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.
In the first lockdown last year, I took pity on the pitiful clematis plants on sale in the local supermarket. Lacking water and natural sunlight, their leaves had become so shrivelled and their woody stems so brittle that the cashier even advised me against buying them. However, buy them I did. Despite spending most of the year in a relatively sorry state, this spring the plants started to grow in a determined fashion and have now produced their dazzling flowers to grace my balcony. The beautiful flowers have large, slightly ruffle-edged petals which are known to attract butterflies and hummingbirds in certain climates, though I think it is safe to say that there is no danger of that occuring here!
The flowers on one of the plants are a gentle amethyst whilst the others are a rich, regal purple. Perhaps the right description of this particular shade would be 'heliotrope', in reference to the flower itself of the borage family. Contrary to heliotrophic plants, the clematis does not turn its flowers and foliage to follow the movement of the sun throughout the day and in view of the incredibly wet weather at present, that is probably just as well... Nevertheless the grey skies are not able to dullen the hypnotic effect created by the delicate magenta veins traced on this particular purple, with the clockwise swirl of stamens at the centre to draw you in.
There is a certain amount of mystery surrounding this porcelain cat, with his enigmatic expression and puzzling past life. If cats have nine lives, I am not sure where he has spent the others prior to making an appearance in mine. Apparently this is a piece of ‘Chinese Imari’ as it has a qian yi tang mark on its base, perhaps dating back to the early 20th century. Despite having hunted around on internet for similar feline specimens, all those I have come across are either quite different in shape and design to this one/suspiciously modern-looking but vaunted as ‘vintage’ /generally cheap and tacky-looking. None of them really offer any solid description regarding origins, even though most of these are/were being auctioned off – some at exorbitant prices !
I have to say, with a certain amount of pride, that not one of these other models was on the same standing as mine ; the cat’s whiskers indeed ! He certainly thinks so, with that strange smile, and odd gaze! His colours are bright and well defined as they offset each other, but not in a shoddy, gaudy manner ; the painted floral detail is fine and delicate ; the glaze is fairly matt as opposed to shiny and superficial ; his porcelain mass is satisfyingly weighty. The only thing lacking is his story and the history of other Imari cats or other creatures like him. He too came from an auction house, but delivered without any kind of concrete information, strangely enough. However, whatever the particular trajectory of my cat, Imari porcelain in general exemplifies the centuries’ old exchange of ceramic style and technique between the Asian countries of China, Japan and Korea and the Middle East.
Porcelain is of course a Chinese invention and is typically referred to as ‘china’ in everyday English usage. The name Ming generally conjures up the image of some priceless vase used as a prop or piece of incriminating evidence in some whodunnit story ! However, the Ming dynasty was in fact just one of several successive dynastic periods that produced ceramics that would go on to dominate world trade - from the Song (960–1279), Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. From the 13th century, with its vast kilns Jingdezhen in Southern China was to become ‘porcelain city’. Much of this porcelain from the Yuan period was exported to the Middle East, and was adapted to and likewise influenced by the desire for ceramics enhanced by decorative motifs in blue glazes. Indeed, blue-and-white porcelain was manufactured en masse with its signature underglaze developed from the cobalt ‘Islamic blue’ exported from Persia.
From the Ming period onwards, Jingdezhen made imperial porcelain and the kilns were controlled by the emperor, but the taste for blue-and-white ware extended far beyond China and was to sweep across the Western world. Porcelain pieces initially came to Europe across land via the Silk Route, but Portuguese merchants later brought greater amounts back in seabound vessels. Yet despite an ever-growing supply, porcelain still remained the preserve of royalty and the rich, primarily in Portugal until the Dutch started to ship Chinaware massively to Amsterdam, the ‘world’s harbour’. The insatiable appetite of the affluent West for exotic ceramic goods and a whole range of other equally luxurious Asian artifacts was such that when, in the mid 1600s, the new Qing government closed ports following the demise of the Ming dynasty, the Dutch East India Company (VOC), turned to Japan as an alternative supplier.
From the mid 13th century, the tea-drinking culture that had originally been brought back to Japan from China by a Buddhist monk took a firm hold in Japanese culture, with the ritual of the tea ceremony leading to a demand in fine imported Chinese ceramic ware. During the Momoyama period (around 1573 – 1603), Japan set up its own porcelain production, aided by the arrival of expert Korean potters with their skillful use of the noborigama or 'rising kiln'. In the early 17th century, many of these artisans settled in an area that was found to be rich in kaolin clay, around the city of Arita. In this manner, Imari porcelain was born – named after the shipping port from where it left for Nagasaki. Initial Imari ware (Shoki-Imari) was based on blue-and-white porcelain and was sometimes referred to as Arita ware. This was so popular that many Europeans copied it on tin-glazed earthenware, Delft Blue from the Netherlands naturally being the main one to come to mind.
Japanese Imari style evolved over time as the blue underglaze was highlighted by a rusty reddish and a brilliant gold. In the same manner, this Imari style with its trio of colours was imitated throughout the West and was to be manufactured in Meissen in Germany, Chantilly in France, Delft in the Netherlands, and by Spode, Derby and Minton to name just a few in England. Imari pieces were typically decorated with flowers, birds, mythological creatures and auspicious symbols in line with the Japanese appreciation of both the natural and supernatural worlds and often inspired by textiles. Enamel decoration of porcelain, using an overglaze technique developed from the 1650s. This sub-type of Imari ware, known as Kakiemon (named after the persimmon fruit, kaki), employed soft red, yellow, blue and turquoise green colours to great effect and was highly popular and influential. So much so that when China’s porcelain trade picked up again for export at end of the reign of emperor Kangxi (1662-1722), it took full advantage of the European taste for Japanese design. It also profited from Japan’s own trade restrictions due to an isolationist foreign policy ! Thus Chinese Imari was born – based on both Japanese Imari and Kakiemon and drawing from their respective successes. Compared to Japanese Imari, the Chinese variety is said to have a thinner glaze, a brighter blue underglaze and a more translucent red enamel overglaze... Although Japan’s trade with the Dutch continued, its exports declined. Production costs were far higher than those in China, making the competition far too powerful to rival and so by 1740 this first period of Japanese exportation came to an end.
Japanese Imari did surge back into the Western markets from the mid 19th century when sakoku ('closed country') ended and exports were able to resume during the Meiji era. This of course coincided with the fascination of all things Japanese as Japonisme swept the West, influencing not only fine and decorative arts, but also architecture and landscape gardens. Japanese objets d’art became luxury objects of desire and a craze for collecting and displaying pieces fired trade. In many respects the long-reaching impact of Japonisme on Western aesthetics mirrored that of Chinoiserie which had reached a peak in the Rococo style of the mid-18th century, and thus continued the Asian influence. But where does that all leave my Imari cat ? Can he be considered to be more Japanese than Chinese ? Were such animal figures popular in Japan or China – or both ? I still don’t really have any clear idea but maybe that is part of his charm. Either way, I am dreaming of going back to museums and historical centres to see visions of blue-and-white, regardless of origin and have set my sights on Amsterdam…