|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|
|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 !
|Troll - Jacobsen - 1896|
|La Mort et La Mère - Jacobsen - 1892|
|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|
|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|
|Artist's Mother - Detail from Self-portrait - Carriès|