The exhibition Other Worlds brings together two bodies of work from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery’s permanent collection. Five landscapes fill the west gallery with one work each by Canadian artists Miller Gore Brittain, Carol Fraser, William Goodridge Roberts, Robin Collyer, and John Hartman. The five landscapes – four paintings and one photograph – demonstrate the expressive potential of landscape subjects, referencing natural cycles, renewal and growth, and pointing to aspects of the relationship we have with nature. Disparate in style and medium, the five landscapes in the exhibition share an impulse to reimagine the natural world rather than mirror it.
A collection of works on paper by Quebec artist Jean Paul Riopelle fill the east gallery. Riopelle emerged in the 1940s as an artist interested in expressions of an inner reality and the language of abstraction. The works in the BAG collection are mostly from later in his life and some of these images may have been Inspired by the large flocks of snow geese that landed annually in the Bas St. Laurent region where he settled after returning to Quebec.
While contrasting in approach, the landscapes and Riopelle share strong formal antecedents and all of the artists explore varying degrees of abstraction, conceptually and figuratively. In 1952 the American critic Rosenberg called an empty canvas “an arena in which to act..what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event”, articulating a significant break with history in ceasing to regard the surface as a support for a picture, but to see it as a record of an action or an event. The leap Rosenberg articulated is manifested here between William Goodridge Roberts Field in Summer and Riopelle’s prints across the room.
Born in 1923 in Montreal, Jean Paul Riopelle became an artist in post WWII Quebec, and under the influence of Paul Emile Borduas, rejected the traditional representational language of painting in favour of an internal and emotive form of expression. He and a group of seven painters calling themselves Les Automatistes, rejected not only representation in painting, but also the French Modern traditions of Picasso and Matisse in pursuit of a unique abstract art embracing unconscious spontaneous expression. Continuing to push the limits and conventions of their art, Les Automatistes were vocal in their struggle against the socially repressive and authoritarian Quebec society upheld by then Premier Duplessis and the Catholic Church. Idealist social theories, psychoanalysis, and in particular surrealism inspired Riopelle to find in abstraction a means to liberate his art from the socially oppressive culture of the time.The first exhibition of abstract art in Canada was held by Les Automatistes in Montreal in 1946.
Struggling in such a restrictive environment, Les Automatistes eventually all signed the manifesto Refus Global, written by Paul Emile Borduas, that condemned the stranglehold over individual freedom, called for the liberation of the individual and helped launch the Quiet Revolution in Quebec. The manifesto caused many artists great hardship and with a resistance to abstraction evident in Canada, Riopelle soon left to live and work in Paris.
Riopelle spent many years in Paris and Giverny, a respected artist who developed an international career. Riopelle’s works on paper in this collection that date from the 1980s, were created after his return to Canada. While some have strong representational references, many do not. With no centre of interest, no representation of the real world they layer gestures, movement, marks and colour, reflecting the artist’s subconscious in unexpected juxtapositions and reveal a few of the methods Riopelle developed to liberate his imagination. He died in Quebec in 2002.