Friday, May 28, 2021

Musée-Atelier Bourdelle

Set in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, near Gare Montparnasse, the Musée-Atelier of Antoine Bourdelle (1861 – 1929) seems a world apart from the busy streets, and tall buildings that surround it. Beautiful statues in the museum garden stand proud and timeless, against an uninspiring backcloth of late 20th century concrete ugliness. The magnificence of sculpted forms, dating back a hundred years, seems to be amplified by this strange forced mariage.
The museum today is composed of the artist’s house and studio - «demeure de l’esprit» - with its sequence of rooms and gardens and yards, which he occupied from 1884 to 1929. I visited it in order to see the exhibition Les Contes Etranges of the Danish sculptor Niels Hansen Jacobsen, held there just as COVID started to stake its claim on 2020. However, I was equally struck by the beauty of this exceptional setting with its unique atmosphere and am looking forward to returning.
Strangely enough, I cannot even remember if I was fully aware of Bourdelle before my visit. It seems as if Auguste Rodin’s name is often considered to be THE reference, rightly or wrongly, in 19th century sculpture. With its Art Deco influence, Bourdelle’s work does, however, occupy an important role as it marks the transition from the academic Beaux-Arts style to modern sculpture. And although he had actually worked with Rodin for a number of years at the beginning of his career, he went on the develop his own highly distinct style. Rodin’ s fraught figures, often of taut nerves and sinew become powerful forms of muscle, vigor and contained energy in Bourdelle's art, creating a new vitality.
From a young age, Bourdelle worked on wood carving and drawing and remarked that “sculpture was no more than drawing in every sense”. . Leaving the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse in his twenties, he settled in Paris to continue his studies and to work in the studio of Alexandre Falguière (1831 – 1900). However, it was his position as practitioner in Rodin’s studio and his collaboration with the artist over fifteen years that no doubt shaped his approach to his own art in a rather more significant manner. Although initially referred to as “le demi Rodin”, given the influence that the mentor’s art exerted over him, Bourdelle went on to develop his unique style at the turn of the century and from 1910 no longer worked with his fellow sculptor.
In 1900, he created his bust of Apollo, a work which he himself recognized as being decisive in his development as an artist, since it enabled him to express what he wanted to convey. Whilst employing a similar approach to Rodin in the execution of the work, with visible marks of tools, and traces in the gouged material that left a surface seemingly unfinished, Bourdelle sought an independent style. Departing from the Expressionist Romanticism of Rodin, he drew inspiration from the work of Ancient Greek that he observed in the Louvre. From this, he created a personal manner of order, harmony and simplification. He later remarked that, in so doing, he evaded the fleeting, fortuitous and inconsequential in order to lay out what was universal and permanent.
Of his work, the imposing, monolithic forms that demonstrate this desire to explore the impressive force of ancient Greek sculpture are the ones I liked the most, especially given their unique settings in the museum and its gardens. As much as I tend to dislike Neo-Classicist art with its heavy themes and equally weighty figures positioned in meaningful poses, I really do appreciate Bourdelle. There is little or none of the anecdotal, yet dry academic themes referring back to now sadly obscure episodes of mythology. Instead, what you get are demonstrations of the dynamic meeting of modern Man and ancient deities to create timeless figures whose force you feel directly.
Gone are the anaemic, etiolated figures of Bourdelle’s predecessors and contemporaries that often seem rather stodgy and sentimental in nature, and likewise Rodin’s sinewy, tortured, troubled characters are abandoned too. Here, you actually sense the suspended tension, caught in the moment, in art that nevertheless highlights what is somehow permanent. In this, Bourdelle’s art was thoroughly modern in a similar vein to the dance of Isadora Duncan (1878 – 1927) that had also been a source of inspiration. Vital energy, pure forms and exaggerated rendition appear to take precedence over slavish, ponderous realism that distracts you from the essential and in so doing stifles the essence of the work itself, be that in plastic or performing arts.
You can experience the tension in the resulting sculpture like the force restrained in a flexed bow - with arrow ready to spring - through lines, angles, curves and movement that appear cast in iron through their massive strength and volume. Of course, the perfect example of this is in Bourdelle’s Hercules the Archer (1909), with its architectutural proportions and dramatic pose. I have just managed to see one of the copies of this work in the Musée d’Orsay and found that watching the reaction of the visitors was quite fascinating as their eyes, like mine, were drawn into the work with its powerful, unforgettable figure.
The concept and realization of the atelier-musée was a project that dominated the latter part of Bourdelles’s life. Following the example set by Rodin, with his wish to leave work to a museum in his name, he laid down detailed plans for the execution of the Atélier-Musée Bourdelle. In 1885, he had set himself up in the quartier of 16th arrondissement, in what was once gardens and vineyards, with fellow artists “as widespread as the grass in the cracks of the pavement” and so it was that Jules Dalou (1838 – 1902) and Eugène Carrière were his close neighbours. I can’t help but wonder what they would think of the whole area now…
Today, we can visit the spaces where Bourdelle taught his pupils; rooms with their original wooden floors, high ceilings, mezzanines for observation of work underway and large windows opening out onto the courtyard and gardens. It was the dedication of his widow, Cleopatre and their daughter Rhodia, that ensured the completion of the full project after Bourdelle’s death. Furthermore, it was the intervention of the patron Gabriel Cognacq that saved the site from destruction when the original cul-de-sac, Impasse du Maine, was opened up in 1930. The atelier-musée was inaugurated in 1949.
The last decade of Bourdelle’s life was marked by the realization of many large official commissions, many of which are displayed to great effect in the gardens of the grounds. The Virgin of the Offering (1920-25), Dying Centaur (1914), France (1925), General Alvear, Sapho (1925) and Horse (1922) are amongst other bronze statues that tower over us in an imposing fashion, set against the skies and the Montauban bricks employed in the building construction in a nod to the artist’s birth origins.
Further monumental works are housed in the Great Hall that was installed in 1961 to mark the century of the artist’s birth. This vast space acts as a modern temple, with its huge concrete roof flooding the plaster sculpture in light, to great effect. Meanwhile an extension of modern exhibition rooms was added in 1992 to display work and conserve documents and artifacts.
All in all, the whole site was a pleasure to discover.

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