By Wilkin, Karen
New Criterion , Vol. 23, No. 4
There are still restaurants in the smaller cities of France where local functionaries and dignitaries lunch every day--places where the regulars have their own napkin rings. There are no surprises in these solid, reassuring establishments. The classic, substantial dishes of la cuisine bourgeoise never change, apart from subtle responses to what is in season. The ingredients are excellent, and everything is prepared with skill and care. There may be a little more butter than current urban taste dictates, but the diner is assured of pleasure and satisfaction.
As this fall-s splendid exhibition at Marlborough Gallery made dear, the sculpture of Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) Can be described more or less the same way? The analogy is emphasized by the remarkable "tasting menu" with which the exhibition began: a vitrine of twenty small sculptures spanning four decades of the artist's career, from a kneeling washerwoman dated 1896 to a seated nude of his model and muse, Dina Vierny, dated 1937. As in the best of those comforting restaurants in the French provinces, there was nothing startling here, apart from the happy surprise of being able to see so many of these wonderful little pieces together. The array of sturdy bronzes, none over twelve inches in its largest dimension, constituted a (literally) miniature retrospective. It was not only an accounting of the principal themes and poses that Maillol pursued throughout his long life as a sculptor, but also a preview of the larger, better-known works--half-life-size, life-size, and monumental--that made up the rest of the show. Confronted with the vitrine full of familiar, suavely modeled figures, words such as "consistency," "heartiness," "economy," and "harmony--those bourgeois desiderata--came to mind.
The selection at Marlborough reinforced the obvious fact that Maillol became "Maillol" early on. His visual language was established almost from the start of his career as a sculptor: a kind of streamlined, personal classicism, with the figure conceived as a structure of sleek, swelling volumes, pared down to suggest ideal geometric archetypes.
The earliest works in the Marlborough show--the vitrine's Washerwoman, with her arched back and outstretched arms, and a half-life-size Female Bust, with smooth cheeks and a thick roll of hair, both dated 1896--were already fully realized in terms of the blunt forms, all seamless transitions and smooth convexities, that constitute the typical Maillol figure. Only the sinuous curves of the washerwoman's sleeves and the spreading ripples of her skirt-hem--evidence that Maillol was not immune, at least at the beginning of his career, to the all-purpose, sensuous convolutions of fin de siecle Art Nouveau--attest to the sculpture's early date.
A small version, dated 1899, of the iconic Standing Bather Arranging Her Hair, with her taut torso, angled knee, and lifted arms, was indistinguishable, except for the dramatic change in scale (and all that that implies) of the exhibitions life-size nude in the same pose, cast in 1930. But subtle alterations of emphasis over time revealed themselves in other sculptures. Generally, in the last decade of Maillol's career, his figures became a little less specific, but the distinction is one of nuance, not of dramatic change.
Maillol's subject matter was fixed at the beginning of his career, as well. He was preoccupied throughout his long life with the female figure, especially the female nude, particularly with youthful, firm, rather stocky bodies. Among the small sculptures, a single elegantly slim Young Man (1930)--the exhibition's only male image--looked slightly bewildered among the opulently fleshed women standing, bending, kneeling, and crouching around him. In contrast to the deliberate, thick-limbed female figures, the lone male seemed notably delicate and agile, a Donatello not among the wild beasts, but among the earth mothers. Elsewhere, among the larger sculptures, a quick survey of titles and subjects underscored Maillol's single-mindedness. …