwar artist.
By John Dorfman
The history of the fascination of Surrealist and abstract artists with the indigenous art of the Arctic is a long one. It starts in the 1930s, when George G. Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian in New York, decided to deaccession some of the less-prized Inuit and Northwest Coast pieces in the museum’s collection. He allowed the dealer Julius Carlebach, a friend of Max Ernst and a close associate of the Surrealists, to sell these at reasonable prices, and the buyers included such luminaries as Ernst, André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Kay Sage, Roberto Matta, and Enrico Donati. The works, especially the Yup’ik masks from Alaska, made a deep impression on the artists, with their evocative and bizarre imagery, asymmetry, and suggestions of the transformation of animal into human and vice versa. The masks seemed to speak from the uncanny realm of the subconscious, to which the Surrealists tried to gain admittance by the practice of automatism, suspending the rational and controlling faculty of the mind in order to let creativity flow.
Separately, at the end of the 1930s, the Austrian-born Surrealist Wolfgang Paalen became interested in Northwest Coast and Alaskan art and went on several collecting trips to those regions. A theorist and something of an anthropologist as well as an artist, Paalen believed that these indigenous works expressed a “totemic” mentality that refused to draw distinctions between the human and animal realms and between the observer and the observed. Paalen’s writings on these subjects in his magazine DYN, published in the early 1940s and illustrated with pieces from his collection and others, had a great influence on artists inside and outside the Surrealist movement.
The French-Canadian artist Jean Paul Riopelle was among those who were seduced by the strange beauty and fascination of Northwest Coast and Arctic art. Born in 1923, he was of a later generation than the original Surrealists, and although he did not identify as a Surrealist or even a neo-Surrealist, he was definitely part of their lineage. Growing up in Montreal, the son of an architect, he gave up architecture for art and in the mid- to late ’40s was part of a group of young Québecois artists who, inspired by Breton and his circle, called themselves “les automatistes.” In 1947, Riopelle was in Paris, where he met a number of Surrealist artists and writers, as well as the polymathic critic Georges Duthuit. A friend of Breton, Duthuit was the son-in-law of Henri Matisse and a major advocate of Matisse’s work. He also championed young artists, notably Nicolas de Staël and, eventually, Riopelle himself. Duthuit, a collector, showed his Yup’ik masks to Riopelle and also introduced him to Paalen’s writings on the subject. (Incidentally, Matisse himself was very taken with Yup’ik masks and in the 1940s, inspired by those he saw in his son-in-law’s collection, undertook a series of monochrome lithographic portraits of Inuit people.)
Arctic and Northwest Coast art appealed to Riopelle for many of the same reasons as it did to the earlier Surrealists, but there was also a personal element. As a Canadian, Riopelle felt the pull of the far north, which was far enough away to be mysterious but close enough to beckon. He was not the first Canadian artist to experience that magnetic attraction; in 1930, Lawren Harris, a member of the Group of Seven, traveled to Baffin Island off the Davis Strait, and the weird, otherworldly landscapes he saw there profoundly influenced his painting. A revelatory 2015 exhibition of Harris’ work at the Hammer Museum in L.A. was titled “The Idea of North” after a famous radio documentary produced in 1967 by the Canadian pianist and broadcaster Glenn Gould. In that piece, Gould said, “Like all but a very few Canadians, I’ve had no real experience of the North—I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained, for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about and, in the end, avoid.” An adventurer and outdoorsman by nature—Breton called him a “superior trapper”—Riopelle chose not to avoid the North but to immerse himself in it, both in his imagination and in physical reality.
An exhibition now on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts explores in detail the influence of the Arctic—both the region and its indigenous people—on Riopelle’s artistic vision. It is noteworthy that despite the importance of this connection, it has not been much discussed, and there has never been a museum show dedicated to it. “Riopelle: The Call of Northern Landscapes and Indigenous Cultures” (November 21, 2020–March 21, 2021) places on view nearly 175 works by the artist (drawn from the MMFA’s collection as well as loaned nationally and internationally) as well as some 200 artifacts and documents to shed light on the two key periods the artist’s career—the 1950s and the 1970s—during which the Arctic and its people had their greatest influence on his work. Complementing and illuminating the works by Riopelle will be historical indigenous artworks from the Canadian north, as well as works by contemporary Inuit and First Nations artists.
The scholarly catalogue, published in English and French versions, is authored by curators Adréanne Roy and Jacques Des Rochers along with Yseult Riopelle, the artist’s daughter, with contributions from many writers including Inuit writers, artists, and activists (one essay in the catalogue, by Leena Evic, is published in the Inuktitut language, with facing translation.) “In our search for the sources that stimulated the artist’s imagination,” the curators explain, “we discovered a man inspired not only by nature but also by culture. Besides his contacts with Indigenous guides during hunting and fishing trips, it was primarily books and exhibitions, including Inuit and First Nations art, that awakened his interest in Indigenous communities, topographies and material cultures. This intellectual and artistic quest was particularly decisive during the 1950s and 1970s.”
During the ’50s, Riopelle’s involvement was based on experience of the art objects and on reading, while during the ’70s it was more based on travel in the Arctic. The MMFA show’s juxtaposition of works by Riopelle with works by indigenous artists makes it possible for viewers to contemplate the resonances, which are generally subtle, because Riopelle never copied indigenous works. In a sense, the exhibition fulfills an ambition of the artist himself, who as early as 1954 considered just such a pairing for a show of his work at the Rive Droite gallery in Paris.
In any case, at that point in his career he was making exclusively abstract work. He had crystallized his signature style, in which paint was applied in small strokes with a palette knife to create a faceted surface with contrasts between dull and shiny finishes that give a kaleidoscopic impression. Riopelle, like the Abstract Expressionists with whom he was often compared, stood for absolute freedom in self-expression and had acquired the reputation of a wild man in both art and life. With his love of sport, the outdoors, and fast cars, he appeared as a force of nature himself. In 1948, while temporarily back in Montreal after two years in Paris, he had joined with his friends the artists Paul-Émile Borduas, Marcel Barbeau, and Fernand Leduc, among others, in signing a document titled Refus Global (Total Refusal), which enunciated a rejection of the cultural and religious conservatism of Quebec. Aware that this call to arms would not fundamentally change the Quebecois artistic climate anytime soon, Riopelle chose to base himself in France during the ’50s and ’60s. His return to Canada in the 1970s marked a new phase in his art, one that is reflected in the indigenous-Arctic-themed works from that period on view in the MMFA exhibition.
A work such as Masque Eskimo, a gouache on paper from 1955, shows how Riopelle was inspired by the Yup’ik art he was seeing in Paris without imitating it literally in any sense. The edges of the composition suggest the characteristic outer projections of the masks, while the abstract marks in the inner part of the composition have a circular movement that suggests a face without depicting one. Overall, the feeling of automatism with which Riopelle imbued the painting is what tracks most closely with his experience of Yup’ik masks. He titled quite a few works on paper as well as oils on canvas in the late ’50s with reference to Arctic and Northwest Coast cultures, clearly indicating the affinities he felt.
In the ’70s, Riopelle’s engagement with what the curators of the MMFA exhibition, following the geographer Louis-Edmond Hamelin, term nordicité (northernness or “nordicity”) became more explicit. This shift was motivated in large part by actual, in-person contact with the north country, specifically what is now Nunavut (formerly part of the Northwest Territories) and Nunavik (northern Quebec). The exhibition catalogue includes an interview with Champlain Charest, a medical doctor, art collector, and close friend of Riopelle with whom the artist went on hunting and fishing trips in the north. Charest had a seaplane, which made it easier for the two to reach these remote regions. He recalls that during a trip to Baffin Island in 1974 with the art dealer Theo Waddington, Riopelle fished among the icebergs alongside Inuit fishermen and saw whalebone sculptures made by the locals, some of which Waddington purchased.
Riopelle’s works from his period, including sculptures as well as paintings, are more explicitly Arctic-influenced. In his “Kings of Thule” series (Thule being an archaic word referring to the Arctic realms) he returned to the mask concept, but this time in a three-dimensional format that approaches figuration. A 1979 lithograph titled Masques is a completely figurative rendering of masks, while Inuit (1977), an oil on canvas, uses an Inuit animal carving motif as its central shape, in a basically abstract context. Another genre of Inuit art that appealed to Riopelle was string figures, in which mythic stories are told via a sort of cat’s cradle vocabulary. His acrylic on lithograph triptych L’Esprit de la Ficelle (1971) is an homage to this art form, with the string forms clearly depicted in white on black. In addition to indigenous art, the landscape made a strong impression on Riopelle. His last major oil on canvas series, “Icebergs,” consists of fairly straightforward depictions of physical “nordicity.” In the oil on canvas triptych Pangnirtung (1977), the icebergs seem embedded in the rock-hard soil and in the black sky. The sense of uncanniness that so many observers have observed in the Arctic is powerfully communicated in this painting.
When Breton called Riopelle a “superior trapper,” he was referring to his ability to capture the wild creatures of the imagination, the unconscious, which were so assiduously hunted by the Surrealists. But he also alluded to Riopelle’s well-known affinity for the literal hunting of animals, a sport that he pursued with his friend Charest in the far north. The artist himself definitely felt a connection between the two pursuits, drawing on the indigenous peoples’ attitudes toward hunting. Speaking of moose hunting, he said, “As you sense him getting closer, you have to convince him that you’re a moose as well. You become an animal, an animal with antlers that breaks branches as it moves around. This is the crux . . . If he ‘believes’ it, then he also believes there’s another male around, a potential rival . . . Jealous, furious, he shows himself . . . You want to hunt moose? You have to be a moose. Not everyone is! I’ve drawn all this.”