Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Tale of Two Sculptors

Living abroad alternates wildly between "OH MY GOD.  This is all so amazing!!  Look, it's the Eiffel Tower!!!!  Look, it's the Louvre!!!  Oh my God, I am so lucky to be here!!!!!!" and, sometimes in the very next breath even, "What am I doing here?!  I can't understand anyone!!!  I am alone!!!!  I have no idea what I'm doing!!! I want to go hoooooooome."  The first sentiment is accompanied by giddily gallivanting about the city, the second is accompanied mostly by weeping.

Basically an equestrian monument.  But with a corpse.
When you find your time dominated by the latter, I find one of the best remedies is to go gallivanting about the city until the former feeling kicks back in.  After a few days of struggling with the language, the research, and all the rest of it, I therefore decided to get out for a bit.  I wandered down to Montparnasse, where I started my journey with the Montparnasse Cemetery.  Because, you know, when you need a lift, the best place to go is a graveyard.

The two best places to look at alot of public sculpture in one area are parks and cemeteries.  I've already gone to Paris' other great cemeteries--Père Lachaise and Montmartre--where Jay and I tracked down some works by Dalou, as well as other funerary sculptures and graves of noteworthy personages (In addition to being a great place to cheer up, apparently I think graveyards are also a great place to take a date.  What is wrong with me?)  Public monuments are often forced to be rather restrained--commissioners tend to be nervous about spending a lot of money on overly radical or creative works that might prove too offensive for a public place.  Funerary sculpture, however, tends to be much more creative (perhaps because the patron is already dead...?)  At any rate, many really great sculptors during the nineteenth century provided good and interesting works to cemeteries, which makes them a really interesting place for me.

Some of Degas' favorite things.
In addition to seeing a bunch of sculpture, it is indeed a bit of a thrill to go and track down the graves of famous people, which for me primarily means artists.  When Jay and I wandered through the Montmartre Cemetery, I jokingly told him to keep an eye out for the grave of Edgar Degas, who I knew was buried there, but wasn't willing to track down that particular afternoon.  When Jay did find Degas' grave, I was so overwhelmed by glee that I was inspired to do as several wellwishers did before me, which was to leave him a thank you note.  Degas was actually kind of a misanthropic jackass who would probably be more horrified by the painful artistic incompetencies of my note rather than touched by its sentiment.  However, Degas was a remarkably brilliant artist, and as such, I will forgive him for having such a prickly personality.  I must admit that I am terribly inconsistent with this type of judgement, as I am more than ready to condemn Paul Gauguin for his character flaws, but that is mostly because I can't stand his painting.

As it happens,  Jules Dalou was actually a pretty good guy, and in addition to liking his art quite a bit (not a necessary corollary for writing a dissertation about someone) I actually have a good deal of fondness for him (even less a corollary for writing a dissertation about someone).  And that is the primary reason I trekked down to Montparnasse--to go visit the grave of Jules Dalou.

Who left the flowers?!  Ancestor?  Fan?  My rival Dalou scholar?!?
Dalou's bust of his daughter.
By the time of his death, Dalou was no longer particularly famous, had never been particularly wealthy, and was not the sort of man to choose a grandiose tomb for himself.  He is buried, as stated on the tomb, with his wife Irma, and his daughter Georgette.  When Dalou died, some years after his wife, he bequeathed his works in such a way that their sales would provide for the care of his daughter, whose severe mental handicap precluded her from ever living by herself or marrying.  He also made a number of stipulations for her care--that she should have a private room and her own spending money--extravagant measures at that time for someone with Georgette's condition.  Until this time, Dalou had done little to market the bronze casts of his smaller, more domestic works, preferring instead to focus his attention on large public monuments.  The sculptor only accepted works celebrating men or ideas that he admired, sometimes even refusing payment for work on monuments that particularly inspired him.  Dalou's own political ideals forced him into exile.  After the fall of the Commune, Dalou spent nine years in England, where he taught sculpture, mostly through gesture as he only spoke French, to a horde of young English artists who benefited greatly by having a superbly trained French sculptor in their midst.  When Dalou returned to France, he dedicated himself to monuments to the French republic, and ideals of liberté, egalité, and fraternité--particularly for the working-class laborers from which he came.  Basically, when it comes down to it, old Jules seems like he must have been a pretty decent guy.  At least as good, if not better, than the grands hommes (great men) he spent his life commemorating.

On my way to the Montparnasse Cemetery to see Dalou's final resting place, I walked by a statue of a grand homme by another grand homme--Dalou's friend and rival Auguste Rodin. 

Rodin's Monument to Balzac.  This particular cast is on Boulevard Raspail,
My absolute favorite way to explain my dissertation is through the following dialogue:

Vaguely interested party:  "What are you writing your dissertation on?"
Me:  "Do you know who Rodin is?  He did The Thinker, The Kiss. . . "
Rapt and attentive listener:  "OH YEAH!"
Me:  "Well, I'm not writing on him.  I'm writing about the other guy.  The second most famous sculptor in France at the end of the nineteenth century."
No longer at all rapt and completely inattentive listener:  "Oh."

Actually, I almost chose to write my dissertation on Rodin.  I wrote my very first sculpture paper on some early artistic photography of Rodin's sculpture.  I then wrote one of my master's theses on Rodin's Balzac.  I was well on my way to writing the whole damn thing on Rodin when my advisor (thankfully) talked me into Dalou, primarily on the strength of his Triumph to the Republic

I remain interested to see Rodin's works, as they remind me of my first serious and engaged encounter with sculpture.  Numerous bronze casts of the Balzac exist, so I've actually seen this work a couple of times--the MOMA in New York, the Rodin Museum in Paris, various smaller casts elsewhere.  I was particularly pleased to see this Balzac though, because it is relatively rare to see Rodin's works actually installed as public monuments.  It isn't that Rodin didn't make public monuments, it is just that they were most often rejected.  This work created an awful scandal when it was first exhibited as a plaster cast in 1898, so Rodin hid it in his garden.  Only years after the artist's death did Paris put the much-maligned work in a public place.

Often, it is difficult to wrap our brains and eyes around why people once found famously scandalous works offensive.  But even for me now, there is something distinctly odd about seeing one of Rodin's works plopped into the middle of the street.  His works seem to me too private, too expressively and almost histrionically emotional that setting one out in a public square feels like the sculptural equivalent of taking all your clothes off and running into the street screaming hysterically.

There is a nice bit, in an article by Albert Elsen about Rodin, where he says something along the lines of Rodin's gestures not coming from nature.  I always found the dramatic, and sometimes rather overdone, otherworldliness of early photographs of Rodin's work to be the best setting for his work--divorced from nature, the real world, and instead placed into a purely expressive and evocative aesthetic space that seems to unfold more from the sculpture itself, rather than just acting as background.

Edward Steichen's tarted up artsy photograph of the Balzac.
I can't imagine a photographer effectively giving this treatment to a Dalou work, and that is a good part of what I like about him.  Dalou's works are too grounded, too connected with the real space in which they exist, and to the real ideologies and people they represent.  Dalou's sculptures would lose some of their meaning if they were stuck out in a garden someplace for some photographer to take some fancy photos of. 

Me and 42 tons of bronze.
Dalou's Triumph of the Republic is in the Place de la Nation, a neighborhood that was deeply working-class when the sculpture was erected, and still not the nicest place to visit in Paris today.  The sculpture is covered in graffiti, littered with broken glass and confetti, and usually surrounded by people lounging, drinking, and making out.  The first time I was there, a guy repeatedly kept hitting on me, and the second time I was there, a guy insisted on making lewd comments about some putti private parts.

Here's the thing though.  The sculpture needs people around it.  And more than that, it can't help but draw people to it, even if they are just drinking and screwing around, rather than being inspired to democratic and patriotic ideals, or at least doing some insightful art criticism and interpretation.  Jules Dalou, mostly because he was that nice and idealistic guy, really believed that he was making sculptures that did something important for people--that brought them together and helped them think great thoughts.  Now, that is undoubtedly a whole bunch of idealistic bullshit, but I can't help but think it is pretty nice anyway.  And that is why I'm kinda glad to be studying the guy.

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