JEAN-PAUL RIOPELLE (1923-2002) Untitled (from the Iceberg series), circa1977

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Lot 30
Untitled (from the Iceberg series), circa1977

Sold for US$ 115,000 inc. premium
Untitled (from the Iceberg series), circa1977
dated and inscribed '1977 INV 77' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
45 5/8 x 35in. (115.9 x 88.9cm)


  • Provenance
    A gift from the artist to Joan Mitchell, Paris.
    The Estate of Joan Mitchell.
    The Joan Mitchell Foundation.
    Cheim and Read, New York.
    Acquired from the above by the present owner.

    We are grateful to Yseult Riopelle for her assistance in cataloging this lot.

    " the Arctic, nothing is clear cut. All is not black and white. The sky, though, seems black, really black. If I painted a sky that way, no one would believe me. And on the ground, there's not even white snow. There's ice that is grey, transparent. If I painted snow like that, no one would believe me."1 - Jean-Paul Riopelle

    Jean-Paul Riopelle is arguably the most important Canadian artist of the Contemporary era. An early student of Surrealism, he was the sole Canadian adopted by the Post-World War II intellectual elite in Paris, exchanging ideas with André Breton, Alberto Giacometti, and Joan Miró. Riopelle was known worldwide early in his career, representing Canada at the São Paulo Biennale in 1955 and presenting at the Venice Biennale an extraordinary three times.

    At the Ècole du Meuble in Quebec, Riopelle studied under the celebrated professor Paul Èmile Bourdas. In 1924, Bourdas became the founder of a group of students and artists who called themselves 'Les Automatistes'. Riopelle joined 'Les Automatistes', spearheading a more radical adjunct group of sixteen students, the 'Refus Global' (Total Refusal). Publishing their manifesto in 1948, 'Refus Global' rejected the establishment, religion, and academic training, placing the highest value upon automatism and its attempt to unlock the creative unconscious.

    In the study of physiology, automatism refers to performing involuntary processes without conscious control. In other words, familiarity and frequent performance of certain actions causes them to become automatic. Disciples of automatism believe that in order to express one's truest feelings and release creative energy, or to comprehend memories or experiences crucial to working through physiological hindrances, one must be placed in a state in which he or she feels completely unencumbered and free to automatically express themselves without considering the consequences of the produced expressions. While freely associating, psychoanalytic subjects, in theory, relay whatever comes to mind without foresight.

    Generally, Sigmund Freud is most closely associated with the adoption of automatism, free association, and hypnosis. Notwithstanding, intellectuals were questioning the unconscious mind and the consequences of inhibited consciousness in the early post-Enlightenment period. Ludwig Borne, the early 19th century political commentator and philosopher suggested writing "down without falsification or hypocrisy, everything that comes into your head" could foster greater creativity."2 Pierre Janet, a late 19th century French psychiatrist, treated mental disorders with hypnosis, studying the automatic behavior of mediums to determine how the subconscious interacts with the conscious during a trance. Freud extolled free association and automatic action. For him it was a "fundamental technical rule of analysis... [To] instruct the patient to put himself into a state of quiet, unreflecting self-observation, and to report to us whatever internal observations he is able to make... [To] exclude any of them, whether on the ground that it is too disagreeable or too indiscreet to say, or that it is too unimportant or irrelevant, or that it is nonsensical and need not be said."3

    The Surrealists adapted Freudian psychiatry practice and applied it to spontaneous writing, drawing and painting. André Breton, his Surrealist cohorts, Les Automatistes, and later, Abstract Expressionist Action painters used a similar free association technique to paint, draw, and sculpt what came to them, unhindered by perception and repercussion. Authors of the era, like Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce also turned to stream of consciousness in their writing, attempting to capture the inner-most thoughts of their characters.

    In 1949, Riopelle had his first solo show in Paris for which he produced explosive, large, dense canvases. Done in an almost ritualistic manner, he began working in the tachiste style, dabbing mounds of oil paint with a palette knife in demonstrative strokes. Using brightly pigmented paint straight from the tube, he created thick impasto murals of abstraction, produced in a dream-like automation. Riopelle experimented with different medium, producing bronze sculptures, lithographs, and pastel drawings, but his true passion was for emotionally unencumbered oil painting. While his paintings are supposedly purely abstract in their composition, like many Canadian artists, Jean-Paul was eternally influenced by his love of nature. He shared his passion for the plein-air with his long-time lover, the American artist Joan Mitchell. They lived together on and off for 25 years, keeping studios in Giverney, France, the former home of Monet where he produced his famous Waterlilies .

    The relationship was tumultuous but fruitful for each in terms of their artistic practices; Riopelle and Mitchell were constantly influencing and pushing one another. Untitled was a cherished gift given by the artist himself to Mitchell. One might consider this ethereal painting not only a subtle depiction of soft light on frozen snow, but perhaps also a visual rendering of the simultaneous lightness and intensity of their love. Jean-Paul settled in his final years on the remote Isle-aux-Grues on the Saint Lawrence River, relishing in the crisp light and wildlife, inspiring him towards the figurative. In 1992, Joan Mitchell passed away. Riopelle ceased painting upon completing Homage à Rosa Luxemburg (1992), a tribute to his longtime companion. The artist died ten years later in 2002.

    Riopelle often questioned his relationship to abstraction. He longed to find series of signs and symbols that reflected his personal vocabulary. In a sense, Untitled (1977), from the artist's Iceberg series, is an attempt to create an intimate iconography which fits within the context of his abstracted framework. Canadian critic Michael Greenwood celebrated the Iceberg series, stating that Riopelle's work "demonstrates in masterly fashion the action of immeasurable forces. It is a rare spectacle he gives us, cinema-like in in magnitude, of cosmic rhythms provoking the collision of vast galaxies; while at the same time even the minutest turbulences of nature are no less eloquently evoked"4 Influenced by his environment and his capacity to access his own unconsciousness, Riopelle captures the meditative in the tradition of Mark Rothko; transporting the viewer into a serene composition in which we are mesmerized by an unhindered ability to wield paint.

    1. Georgina Oliver, "Riopelle: le trappeur traque," in Nouvelles Litteraores, no. 2673, 8 -15 January, 1979, p. 14 (trans.).
    2. Ernest Jones, The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud: The Formative Years and Great Discoveries, 1953, p. 216.
    3. Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (PFL 1), p. 328.
    4. Michael Greenwood, "Jean-Paul Riopelle: Icebergs," Arts Canada #226/227, May/June 1979.
JEAN-PAUL RIOPELLE (1923-2002) Untitled (from the Iceberg series), circa1977
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