Thursday, August 20, 2020

Material made Magic - The Sculpture and Ceramics of Jean-Joseph Carriès...

Le Faune - Carriès - 1880s

Having seen the striking posters for an exhibition of Les Contes Etranges de N. H. Jacobsen, I was drawn to the Musée Bourdelle to see the unique work of the 19th century Danish sculptor on a bracingly cold day back in March. Although presented as the dream-like reflections of the artist’s vision – as both essence of the Symbolist movement and aesthetic of Art Nouveau - these works felt fairly nightmarish, given the slightly apprehensive atmosphere reigning in Paris, just days before national lockdown. 

Troll - N.H Jacobsen - 1896

Set alongside the work of Jacobsen – a previously little-known Scandinavian artist - were other, more familiar examples of art of a disquietening vein, either fin-de-siècle or from the start of the 20th century. Recurrent Symbolist themes and preoccupations were explored in various art forms throughout the exhibition, so that the whole was far more ambitious and wide-ranging than expected and certainly did not focus on Jacobsen alone.

Head of Medusa - Arnold Böcklin - 1894
In this universe, troubling images of the dark realms of the psyche, multi-facetted perception and duplicity abound ; beauty and laideur, good and evil, purity and temptation, life and death, youth and decrepitude, night and day. Serpents, hybrid monsters, figures of depravity, decline and death from Antiquity and folklore alike appear in sculpted, carved and painted form. However, it should be said that a special place is reserved for the complex female figure which frequently manages to combine all the previous groupings and still eludes definition. No wonder Freud found it difficult to determine what women wanted !

The maternal being, who gives life and sustenance, may smother and emasculate too. The chaste Madonna could therefore possibly be seen as a treacherous temptress, and the feminine object of desire could lead to destruction. The snake-haired Gorgons of Greek mythology – particularly Medusa -  with their terrifying gaze are shown to be just as deadly as the enchanting Sirens, or the biblical figure of the femme fatale - Salomé. Their prey, hapless Man, is powerless to resist the sexual desire for this beautiful Fleur du Mal (Baudelaire) who will surely lead him to his perdition…

Detail from La Porte de Parsifal - Carriès 1892

Many of Jacobsen’s works, with their dark ambiguous expression, menacing posture and gaunt, angular forms, recall Viollet-le-Duc’s chimeras from the neo-Gothic restoration of Notre Dame – source of inspiration to the sculptor. Indeed, having won a scholarship, the artist had left his native Scandinavia in 1891 and was able to travel to Italy and Germany before settling in Paris for a period of ten years, during which he lived and worked in the artists’ community - La Cité Fleurie – and came into contact with other art and artists. Jacobsen’s elongated, furrowed bodies of troubling figures are frequently based on characters from Nordic mythology and those from the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. They swirl and circle in a rather predatory fashion, emerging from the shadows and the recesses of our mind – as the bêtes fauves of Baudelaire - igniting a primal fear as the incorporeal is given sweeping, sinewy form and flesh.

Troll - Jacobsen - 1896 

Jacobsen’s Troll (1896) strides ahead, sniffing out his prey (Christians) with the claws of his outstretched arm ready to strike, offset by the angular hand that grips his own willful, serpentine tail, the whole sending out eerie shadows across the exhibition space. Very creepy, as too was the representation of the Grim Reaper in La Mort et La Mère (1893), from Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of 1847. The figure of death takes off with a baby, yet turns back to look down on the huddled body of the despairing mother at his feet. The bold dynamism of the Reaper’s movement, emphasised by his bare, angular limbs, curved scythe and wind-swept cloak is contrasted with the impassive, immobile feminine form, shrouded by the folds of clothing that flow out in submission.

La Mort et La Mère - Jacobsen - 1892

A similar fluidity of movement and sense of foreboding is created by The Shadow (1897), another being from an Andersen tale, shown to be have taken on its own menacing form, independant of the human body. The later work of the La Petite Sirène (1901) offers the same flowing, restless forms, yet like the mother in La Mort et La Mère, the mermaid’s body is shown in a more Realist manner, without the exaggerated, jagged contours of Symbolist expression, thus reflecting Jacobsen’s evolving style which would again change as he returned to his motherland in 1902.  

La Petite Sirène - Jacobsen - 1901

As much as I appreciated Jacobsen’s work, there is only so much Scandi noir you can take in without feeling somewhat oppressed and so it was the art of French sculptor Jean-Joseph Carriès which really caught my attention at the exhibition. And yet Carriès also explored the darker recesses of the mind and the imaginary too, with his down-trodden subjects, horror masks and hybrid monsters, but in an approach similar to that of Middle Age art, wherein the grotesque invariably feels somewhat ‘safe’. I do not know how far Jacobsen was influenced by the work and technical approaches of sculptor/ceramist Carriès but when he settled in the Parisian cité des artistes, Carriès had already earned a name and reputation for himself, having attracted the attention of the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and been made knight of the Légion d'honneur in 1892. However, the acclaim and influence of Carriès – a contemporary of fellow sculptor Rodin -  was to be largely post-humous, as he sadly died in 1894, before even reaching the age of 40. The incredible work produced during this life cut short, obviously made me wonder what he would have achieved had he survived ill health, but then the 19th century is pock-marked with the cruel loss of artistic talent literally consumed by the ravages of tuberculosis; the Bronte sisters, Frédéric Chopin, John Keats, Aubrey Beardsley….. 

Les Grotesques - Carriès

From the outset the odds seemed stacked against Carriès’ mere wordly survival, let alone any kind of artistic success. Indeed, he had not been dealt a winning hand but that seems to have driven him on. Born in Lyon in 1855 (compared to Jacobsen’s 1861), Carriès and his siblings were orphaned six years later and duly placed in the care of the Catholic charitable institution La Compagnie des Filles de la Charité de Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, under a certain Sister Callamand.  For a relatively short period, he was an apprentice sculptor in a workshop producing religious statues of a Neo-Gothic nature. He visited the Musée des Arts Décoratifs de Lyon, the local churches and the cathedral of Saint Jean, but had no formal academic teaching. He was particularly drawn to Gothic art, and the porch of Saint Jean and the plaster moulds taken from the stonework of La Monastère Royal de Brou à Bourg-en-Bresse fascinated him, marking him with the desire to work ‘piously’, in the manner of the craftsmen of the Middle Ages. 

Portrait of Loyse Labbe - Carries - 1888

Having left his apprenticeship after two years, he worked alone before going to Paris in 1874 in order to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The first pieces shown in the Salon de Beaux-Arts were considered too realistic and he was suspected of having merely made direct mould copies of his subjects – an accusation made of his contemporary Rodin too. Carriès did not pass the entrance exam to the Ecole and was obliged to continue working alone, initially surviving hardship thanks to the support of a fellow artist friend from Lyon - Jean-Alexandre Pézieux - himself admitted for study. Through an opportune encounter with a group of workers in Passy, Carriès was commissioned to sculpt a bas-relief fronton for the Château de Meslay-le-Vidame at the behest of a certain Compte de Brimont. Le Temps Dévoilant les Heures (1874), was carried out with Pézieux, who sculpted the Hours, whilst Carriès worked on the figure of Time. 

From this period, his work focused largely on busts, for which he gained recognition in the Paris Salon of 1875. Portraiture represented a large proportion of a sculptor’s earnings and so it had been for Carriès too, already prior to his arrival in Paris. While taste and custom called for portraits that were realistic, yet somewhat flattering, Carriès rejected slavish likeness in favour of a certain inventiveness in approach and experimentation in technique in order to capture an essence of character or spirit in the sitter. He later declared that he wished to abandon portraiture since he was too fanciful an artist for the requirements of that particular genre. Nevertheless, when he was called back to Lyon in 1876 to visit his 18-year-old sister, dying from tuberculosis, he created a portrait that he would later use in a study ; The Novice. 

From Les Désolés series - Carriès

Over the years, Carriès worked on series -  producing sets of sculpted busts on different themes which again caught the public eye due to a style that set him a part from his contemporary sculptors. The Desperate ; Babies and Historical figures, His Desolate characters, exhibited in 1882 are borne from the expressions and traits observed in the unfortunate city dwellers that he passed each day. Their hardship and suffering, presented on busts without stand or pedestral, shown directly and unflinching, reflect the artist’s own understanding of the human condition and the will to convey this to the public, exaggerating or distorting objective reality where necessary.

Velaquez - Carriès - 1882

 The busts from his babies series share a similar depth that is a little unsettling – these may be round-faced babes but they are far from the rosy-cheeked portrayals of ‘cute’ offspring that we are more familiar with. The historical figures are likewise given a certain air of mystery, enhanced by the artist’s desire to present a legendary past, allowing him to experiment and invent at will. He declared that he wanted to be 'the Velasquez of sculpture’ and indeed the Goncourt brothers remarked that his work bore ‘pictural effects’. A later piece, Le Guérrier (1884), presents a self-portrait of the artist as a Spanish conquistado, whose impenetrable gaze is far removed from the priggishness stare often on offer on your average 19th bust. 


Likewise, Carriès’ artistic input means that his work does not have that bland reality that modern sculpture or painting often has, wherein a perfect ‘lifelike’ quality kills the art within, resulting in work that is somehow dull - lacking depth and vitality. One of Carriès’ most famous works, Le Faune (1885), reflects the enigmatic expression of his subject - head tilted, eyes shut in a timeless pose – mirroring the Symbolist mood of melancholic introspection. Other works – les Masques Grotesques – recall the traditional masks used in the Japanese Noh theatre, yet their striking expressions bring them alive in the present moment.


In 1878, Carriès discovered the beauty of Japanese glazed stoneware and ceramics, exhibited in the Pavillon Japonais at the Exposition Universelle. From then on, he sought to manipulate his materials to reflect his vision of the subjects and the surface of their given ‘skin’. The strange beasts that he later modelled would prove to be the perfect subject, with their gnarled bodies and rough, textured skin that enabled him to experiment further in ceramic techniques. Not surprising then, that frogs -  along with other amphibians - were to fascinate him. He became obsessed by the technical approaches required to obtain a desired finish and tonal effect, playing with the full possibilities of polychrome in his art – whether he was working with wax, plaster, clay, bronze or stoneware.


Many of the works, such as Le Faune, are repeated in different materials – glazed stoneware, patinated plaster and bronze – each version creating a unique impression, texture and colouration. Carriès’ association with the master founder Pierre Bingen - one of the first to put into practice the lost wax casting technique in Paris – led to the considerable success of an 1888 exhibition. This gave Carriès sufficient financial means to pursue his main goal, that of owning a workshop to explore and perfect his techniques in ceramics and stoneware. He was finally able to leave the capital and set up in St-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, a small village in Burgundy that was known for its clay supply and the pottery community that thrived there. 

Grenouille avec Oreilles de Lapin - Carriès

This arrangement enabled Carriès to (re)produce his work via artisanal processes, hence maintaining the essential vitality and authencity of each piece, unlike the industrially-produced work of the period that could be churned out endlessly. However, these multiple, complex experiments seem to have led the artist into an obsessive frame of mind which ensnared him and his art in an alchemist’s folly, reminding me a little of William de Morgan’s lifelong search for the perfect glazing technique.

Grenouille Faisant le Gros Dos - Carriès

By 1890, Carriès declared that his enemies were the vital elements  - fire, water, air and soil – the subtle interplay of which his work depended on. Success during the firing process was never guaranteed, so that many hours and pieces of work could be lost in the search for something « harmonious and fantastic, refined and barbaric », especially in his most ambitious commission – La Porte de Parsifal. The artist grew to be literally consumed by his art, and later, by poor health as an obsessive commitment to what would be his final project drove him to virtual insane measures. Indeed, the desire to realise his artistic vision swiftly led to nightmare scenarios that resulted in the artist’s actual death within the space of a few years.

Detail of La Porte de Parsifal - Carriès - 1892

Wishing to commission a vast decorative archway within her new Parisian townhouse as an ostentatious affirmation of her cultural status, the future Princesse de Polignac (1865-1943) turned to Carriès to execute the work. A talented musician and painter, the Princess would regularly receive le tout-Paris artistique for unique musical salons in her home (labelled by Proust as ‘le Hall’) and required a doorway to separate the room in which she planned to house the manuscript of Wagner’s opera Parsifal from the concert space. 

Detail of La Porte de Parsifal - Carriès

Initially, the project of this Porte Monumentale was to follow the design elaborated on the 1890 watercolour by Eugène Grasset. The painting showed five female heads on the left pillar, five male heads on the right whilst a central pillar bore a Virgin figure – in the likeness of the patron herself. However, Carriès went on to leave out the female faces, replacing them with grimacing hybrid creatures whilst the Virgin figure was no longer set in a niche but seemed to emerge from a gaping, diabolical mouth. Little by little, Carriès seemed to take ever greater artistic licence as the project gradually became his personal Holy Grail. 

Maquette of La Porte de Parsifal (lintel) - Carriès - 1892

The terrifying images of imaginary beasts that he created were both the source and reflection of the rêve hallucinatoire that took over his life. He was inspired by Gothic artwork and that of Japan, alongside the more exotic, with the Easter Island statues, the bas-reliefs of Angkor Vat and the literature of Baudelaire, amongst other writings. With his multiple experiments in ceramic techniques and the sheer size of the work itself (6 metres in height with over 600 pieces of glazed stoneware), the volume of hard graft required and the mass of materials, the doorway siphoned off increasing amounts of time and money. 

Monkey and Owl Detail (maquette)

Sadly, the project never reached completion - just like Rodin’s Porte d’Enfer (surely a more appropriate title for Carriès’ last work), it remained unfinished. The pressure to respect financial limits and deadlines further weakened Carriès health, all the more so as he was threatened with legal action. Stress and overexertion resulted in a respiratory illness similar to the tuberculosis that left Carriès an orphan and had claimed the life of his sister. He died in 1894. And so it was that the patron was left with a work that not only failed to correspond to what had been requested but now also remained incomplete. However, in view of the fact that she was born Winnaretta Singer - wealthy heir to the Singer Sewing Machine Company  – surely money should have been far less an issue, and not one that cost the artist his life. 

Detail of Lintel - Porte de Parsifal - Carriès

Regarding La Porte, worse was to come. Whilst the original plaster version of La Porte de Parsifal was exposed in Le Petit Palais in Paris for over 30 years in a room dedicated to Carriès work following the artist’s death, its fate was sealed by the decision of an over-zealous museum curator (Raymond Escholier). Seeking to make room for an exhibition of Italian art, he ordered the archway to be taken down and the Carriès room dismantled in 1934. The archway was simply destroyed in the 1950s…. 

Detail of Lintel

I sometimes wonder if there is a special state of Purgatory for the curators, town councillors and senators etc who allow art and architecture to be swept away to make way for their personal artistic perceptions, however well-intentioned those may be. If Purgatory be a place, La Porte de Parsifal is surely set at its entrance.

Self-portrait - Carriès

Fortunately, the 2007 exhibition ‘La Matière de l’Etrange; Jean-Joseph' Carriès brought the artist back to the public’s eye and the Carriès room was reinstated in Le Petit Palais (Paris) in 2005. I don’t think I had ever heard of him before the Jacobsen exhibition, but I finally saw the space dedicated to some of his work in Le Petit Palais at the weekend. Very moving on every level, and all the more special as this was my first time back to Paris since lockdown. I am now eagerly awaiting the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at Musée d’Orsay that had to be postponed due to the situation…

Artist's Mother - Detail from Self-portrait - Carriès 

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