Monday, August 31, 2020

Blogger Blues...

Blogger seems to have undergone some major updating recently and I just cannot get used to any of the supposedly improved functions that seem to have wiped out most of the handy old ones. As I am not tech-savvy, this is quite a nightmare and I dread what is to come. It has made me feel quite sad really - it is almost as if the old Blogger was being overhauled to make room for something more along the lines of other trendier social media - bite-sized text and a handful of photos, all to be uploaded and consumed at speed before moving onto the next thing in a sequence of clicks. Still, this is an excuse to show these beautiful blue flowers, currently growing along the tram lines!

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Rococo Fantasies at Château de Maisons... Fantaisies Pour Un Palais

As the first flowers were starting to break out of the cold winter ground at the beginning of Spring, I fleetlingly entered the magical realm of fairy-tale theatricality of the French Rococo. Descending the worn steps of an old Baroque chateau, to the basement of a building that preceded Versailles, I stepped into a world of mirrors, chandeliers, bejewelled alcoves, floral groves, opera stage sets, stuccos, grottos, delicate costumes, elegant manners and overall enchantment.
Here was the exhibition « Fantaisies pour un palais », at Château de Maisons, set in an affluent suburb of Paris. The magic of the experience was all the more complete as there were virtually no other visitors - the spell was intact. I felt as if it was my chateau to explore on a bright Spring day.
Approaching the Maisons domain, through the pleasant grounds of Maisons-Laffitte, roads and residential areas seem surprisingly close to the majestic entrance of the château. Yet even this intrusion of a modern urban landscape does not take away from the effect of the striking building, with its view of the horizon behind, framed by the high windows of the main doorway set in the central axis of the corps de logis.
For its height and length, the architecture feels strangely airy as its width is minimized by the light shining through windows, set symmetrically around the doorway and that are perfected aligned with those that look over the main gardens on the other façade, facing the Seine river. Not only does the chateau feel ‘light’, its size means that it impresses without overpowering the visitor with massive, lofty dimensions.
It creates quite a unique impression of being strangely accessible yet other-worldly, rising out of the 21st century visual clutter of cars and construction sites and all the associated noises. Undeterred by these ungracious distractions, the cour d’honneur seems to welcome rather than stifle through sheer volume. The two side pavillions act as extended arms, drawing you in and guiding you towards towards the light source ; the passage to the other side of this grand façade, which does indeed seem remarkably close.
The chateau appears to be like an ornate stage set, thinly separating the original forest domaine on the one side and the majestic stretch of land to the Seine and Sartrouville on the other. Built in the mid 17th century, at the behest of René de Longueil - president in the Parlement de Paris - this chateau was the masterpiece of architect François Mansart. The conception of Château de Maisons marked the beginning of a new era in grand architecture, with the French Classical design leading towards the Baroque.
With it, the key role of the chateau as a lieu de plaisance, reflecting life at court was fully emphasized, showing how far removed it was from the military function of the Medieval fortress. Set on a slight knoll, Château de Maisons was surrounded by a dry moat around the Seine façade - less for protection than practical and aesthetic considerations - with a large footbridge leading onto the geometric gardens below.
Built in the ‘blond’ Chantilly stone rather than brick, it appears to adhere visually to the Renaissance principles of Classical beauty that were based on order, symmetry, regularity and rationality, although in its construction the architect used his artistic licence at will. Likewise, the façade departs from the norms of the Middle Ages. Instead, it bears a ‘modern’ decoration, inspired by Antique architecture with the order of columns taken from Greek temples ; doric, ionic and corinthian.
Wherever necessary to the realisation of his grand design, Mansart was prepared to take bold measures in order to bring about his vision of a chateau fit to receive a king. And indeed, the chateau was designed with that very purpose in mind. De Longueil wished to invite illustrious guests to benefit from the chateau’s setting in the royal hunting grounds, and he had his sights set on the monarch, no less.
Much of the building is arranged to accommodate the rooms of the king and queen, with the other spaces set out accordingly. Although Louis XIII never came to sejourn for any extended period, Louis XIV did honour de Longueil with his presence for fleeting visits, thus sealing the prestigious reputation of Château de Maisons and that of the host – the future captain of the hunting domaines of Versailles and Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
The originality and architectural prowess of Château de Maisons is evident on crossing the threshold of the main entrance. Indeed, the central vestibule does not immediately lead onto a great staircase set in front - this is positioned on the right-hand side of this open area. This again adds to a certain airiness of volume and encourages the play of sunlight on the walls and floor space within.
This effect is even further enhanced by the open design of the gravity-defying escalier d’honneur, whose technical realisation has largely remained an enigma since Mansart devised it.
Without any supporting walls or pillars, the staircase appear to wind upwards in a light-filled void, while the stairwell itself goes from a square shape, to oval and then is capped by a round coupole far above. In order to create the greatest visual impact there are no paintings around the stairwell, distracting the visitor from the wonder of this great architectural achievement.
Charles Perrault - of fairy tale fame - remarked on the « unique beauty » of Château de Maisons that made it « one of the most beautiful things in France ». From a revolutionary prototype, it soon served as a model for subsequent chateaux ; in many ways, it was Versailles before Versailles. Louis XIV ordered the same sculptors, decorators and a member of the Mansart family to work on the palatial domain of Versailles in order to outshine the chateau of his upstart Superintendent of Finances, Nicolas Fouquet, whose inappropriately lavish domaine - Vaux Le Vicompte – had itself been earlier inspired by Château de Maisons.
Finally, if the basic design of Mansart’s masterpiece seems familiar to us today, it is simply because a simplified form was used extensively in the 19th century hôtels de ville across the country.
Naturally, since the beginning of its construction in the 1630s, Château de Maisons has been subject to many changes over the centuries as changes in circumstances, situations and events have left their mark on the aesthetics, structure and function of the building and grounds. Following the death of de Longueil in 1677, the chateau finally fell into the hands of Louis XVI's brother - the comte d'Artois - whose plans for major transformation of the property remained unfinished due to lack of finance.
Château de Maisons could not, of course, come through the Revolution years unscathed and it was indeed duly confiscated as ‘national goods’, emptied of its furniture, ornamentation and objects of art. It no longer belonged to the aristocracy but entered the public domain, and in the process symbolically lost the grandiose wrought-iron gates that had kept the commoners at a safe distance…
After passing between several new owners, in 1818 it finally entered the possession of Parisian banker Jacques Lafitte – hence the chateau’s modern name (Château de Maisons-Laffitte). However, he too was beset with financial troubles which finally saw him selling off the surrounding chateau park domaine as building lots for development from 1834. He also allowed for the creation of the main road that leads to the cour d’honneur, thus little by little opening up the chateau to the ordinary world beyond.
Of the monumental stables that Mansart designed, only a grotto remains today, whilst the dismantled buildings provided construction materials for the new sites around the château grounds. Fortunately, Laffitte did not carry out the division of the domaine without due consideration for the preservation of its unique quality. Specifications were laid out for construction and the maintenance of gardens and park spaces in the manner of English garden cities were enforced to ensure that the spirit of the chateau was unharmed. This did not prevent the other vicissitudes of time from affecting Château de Maisons, of course…
In 1905, the State purchased the chateau to save it from demolition and it was classed a monument historique in 1914. Whilst many of the houses around the chateau domaine are harmonious in style and dimension – you cannot help but wonder what has happened over the last few decades as increasing numbers of hideous, love-less architectural blocks are emerging, alarmingly close to the historic chateau. Money and power still have incomparable clout, but appear to be an even deadlier cocktail in an age when an understanding and respect of history and aesthetic sensitivity are rendered pointless. Greedy cranes encroaching on the cour d’honneur itself seem to offer a nightmarish view of where we stand today…
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world Château de Maisons seems to have garnered the consideration it deserves in the form of the replica Château Zhang-Laffitte, near Beijing. Imitation being the greatest form of flattery, the Chinese multi-millionaire Zhang has also had two wings added, modelled on those of the Palace of Fontainebleau for good measure ! Whilst this might all appear to be of dubious taste, perhaps the real irony here is that Westerners, for whatever reasons, cannot adequately and sustainably safeguard cultural, social and historical heritage on home ground.
Fortunately I was able to dodge these dark and gloomy considerations by plunging into a glittering universe of pastel shades, arabesque forms, elegant artifice and flickering lights, all reflected off water, chandelliers, jewels and mirrors in the Fantaisies exhibition.
The French Rococo celebrated here was the gracious art of refined living, where a Hedonistic existence based on the sensual pleasures of life in an enchanted and enchanting pastoral decor replaced the pomp and decorum of the royal court. It appeared after the death of Louis XIV in 1715 and flourished in the reign of Louis XV.
Unlike the ritualized world of strict courtly etiquette during the Grand Siècle under Louis XIV, this was a frivilous, charmed universe that celebrated love, light entertainment, elegant balls, fêtes galantes, rich costumes and theatrical settings. It represented more than an art movement ; it was a way of life encompassing the interior settings and the outdoors. Far removed from the confines of the aristocratic existence, it spread its influence through churches and public spaces.
It was not merely the preserve of nobility as it seeped into art, design, costumes, decor and archicture and thus reached the common people – the Third Estate - radiating out all over Europe. The term Rococo comes from rocaille, meaning a rough, contorted shell and which also refers to a form of decoration, using seashells, pebbles and cement for the ornamentation of grottos and fountains.
Ultimately Rococo came to indicate a style based on an assymmetrical, irregular and purely ornamental aesthetic. It was, of course, a reaction to the tenets of Classical Baroque beauty with their set notions of measure, balance and harmony. Dramatic Baroque effect was replaced by joyous trompe-l’œil theatricality, just as opera and the commedia del arte was growing in popularity. Vast, oppressive rooms with heavy statues were declined in favour of smaller, intimate salons decorated with stucco, light frescos and porcelain ornamentation such as the figurine, metamorphosing palaces, châteaux and les hôtels particuliers.
Finally, Rococo represented a final freedom from the dictates of Versailles. During the twilight years of the Sun King’s reign, the atmosphere in court and beyond had become dour and suffocating. Louis XIV had indeed stated ‘L’état, c’est moi’, and his absolutist regime had ensured that this somber mood had spread far and wide. With the Rococo movement, it was as if the doors and windows had been flung open, letting in light and life, flushing out the stale, asphyxiating air with a breeze of frivolity, in a sea of silk, gilt, brocade and chinoiseries.
In a new, luminous era of make-believe, it is not entirely surprising that the first fairy tales saw the light of day. Madame d’Aulnoy’s L’île de la félicité appeared in 1690 and was the first conte de fées littéraire before the work of Charles Perrault. Her tales were followed by those of other 'Madames' who enabled the genre to take flight before the better-known male writers staked their claim on the conte merveilleux .
In the exhibition, we are led through the rooms at the base of the chateau which would never have received any noble member of the household. Worn stone steps made me wonder who had traipsed there before, carrying out the numerous tasks required for the maintenance of a building of this size. I wonder what they would think of us and our lives today?
Through quasi-theatrical decors, the exhibition explores the essence of Rococo. There is a series of decors of magic palaces, reflecting opera scenes and the world of the theatre, shown alongside the stage set maquettes for the Opéra de Paris created by the workshop of Piero Bonifazio Algieri, between 1757 and 1760.
The Cabinet des fées installation shows the porcelain figurines of lovers, golden carriages etc, although these charmed me far less, I have to admit, after having seen too many kitsch imitations of such subjects over the years which has resulted in overkill. Next, a room of mirrors blurs reality, dream and artifice, as characters resembling the protagonists of Antoine Watteau’s fêtes galantes paintings appear to come to life and draw you into their world.
A beautiful boudoir is transformed into a fairy-tale grove, decorated with flowers, whilst a truly gorgeous Rococo grotto kept me spell-bound as I poured over the shells, jewels, mirrors and changing figures projected outwards!
Finally there was the installation of L’île enchantée, presenting the theme of the voyage to the imaginary island shown in Watteau’s painting Pèlerinage à l’Ile de Cythère, with its beautiful, intricate vessel. The exhibition featured the beautifully evocative work of the contemporary artist, Laetitia Mieral, whose papier mâché magic is used by Les Monuments Nationaux. The photographs that I took of her piece did it absolutely no justice whatsover, so I will leave you to discover her enchanting art for this exhibition and far more... Merveilles en Papier.
I must have spent hours in this sequence of rooms, before finally emerging to look at the beautiful expanses within the main body of the chateau. The play of light repeated on glass, mirror and chandelier echoed what I had seen in the exhibition and was breath-taking when carried from room to room.
The cherubs and classical figures did not overly attract my attention as these generally have much the same effect on me as porcelain figurines, however the nature-themed wall panels and screens were stunning with their studies of plants and animal painted in exquisite, playful detail.
However I had to bear in mind that these were not strictly from Château de Maisons since it had been stripped in the Revolution years.
As with all periods of seemingly unbridled pleasures for some, paralleled by the manifest discomfort of the majority, the Rococo period led onto greater decadence and dissatifaction as the ancien régime started to show cracks.
The risqué, yet relatively harmless sensuality hinted at in Fragonard’s Les Hasards heureux de l'escarpolette marked the last carefree decades before the French Revolution.
Well before 1789, Rococo had given way to a more staid, noble style - Neo-classicism - an evolution that was further influenced by the discoveries of Roman antiquities at Herculanum and Pompeii in the 1740s.
As my visit of Château de Maisons came to an end, I explored the gardens. Despite the layout, these were fairly rudimentary in terms of vegetation but just as I turned to go, I came across a lawn scattered with those unexpected, magical violets!

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