Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Riopelle exhibit weaves a tale of inspiration at Whistler’s Audain Art Museum

The equally ambitious and unique show, originally developed by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, also addresses the problematic past of Indigenous art collection head-on

Whistler's Audain Art Museum (AAM) opened the doors last weekend to the biggest—and arguably most ambitious—special exhibition in the institution’s nearly six-year history.

Riopelle: The Call of Northern Landscapes and Indigenous Cultures examines the life and work of Montreal-born Jean Paul Riopelle, one of Canada’s most prolific artists of the 20th century. A signatory of the 1948 Refus Global manifesto, Riopelle first gained international acclaim for his bright, mosaic- style paintings after establishing himself in Paris in the 1950s. There, he became associated with members of the surrealist movement, while simultaneously fostering a fascination with the Indigenous North American art brought overseas by collectors during that time period.

The special exhibit shines a light on Riopelle’s lesser-examined work created after his return to Quebec in the 1970s. The show, developed and debuted at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), was organized by guest curators Andréanne Roy and Yseult Riopelle (the artist’s daughter), as well as MMFA curator of Quebec and Canadian art (before 1945) Jacques Des Rochers. The AAM is the first venue to host Riopelle: The Call of Northern Landscapes and Indigenous Cultures outside of its home in Montreal.

Its ambition stems not just from the exhibition’s size, but from its uniqueness. Curators made the clever and unconventional decision to expand the exhibit’s collection far beyond Riopelle’s body of work.

“This is a different type of exhibition than we’ve ever put on the floor,” explained AAM director and chief curator Curtis Collins during a preview of the exhibit on Thursday, Oct. 21. “Normally we’ll have paintings or drawings or sculptures by a single artist or many artists, but in this show, we want to show you what Riopelle was looking at and reading, and ... immerse you in Riopelle’s world.”

Walking through a series of chronologically and thematically arranged rooms, viewers will find Indigenous artworks that inspired Riopelle positioned alongside his own pieces. The collection includes historical works from the Yup’ik, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Tlingit communities of Alaska and B.C.’s Northwest Coast, as well as pieces by contemporary Indigenous artists.

In some cases, the references are as direct as First Nations masks and a centuries-old piledriver artifact—borrowed from the Philadelphia Museum of Art—that Riopelle references in a series of previously un-shown silverpoint drawings. Others represent more abstract, cross-cultural references like the Yup’ik-style masks crafted by the late Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick, whose work was previously featured in a retrospective exhibit presented by the AAM in 2018.

“There’s an anthropological undercurrent to the show that also connects Riopelle squarely to the international nature of the surrealist movement of that time,” Collins said, adding “this exhibition reads very much differently in British Columbia. And one of the reasons that we want to show it is because it is so relevant to our permanent collection.”

With that in mind, the show doesn’t shy away from the difficult and unavoidable issues surrounding cultural appropriation as they relate to art, said Collins.

Much of the Indigenous art that undoubtedly influenced Riopelle would have been stolen during Potlatch raids between the last quarter of the 19th century until the 1950s, when the traditional cultural ceremonies remained banned.

“The provenance, or how these works changed hands, is definitely a critical part of the larger understanding of the show, but one which this museum and museums around the world have to think about in terms of the context of their collection,” Collins said. “It opens up that discourse—it is no doubt problematic.”

In preparation for the show’s Audain debut, Collins brought through AAM board member and artist Xwalacktun (Rick Harry) from Squamish Nation, and Mixalhítsa7 Alison Pascal from the Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Centre for their perspective, to ensure that the exhibit was raising the appropriate questions.

Museums, Collins added, “have to come to terms with the past and be honest and constructive in the present.”

Alongside the abundance of Indigenous works are pieces on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, while rows of glass showcases display historical photographs, tools, books, and extracts from Riopelle’s correspondence that provide new context to his larger-than-life works. (“It’s about Riopelle, but there are other artists that are key to the show—in addition to a little-known artist named Henri Matisse,” Collins quipped during the exhibit preview.)

About halfway through the exhibit, audiences will also hear the cracking of ice. That sound will fill a room focused on Riopelle’s black-and-white iceberg series, inspired by his views from a bush-plane window during a hunting and fishing trip to the far north in the mid-1970s.

The result is an immersive, multidisciplinary and interconnected exhibition that sheds new light on one of Canada’s most renowned artists, and should not be missed.

Riopelle: The Call of Northern Landscapes and Indigenous Cultures officially opened to the public on Saturday, Oct. 23. It’s set to run until Feb. 21, 2022.