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Autriche III (Austria III)

Autriche III (Austria III)
signed 'riopelle' (lower right)
oil on canvas
195 x 300 cm. (76 3/4 x 118 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1954
The Baron Berthold and Gigi Urvater Collection, Brussels
Private Collection
Christie's Paris, 3 Dec 2014, Lot 15
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Paris, National Museum of Modern Art, The School of Paris in the Belgian Collections, July 1959
Paris, Galerie Kléber, Riopelle, Large Format Paintings, joint exhibition with the Jacques Dubourg Gallery, May-June 1960

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Lot Essay

‘There is no abstraction nor is there representation: there is only expression, and to express oneself is to look at things and face them. To abstract means to remove, to isolate, to separate, while my aim, on the contrary, is to add, to draw near, to bind.’—Jean-Paul Riopelle

Born in Quebec in 1923, Riopelle stands out as a notable figure in the abstract art scene of the 1950s. A product of France, the United States, and Canada, from whence stem his roots, the artist has retained his singularity. Painted in 1954, Autriche III is a colossal painting that epitomises the climactic moment of Riopelle—a fruitful year when the artist represented Canada in the Venice Biennale alongside Paul-Émile Borduas and B.C. Binning, and began his new partnership with Pierre Matisse Gallery which situated him in confrontation with the young art scene formed by Kline, Gorky, Pollock, and Motherwell, amongst others. It was also the moment when Riopelle began to paint large canvases and created a series of intricate works ‘in harsh, dark colours, with a highly agitated, knife-applied pictorial surface’ (L. Deledicq, The Image Bearer, Montreal 1991, p. 32). Distinct from the spontaneity of his early works with light colours, the present work reveals a new maturity of Riopelle with his use of knife that gives form to the paints—an original technique that would later be described as ‘mosaic’ effect. Such technique allows Riopelle to weave his vibrant palette into his canvas and creates an overall inclination of the pictorial landscape.

‘When I was small—and (still today) when I get the chance—I made snow sculptures. Starting with the traditional children’s snowman, I would create fantastic improvisations to which my bronzes owe a great deal.’—Jean-Paul Riopelle

Riopelle’s early training under sculptor Henri Bisson (1900-1973) foregrounded the artist’s life-long interest and sensibility in the medium. It is not hard to observe the sequential, geometric, mosaic-like impasto in Autriche III carries a prominent tapestried and sculptural qualities that represent Riopelle’s style during his celebrated years and distinct the artist from his contemporaries from the New School of Paris such as Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu, and Zao Wou-ki. Although Riopelle’s three-dimensional works haven’t been part of his major practice until the 1960s, the artist had made sculptures as early as 1947. According to Riopelle, he has ‘always’ been sculpting. The highly textural, mosaic-like paintings only appeared in the 1950s for a decade are seminal for Riopelle’s practice. Autriche III exemplifies the fluidity of Riopelle’s visual lexicon to amalgamate figuration and abstraction; the sculpture and the canvas.

In Autriche III, the white merged from the edge of the canvas plays a central role that orchestrates the entire composition, and is a significant colour that characterises Riopelle’s work during this pivotal period. Evoked by its title, the colour recalls the memory of a journey to the Austrian Alps that took place in the winter of 1954. The artist's eye soaked up the visual force of the snowy landscape, and the propensity of white to make other colours radiate outwards. Shades of red, yellow, green, and blue are scattered on the canvas, emerging through contrast with this white whose strokes appear to invade the canvas gradually. Riopelle uses received components and perceived sensations to bring out the vibration of the colour and light that he has just created. Like how Gerhard Richter uses white to underline the multiple underlying layers of his palette through contrast, Riopelle depicts a rare harmony where the eye vibrated and is guided across the canvas at the whim of the brush strokes.

'Pollock works with line…Riopelle works with colour; he composes forest fugues with wedges of colour. And, of course, he paints, he does not weave colour through his fingers. As a result, his rhythms are entirely different from Pollock’s: less somatic, coiling, darting … He puts himself in tune with natural laws but also with his own: he dances with nature,' James Fitzscimmons once stated. Contrary to Pollock’s action painting that plumbed the depth of artistic psyche, Riopelle’s works sought to move in harmony with the external world. Glinting with mineral texture and crystalline light, Autriche III is a spectacular exemplar of his mission. Sharing the same affection towards nature as his life-long partner Joan Mitchell, Riopelle’s Autriche III is imbued with poetry that aroused one’s imagination of the unhindered energetic force of nature while freeing one from the single register of abstract landscape to which it is often consigned. It captures the ever-changing essence of both humanity and the natural world, like Hericlitus once stated: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.’

It is not insignificant that the present work shares the same name as its sister piece that resides in the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Belonged for many years to one of the largest collections of Post-War modern art, the Berthold & Gigi Urvater collection in Belgium, Autriche III has been exhibited several times before finding its home in a building designed by André Jacqmain. Being fluid between abstract and figurative for his entire career, Riopelle earnt the UNESCO Prize for his participation at the 31st Venice Biennale and was celebrated by France in the 1980s where a retrospective was organised by Musée national d’art moderne de Paris. In 2021, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts mounted a touring exhibition Riopelle: The Call of Northern Landscape and Indigenous Cultures, rejuvenating the interest of this crucial member of the New School of Paris.


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