The Montreal artist Jean Paul Riopelle (1923–2002) began his career as a full participant in the Quebec Automatiste movement. He contributed to the group’s manifesto Refus global, released on August 9, 1948, insisting that its text not be a repetition of similar European declarations such as the Surrealist movement’s Rupture inaugurale, which he had also signed in 1947 alongside André Breton (1896–1966).
Riopelle defended the scandalous Refus after its historic publication, and his abstract works at the time were in harmony with the intentions of his fellow Automatistes, including Paul-Émile Borduas (1905–1960) and Marcel Barbeau (1925–2016). Collectively they called for a rejection of figuration in favour of the spontaneous, instinctive creative act. In Riopelle’s Hochelaga, for instance, touches of colour are distributed over the entire surface, which is strewn with drips that suggest a speedy execution and a lack of conscious control.
However, by the early 1950s, Riopelle had begun to break away from the movement. In an automatist work of art, the artist maintains control even though he or she might use coincidental elements to create the composition. This bothered Riopelle, who was in search of an art that removed any type of control and allowed for free creation. He found the work of his compatriots, such as Borduas and Barbeau, limited in this regard. They restricted the opportunity for accidental elements to invade the composition of a painting.
For instance, Borduas painted Nature’s Parachutes (19.47) in two stages: first the dark background, then, once the paint had dried, the “objects” (the “parachutes”), carefully placed to avoid any overlapping. The Montreal artist Guido Molinari (1933–2004) suggested that this composition would have been impossible if Borduas had proceeded with his eyes closed. Yet Borduas claimed to have no preconceptions of what his painting would become: “faced with the white page, my mind free of any literary ideas, I respond to my first impulse. If I feel like placing my charcoal in the middle of the page, or to one side, I do so without question, and then go on from there.” Despite his assertion, it is difficult to see how any element of the whole could be moved without compromising the balance of the composition. Something similar can be said of Barbeau’s painting Tumult with a Tense Jaw, in which the artist oriented his marks in a V shape, its ends pointing to the upper left and right corners of the pictorial surface. It seems that here, too, a “restriction of chance” occurs.
At the Paris exhibition Véhémences confrontées (Confronted Vehemences) at La Dragonne, also known as the Galerie Nina Dausset, which ran from March 8 to 31, 1951, Riopelle joined several other artists in releasing a written statement that outlined their dissenting position against the movement: “Automatism, which was meant to achieve total openness, has shown itself to be limited by the action of chance. . . . A painter who draws involuntarily can only repeat indefinitely the same curve; nothing allows us to prefer this act to one restricted by the kind of tool an architect might use to draw a curve. Only total chance is fertile.”
Ironically, while Riopelle spoke out against automatism in Paris, his contribution to Véhémences confrontées, Untitled, embodies the movement’s desire for “total chance.” Following the showing of this painting, however, he withdrew from the group altogether, which he felt had betrayed him because they claimed a “total openness” that nonetheless restricted opportunities for true spontaneity to occur.
Ultimately, Riopelle could not accept automatism as a “refusal of conscious intent” and found it to be a principle that resulted only in constraint. “The important thing is intensity,” he observed, and to maintain a “state of purity, of availability before the work.” Anything less would lead to monotonous and repetitive work—a “dead end,” he declared.
This Essay is excerpted from Jean Paul Riopelle: Life & Work by François-Marc Gagnon.