Impressionist Sculpture

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En passant Impressionism in Sculpture von

How does Impressionism – a style that exploited the materiality of oil paint, the optical characteristic of broken brushwork, colour harmony and contrast – translate into sculpture, which is generally monochrome? How can a style so dependent on qualities of flatness be translated into three dimensions? How can art that depends on delicacy of touch and the impression of fleetingness find any sort of analogy in solid objects cast in metal? There has always been an idea that the very heart of Impressionist technique and priorities make it essentially difficult to translate into solid plastic matter. The reliance on spatial ambiguity presented a particular problem to artists working in a concrete medium.

A recent exhibition explored this paradox. En Passant: Impressionism in Sculpture was an exhibition held at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. The artists covered in detail are Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Medardo Rosso (1858-1928), Paolo Troubetzkoy (1866-1938) and Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916).

The subjects of landscapes, theatre scenes, shops and café interiors lent themselves to descriptions of space as much as of objects. How could these subjects be adapted to solid sculpture modelled in the round. The lighting of sculpture was also – aside from photography sessions and the controlled environment of an exhibition – out of the hands of sculptors. Lighting can reveal the great depth and subtlety of a sculpture; insensitive lighting renders a sculpture illegible.

What is the definition of sculptural Impressionism? Is it defined by the new subjects of art, the style, loose finish, concentration on fleeting motion, a break with tradition (anti-academicism), use of new materials, execution en plein air or in front of the motif, lack of preparation to fix the finished work before it was started or some other measure?

The independent group’s exhibitions at the studio of photographer Nadar, on Boulevard des Capuchines, Paris – which would become known as the Impressionist exhibitions – included sculpture. Seventeen sculptures would be exhibited in the eight Impressionist exhibitions held between 1874 and 1886. The works were by Auguste-Louis-Marie Ottin (1811-1890), whose works were not Impressionist in any meaningful sense, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Degas. Gauguin’s pieces were varied: traditional marble busts, carved wooden reliefs and an adapted wooden statuette with a waxen head. The relief of a child combing her hair and the wood-wax bust of his son Clovis are the most innovative of the pieces. The former could be considered Impressionist due to the handling. Gauguin’s work received some critical praise.

The catalogue for the 1880 announced a statue by Degas, but it did not appear and the case remained empty. It was announced again in 1881 and was late. When it did appear, it caused a furore. Modelled in reddish wax, the statue was a below-life-size representation of a dancer in real clothes: Little Dancer at the age of Fourteen (1878-9/1881), pigmented beeswax, clay, human hair, cotton tutu, silk ribbon, linen slippers, wooden base, 99 cm high. This could be said to be the first Impressionist sculpture: it was a modern subject, created in front of the source; the artist deployed modern materials; the finish was rougher than usual; it had a realist’s engagement with the subject, not an idealistic approach.

The debut of the Little Dancer provoked a powerful reaction in 1881 – most of it negative. Critics found the piece shocking. It was too lifelike; in its glass case, it was more of a carnival sideshow waxwork than a sculpture fit for a display of fine art; it was ugly; it violated so many rules of decorum that it was nothing more than a provocation. Parisians were used to seeing ballet dancers at a distance in theatrical lighting, not close up. The reality (as refracted through Degas’s sculpture) was coarse and ungainly. There was palpable class snobbery about the responses. In an age when phrenology and physiognomy were treated as quasi-science, it was thought that one could tell a person’s character from the shape of their skull and their appearance. Everything about the subject shouted to the urbane Parisian that she was part of the underclass and that her presence in the gallery was an unwelcome intrusion of a sordid reality.

There were kind words from some critics. Huysmans wrote, the Little Dancer was “the only truly modern attempt at sculpture.” However, Degas never exhibited sculpture again.

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[Image: Edgar Degas, Grand Arabesque, Third Time (First Version), c. 1885-1890. Photo © Ken Adlard]

The piece was not a one off. He made sculptures from the 1860s onwards, though it seems the early pieces no longer exist. Degas would build armatures of wire and wood then model statuettes of nudes (dancers and bathers) and horses using unconventional combinations of material: pastiline, clay, plaster, corks, coloured beeswax and other materials. The figurines were often fairly roughly finished; limbs would crack and fall off. When the estate assessed the contents of Degas’s house following his death in 1917, around 150 statuettes were found, many crumbled to dust and fragments. About half were rescued and repaired, with 72 being editioned in bronze.

Whether or not Degas’s decision not to exhibit other sculptures was due to the public mauling his debut had instigated, we cannot know. The artist had an ambivalent attitude towards his sculpture. He spent a lot of time on the art form over decades, he made certain pieces more permanent by casting them in plaster and displayed some in his dining room. At the same time, he never cast anything in bronze, never exhibited anything after the Little Dancer and (according to memoirs of acquaintances) he claimed he was glad that the pieces would crumble.

By the summer of 1886 a new name was added to the Impressionist group: Italian sculptor, Medardo Rosso, who exhibited his work at the Paris Salon. Medardo Rosso was an Italian sculptor from Milan. He specialised in busts and heads, though he sometimes added backgrounds – something he developed from his work on grave monuments. In the absence of public access to Degas’s sculptural work – aside from one piece – Rosso came to be seen as the Impressionist sculptor even though he never exhibited at the Impressionist displays. Rosso’s output was original and influential. A radical departure was use of wax as a finished medium. Wax is very delicate and subject to damage in high temperatures. It is commonly used in the modelling and casting processes but it had been considered too fragile to be a permanent medium. (Rosso cast a coloured wax outer layer around a plaster core.) Rosso also cast work in bronze, mainly of statuettes. Rosso’s sculpture found echoes in the art of Antoine Bourdelle and Bourdelle’s student Alberto Giacometti. Rosso was close to Eugène Carrière, who worked in a tenebrist style in print and paint. Carrière was later the neighbour of Bourdelle. Carrière was also in regular communication with Rodin. Rosso developed a rivalry with Rodin; as Rodin became ever more famous, so Rosso accused him of stealing his ideas.

Rosso’s output was very limited, confined to about 50 original works in 20 years is meagre. For the last 20 years he made no original work, only casting making new casts of old works. Rosso lived in Paris for 1889 but failed to capitalise on his art’s brilliance until 1902. He then achieved some acclaim but once the Cubist craze took over Paris in 1910, Rosso’s minor star was eclipsed except in Italy, where he moved during World War I. Regrettably, Rosso secrecy and mistrust means we do not have much written material by or about him during his heyday.

Rosso used photography very effectively to control the viewing experience of his art, favouring electric light. His use of coloured wax to mimic qualities of stone, flesh and wood gives the same design different implications. Rosso is considered an Impressionist for several reasons. Firstly, his subjects are modern and taken from everyday life, including street scenes. Secondly, his surfaces imitate the effect of veils, shadow, blurring, movement and speckled highlights. Thirdly, the quality of the finish is deliberately rough – very rough in places – that defies the standards of academic sculpture. From a distance, Rosso’s pieces seem to be hunks of unworked material. Only when approached closer and examined do they reveal their figurative forms. Thus Rosso’s sculptures are the optical inversions of Impressionist paintings. Impressionist paintings appear realistic from a distance and become increasingly abstract close up; Rosso’s sculptures appear abstract from a distance and become increasingly realistic close up. Finally, his use of the mise en scene or tableau introduces a sensation of space and indicates a context for the figure. Some of his pieces verge on the abstract. (For further discussion of Rosso see my review here.)

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[Image: Auguste Rodin, The Head of John the Baptist, 1877/78. Photo © Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe]

Rodin is often seen in connection with the older sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, collaborator Camille Claudel or viewed as a founder of Modernist sculptor – particularly in the light of his sawing up of plaster casts of his pieces. So realistic was the early Age of Bronze figure (1875-7) that Rodin was accused of passing off a life-cast as a modelled sculpture – a very modern tactic, but one which Rodin vigorously disputed. Rodin’s work sometimes remained unfinished, which gave it an affinity with Impressionist practice. The case for Rodin as an Impressionist is more tangential than with the others. Rodin’s radical approach to the Burghers of Calais (1884-9) was compared to that of Monet, whom he exhibited beside once in 1889.

Paolo Troubetzkoy was born in Italy, son of a Russian diplomat. He approached his portrait busts without using preparatory sketches of modelli. His working methods and aesthetic preferences produced bronze busts that showed evidence of their process of creation, with areas showing lesser worked areas along with highly finished areas – akin to a range of focus. He could be seen as a member of the Cosmopolitan Realist movement/tendency, which encompassed Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, Giovanni Boldini and others.

Rembrandt Bugatti is now as celebrated as any animalier artist. His small bronze statues of animals (domestic, agricultural and exotic) are justly treasured. The catalogue associates the Italian Bugatti with German Impressionism (Corinth and others). The Nineteenth Century saw the rise of animal art – Landseer, Bonheur, Barye and others – and Bugatti is the end of the classic period. His short working life coincides with the termination of realism and figurative styles as qualities of the avant garde. His bronzes combine naturalism, movement and a lively finish, characterised by a dappled pattern of highlights, giving the impression of movement.

Other sculptors who could be considered potential Impressionist sculptors are listed: Ernesto Bazzaro, Antoine Bourdelle, Ferruccio Crespi, Honoré Daumier, Leonardo Bistolfi and others. (More discussion of Daumier’s sculpture would have been welcome.) There is a section on the display of Impressionist sculpture and another on the way photographs were created and received (with the photographs becoming Pictorialist works of art). The catalogue includes many photographs, drawings and paintings which relate to the sculptures or images related to subjects of sculptures. Often, the sculptural treatment is palpable in the drawings. Rosso’s drawings and photographs will be new to some, though they have been widely published in recent books. Degas’s output is so large that there are always new drawings to encounter. This is an excellent survey of the problems of classification and the shared aesthetics of a set of advanced sculptors working in the 1880-1930 period. Highly recommended.

Alexander Eiling, Eva Mongi-Vollmer (eds.), En Passant: Impressionism in Sculpture, Prestel/Städel Museum (distr. Prestel), 2020, hardback, 360pp, 335 col. illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 3 7913 5961 8

Video guide of the exhibition installation here.

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Angela Gregory and Antoine Bourdelle in Paris

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A Dream and a Chisel is the memoirs of Angela Gregory (1903-1990), one of Louisiana’s leading artists and an honoured sculptor of public statues and busts. Gregory is a link to the past. She trained in the Paris atelier system developed in the Nineteenth Century. Born into an age of steam trains and telegraphs, Gregory trained in Paris before the Great Depression and died in an era of satellite television and computers.

This book is an amalgam of extracts from Gregory’s contemporaneous diaries and letters, augmented by many interviews with Nancy Penrose, which were conducted throughout the 1980s. Penrose and Gregory collaborated on the manuscript and finished it shortly before Gregory’s death in 1990. Gregory intended the memoir to centre on Bourdelle, the teacher she revered, hence the focus on her Paris years. The tone is lively, reflective and candid. We get a sense of her character, as well as her attitudes during the 1920s and her reflective perspective in old age. Extensive footnotes by Penrose identify many of the individual artists mentioned and supply biographical data.

This book describes the three years that Gregory spent in Paris, but there is sufficient commentary to explain the trajectory of her life. Gregory was born into a cultured middle-class family in New Orleans. Her father was a university professor and her mother was a successful artist who had stopped working to raise her children. Gregory was trained in art at Newcomb College, New Orleans. However, she wanted more. Despite the good reputation of Newcomb, Gregory was unsatisfied. She wanted to experience the most advanced art of the period first hand. She had her heart set on studying in the studio of Bourdelle. Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) was the leading sculptor of his generation. He was widely admired and considered to have taken on the mantle of Rodin, with whom he had studied. Bourdelle produced numerous large works, mostly modelled and cast in bronze. He was also viewed as a Modernist, who combined expressiveness with the influence of archaic art, which gave his sculpture added vitality. His giant studio in Paris was a hive of activity, with numerous assistants working on maquettes, carvings and giant models in plaster.

In 1925 Gregory was granted funds to travel to the Paris. She arrived in June 1925 and commenced attendance at the Paris branch of the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (later Parsons School of Design). In the spring of 1926 she worked up enough courage to knock on the door of the master. A maid gave her his telephone number and she called to arrange a brief meeting. Meeting a young American woman who wanted to learn stone carving piqued the master’s interest and he agreed to take her on. This made Gregory the only American student to work in his private studio. Leaving Parsons, she worked in Bourdelle’s studio in tandem with instruction at Académie de la Grande Chaumière (where Bourdelle taught).

The memoirs include some of the standard staples of bohemian Paris. She saw Josephine Baker dance. “When I was in Bourdelle’s studio, however, and taking classes at the Grande Chaumière, I would occasionally run across to the [Café du] Dôme for a quick cup of coffee to get warm while the model was taking a break from posing.” She evocatively the experience of studying at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. “There was a concierge at the door from whom I bought several little aluminium admission tickets to the modeling and sketch classes. I walked into the classroom and found it filled with students of all nationalities. The cigarette smoke was so thick it was hard to see, but a strong spotlight was leveled at one of the best models I had seen in Paris.” The school was “open” and did not monitor attendance strictly and students kept their own hours (or failed to keep them). Students without masters brought their own materials and came for a place to work, access to models and the chance to have work corrected by established artists.

Bourdelle was only five feet four inches tall, bearded and dressed in clothes of his own design. He was modest in character and full of dignity, which impressed the young American. He described his students as confrères (colleagues) and refused to accept payment from Gregory. Gregory recalled Bourdelle’s critiques as incisive, considerate and marked by humour. He did not seek to mould artists in his own image but to bring out the character of the young artist. According to Gregory, Bourdelle described advice he got from Rodin. “’But you should exaggerate, exaggerate.’ But you cannot exaggerate until you know what you are exaggerating. ‘You cannot make a centaur until you can make a man.’”

Gregory was assisted by a Swiss instructor at Bourdelle’s studio, named Otto Bänninger. Bänninger would become the husband of Germaine Richier; when Gregory met him, he was friends with Alberto Giacometti. Gregory and Giacometti worked in Bourdelle’s studio at the same time but she never met him, something she regretted in years to come. A fellow student was Jeanne Bergson, the deaf daughter of philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson was impressed by the sculptor’s generosity towards Jeanne and Bourdelle’s ideas. Bergson arranged a meeting and the men became fast friends.

The book describes Bourdelle’s skills, methods and attitudes. Gregory characterises his approach as architectural and forceful, contrasted against Rodin’s art as naturalistic and sensual. Bourdelle emphasised feeling over talent, though he proffered constructive practical criticism. She writes that his fair direct comments prepared her for professional life dealing with committees. She describes the origins of his most famous statue – Hercules the Archer (1910). The model could only pose for ten hours so Bourdelle had to work fast on the maquette. The man was later killed in the Great War. It is a testament to the admiration Bourdelle generated that Gregory’s first thought when considering her memoirs was to memorialise her master rather than herself. Our admiration for both Bourdelle and Gregory increases as we read more. Evidence of Bourdelle’s respect for his student is apparent in his copying of an original portrait bust by Gregory. His version adds his qualities. Bourdelle was very supportive and arranged for exhibition opportunities and wrote a letter of warm recommendation. Bourdelle had no prejudice against female students. It is striking that when he was photographed at the Salon of 1928, the students around him are almost all women.

Gregory returned to New Orleans in 1928 while her art was on display at the Paris Salon. She embarked on a long a successful career. She made a speciality of portraying black subjects, treating them in a particularly sympathetic manner. She later ascribed some resistance to these pieces to a racially conditioned aversion to black portrait subjects. Some examples of those, and publicly commissioned decoration and monuments, are reproduced in the book. A check list of over 100 of Gregory’s sculptures is given in an appendix. In 1941, she was appointed state supervisor for the WPA Louisiana Art Project. Aside from her many commissions and exhibitions, she taught and was a participant in a number of organisations. She was inducted into the Chevalier de I’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1982 and received other awards.

What about Gregory’s life as a woman artist? She was encouraged by her family. She admired her mother’s ability as a potter; she was taught by a female art teacher (whom she notes by name) and was inspired by a woman sculptor (whose name she did not remember but Penrose has discovered was Clyde Giltner Chandler (1879-1961)). Although professional women artists were uncommon, by her testimony, Gregory encountered disapproval and disappointment rather than hostility and opposition. She was accepted to study in the studios of Newcomb, Parsons and Bourdelle, France’s most prestigious sculptor. Nowhere in her narrative does she note that she was refused entry or service, dismissed or barred from acting like her male colleagues. Within her chosen field, she was considered a novelty because of her nationality and gender. While that patronisation might have been irksome it did not prevent her progress. On the contrary, she comments that some individuals offered her favourable treatment precisely because of her nationality and gender. In the USA, she won grants, commissions, awards and held exhibitions. She was entrusted a senior position in the WPA. One should not assume any of this was easy; Gregory was clearly an unusually determined and adept as a professional artist.

Overall, the book paints a vivid picture of Angela Gregory, Antoine Bourdelle and the Paris art world of the 1920s. Special commendation must go to the designers for the attractive and clear layout. The cloth cover is handsome. A Dream and a Chisel has the appearance fitting a classic book describing the excitement of an American artist at the epicentre of Parisian Modernism.

 

Angela Gregory, Nancy L. Penrose (ed.), A Dream and a Chisel: Louisiana Sculptor Angela Gregory in Paris, 1925-1928, University of South Carolina Press, 2019, cloth hb, 248pp, 25 mono illus., $39.99, ISBN 978 1 61117 977 4

 

© Alexander Adams 2019

To view my art and books, visit www.alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com

Interview with Rowan Metzner

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Professional photographer and author of Erotic Masters, Rowan Metzner. © 2018 Rowan Metzner

 

Rowan Metzner, a native of New Orleans, is an award-winning photographer. Her photographs have been exhibited in the USA and Europe and are in the permanent collections of the Aaron Siskind Center at the RISD Museum and the American History Museum at the Smithsonian. She is currently based in Los Angeles.

Her new book Erotic Masters: A photographic exploration of the provocative works by Rodin, Schiele and Picasso presents a series of photographs of models in poses taken from the art of these artists. I spoke to her about this project and her thoughts about the crossover between erotica and pornography and the status of nude photography.

 

Alexander Adams: Are there particular challenges a photographer of nudes faces?

Rowan Metzner: It depends on the type of nude imagery, but potential lawsuits are a risk. For this project, before every shoot, I sent example images of every scene to each person coming to set so there were no surprises and to make sure everyone was comfortable. As a nude photographer documentation is key. Every nude photographer must have a record of identification of the models. STD testing is not required but if a model picks something up they can sue you. Not fun.

AA: How do you draw a distinction between erotic art and pornography? Is the distinction especially difficult in the field of photography?

RM: That is the question and purpose behind my book. Is there a difference and if so what is it? I asked a lot of people this question as I was working on the project and the overwhelming answer was intention, intention of the artist and the viewer.  What was the artist thinking when they created the work, what do they want the audience to feel, what do they feel? I don’t answer these questions in the book as I want to leave it up to the viewer to decide.

As far as is the distinction particularly difficult in photography, perhaps. People have a tendency to view works done by hand differently than photography. It often does not register that a living model posed for the drawing/painting/etc. and quite possible for a very long time. There is no room for denial in a photograph. The model is right there. In Erotic Masters I give the audience an opportunity to experience the same imagery as they might have seen in museums but without that separation. This amplifies the question is it erotic art or pornography?

AA: Do you think there is degree of snobbery regarding critical evaluations of erotic art between painted/drawn art and photography?

RM: Absolutely. Largely I think because of the reasons I just mentioned. Photography in general often gets overlooked. With the event of the smartphone there is the attitude that photography is easy and anyone can do it. Photography has become a dirty word. Erotic photography might as well be a synonym for pornography.

AA: Why did you choose Picasso, Schiele and Rodin for your book Erotic Masters?

RM: I started with a long list of artists and the more I researched instead of shrinking it only got larger. I wanted to show that erotic images are not unique to one time period or style. There was no way I could include everyone I wanted; I had to make hard choices.

Rodin was on my short list from the beginning. Years ago, while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, I visited the Rodin Museum in Paris. Impressions of the exhibit of Rodin’s erotic works have stayed with me. Schiele’s work is so different from Rodin. Where Rodin has a fluidity and playful nature, Schiele’s is controlled. Picasso is something else entirely. Each one pushed me to work in different ways, which was fantastic.

AA: Will you do more work in this series focusing on different artists?

RM: I go back on forth on this one. I would love to but I am not sure if the point has been made. I might need some distance to get the perspective need to decide.

AA: One of your models – Stoya – is a well-known pornographic actress. Why did you choose to work with her and was it your intention for viewers to recognise her?

RM: About half of my models are in the pornography industry and half not. I thought about it for a long time and made a very conscience, deliberate decision. I did not want anyone to be able to say either “these are not porn actors so it is not porn” or “these are all porn performers so it is porn.” This way there is no easy way out. I chose Stoya because she was the perfect fit for Schiele. I tried to cast as close to the drawing as possible. She is well known and I knew that there would be people that would recognize her but just as many that wouldn’t. I think it works just as well either way.

AA: Were there poses that you photographed but found were too explicit or strange?

RM: Strange yes, explicit no. I didn’t want to put any limits on that. There are also several I did not get to that I would love to have been able to photograph. It was difficult to find the right models for each scene. I was limited on space in the book so there are several images I love that didn’t make it. As far as too strange, that would be Picasso. I did attempt some of his more abstract work but that became about something else. It no longer asked the question of erotic vs porn so it got the axe.

AA: What lessons have you learned for your future photography?

RM: Patience! That is a big one for me. Every step of the way with this project I had to exercise patience. I was also working with a team, models, hair and makeup, I had to learn what was important to fight for in executing my vision and what I could let go. It was a great experience and I am better photographer for it.

AA: Do you have any forthcoming projects or events you would like to mention?

RM: I am working on more gallery showings of Erotic Masters as well as opening my own studio in Los Angeles. Currently I am working on photographing athletes, particularly aerialists, highlighting their bodies and movement.

AA: Thank you for your time, Rowan.

Rowan’s art can be viewed on her website: www.rowanmetzner.com

© September 2018 Rowan Metzner & Alexander Adams