Painting gifted to France in Tory ‘act of cultural vandalism’ heralds Liberal cabinet swearing-in

Jean Paul Riopelle’s “Point de rencontre” displayed in the Ballroom at Rideau Hall. Twitter/@RideauHall

Because it’s an abstract work of art, the top portion of the Jean-Paul Riopelle masterpiece that formed the backdrop of Tuesday’s swearing-in of the new federal Liberal cabinet can be interpreted as a balled fist with just the middle finger thrust upward.

See it? Is it just me?

It’s unlikely that’s what Riopelle — one of Canada’s most renowned artists on the world stage — had in mind when he created the five-metre-wide Point de rencontre (Meeting Place) in 1963.

But it would explain why the painting, the largest ever executed by the late Montreal-born artist, was rushed into place on the front wall of the Rideau Hall Ballroom just a few days before Tuesday’s ceremony.

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If the new Liberal government could have picked one oil-on-canvas on Earth to send a subtle, snarky message to the recently vanquished Conservatives — to add an artistic insult to the injury of the Liberal election victory that led to Tuesday’s unveiling of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet — it would have been Point de rencontre.

Commissioned by the Liberal government of Lester B. Pearson in 1963 to celebrate Riopelle’s rising reputation in the art world, the painting was unveiled the following year at the Toronto International Airport, which was posthumously named for Pearson in 1984.

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Before Tuesday’s ceremony, it had been 32 years since the artwork was last in the national spotlight. In 1989 it was at the centre of a transatlantic political controversy after then-Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney had it plucked from a wall at the Toronto airport and gifted to the people of France.

The grand gesture, meant to mark the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution and symbolize the close relationship between France and Canada, was instantly assailed by opposition critics and editorialists as a crime against Canadian heritage that typified what they considered the Progressive Conservative government’s dismissive attitude towards arts and culture.

NDP MP Ian Waddell — who had been drawn to politics by the Nobel Prize-winning Pearson and served as his chauffeur during the 1962 election campaign — even held a press conference in front of the blank wall at Pearson airport where the painting had been displayed for a quarter-century.

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“Prime Minister Mulroney has engaged in an act of sophisticated cultural vandalism in order to curry favour with the French government,” Waddell stated at the time. “No other government in the world — especially not the French — would even consider such a give-away of its national heritage.”

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Amid the furore, a Riopelle spokesperson told the Toronto Star that the artist was “very, very sad” about the painting’s move to France, where it was first displayed at a Paris opera house and later at a Parisian art gallery — the Centre national des arts plastiques — which still owns it.

“The work was made specifically for the airport,” said the Riopelle spokesperson. “He thinks it should remain in the place it was meant for.”

An Ottawa Citizen editorial echoed the point: “To rob a building of a work of art specially created for it shows an amazing lack of sensitivity to the relationship between the painting and the space it was meant to occupy,” the paper opined. “What’s more, to take back what was essentially a present to the Canadian people and give it instead to the (presumably more deserving) French, borders on the insulting.”

Mulroney, most recently spotted giving his enthusiastic endorsement to Conservative leader Erin O’Toole five days before the Sept. 20 election, defended the gift to France in 1989 as a celebration of “the richness of art and the creativity and friendship between Canada and France.”

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Canada election: Brian Mulroney campaigns for Erin O’Toole, jokes about his popularity

More than three decades after Riopelle’s famous monumental painting left the country, the Montreal Museum of Fine Art secured it on loan for its recent retrospective exhibition on the Quebec painter, who died in 2002.

The painting was shipped to Ottawa ahead of the Liberal cabinet installation ceremony — a mere coincidence, no doubt. Rideau Hall issued a tweet late last week showing a time-lapse video of Point de rencontre being unloaded, unpacked and reassembled on the main wall of the refurbished ballroom at the Governor General’s official residence.

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“The title of this artwork,” stated an Oct. 21 press release announcing the painting’s arrival at Rideau Hall, “refers to a Huron word meaning ‘place of meeting’ (point de rencontre in French), which describes the area where Indigenous peoples made their way between lakes Ontario and Huron.”

Perhaps I’m just seeing things in that finger-like swirl of colours at the top of the artwork.

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Point de rencontre will remain at Rideau Hall until 2024, when it will be shipped back to Paris.

Evidently, France isn’t giving it away.

Randy Boswell is a Carleton University journalism professor and a former Postmedia News national reporter.

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