A Fine Body of Work

Article excerpt

"I have had the chance to know almost all the great men of my time," says Dina Vierny. She has rubbed shoulders with Charles de Gaulle and the nuclear physicist, Oppenheimer. She was friends with legendary French writers, such as Andre Gide, Jacques Prevert and Andre Breton. She lunched with Picasso and posed for Matisse, Bonnard and Dufy. Yet, she is best known for being the model and muse of the French sculptor, Aristide Maillol.

"My life has been devoted to Maillol," she claims, and in her eyes he is one of the three greatest sculptors of all time, along with Michelangelo and Rodin. Maillol began his first major statue, The Mediterranean, at the age of 41 in 1902, and over the next 40 years gained ever-increasing acclaim for his sculptures of the female form captured in attitudes of voluptuous calm and repose. In 1964, Vierny donated the 18 Maillol sculptures now displayed in Paris's Tuileries Gardens to the French state, and earlier this year opened the exquisite Musee Maillol only a stone's throw from Saint-Germain-des-Pres. On show alongside Maillol sculptures, pastels and oils is Vierny's splendid private collection, which includes works by Rodin, Kandinsky, Degas, Cezanne and Poliakoff.

Vierny herself is everywhere in the museum. She is cast in bronze by Maillol on the ground floor, painted in oils by Bonnard on the first, and drawn in ink by Matisse on the second. You will also find her in the flesh in the same building - she has lived in the same apartment there since 1954.

The room where we meet looks more like the museum's archives than somebody's house. There are drawings and canvases piled up against the walls, and part of Vierny's doll collection sits behind her on an antique chest of drawers. Vierny is now 76, and while she no longer displays her model figure of days gone by, she exudes an infectious warmth and enthusiasm. Maillol once wrote to Matisse that she "talks like Gide", and on meeting Vierny, you realise that she must have seduced the great artists of that time as much by her intelligence as by her appearance.

Yet it was her looks that first attracted Maillol's attention. She was only 15 when she first met him in 1934, by which time Maillol was already a venerable 73. They had an architect friend in common and Maillol wrote to her: "Mademoiselle, I have been told that you look like a Maillol and a Renoir. I'll make do with the Renoir." He invited her to come to his small bourgeois villa in the Parisian suburb of Marly-le-Roi. She at first refused and was only persuaded to go when she heard that the who's who of the art world gathered there on Sunday mornings. "How will I recognise him?" she asked a friend. "Look for the old man with the large white beard," came the reply. She followed the advice to the letter and strode up enthusiastically to greet the first elderly bearded male in sight - a rather astonished Van Dongen.

Andre Gide was also there. "Later on, we got on really well, but Gide was not nice that day," remembers Vierny. "He had a book under his arm and I asked him what it was. He replied: 'You are excessively indiscreet. That's none of your business.' "

But all other artists paled into insignificance when she was finally introduced to Maillol. "I looked like {all the sculptures} he'd ever made and he called me over and said that he wanted to work with me. But, like all young people, I was very pretentious and said 'never'. Then he went to get his wife and they said such wonderful things that the ice finally melted."

It was the beginning of a symbolic collaboration which would last for 10 years until Maillol's death in 1944. He had worked with numerous other models before, but none had represented his ideal image of a woman. "One day, I was climbing up an almond tree and Maillol turned to my father," recalls Vierny. "He said to him: 'You made her, but it was I who invented her.' And he really did believe that he had invented me. …