The Mature Richier, the Young Cesar

Article excerpt

For a period during the postwar years in Paris, the sculpture of Germaine Richier (1902-1959) and that of Cesar Baldaccini, known as Cesar (b. 1921), were frequently confronted.(1) In 1959 they were both included in the important exhibition New Images of Man at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Although of different generations, both sculptors used their thorough grounding in the building of classical figures to shape nonstereotypical human forms, either expressively figurative or partaking of the human and the animal realms, against the dominant trend of the time--abstraction. In light of Cesar's mature oeuvre as a nouveau realiste, this brief Expressionist encounter--useful in understanding the various attitudes of postwar Paris--calls for examination.

According to Rene Huyghe, Expressionism, which had been the major art practice before World War II, simply lost momentum during the Occupation years, and the plastic tendency--meaning formalism--came to the forefront.(2) How then was the expressive mode that was practiced in France perceived until its alleged natural demise during World War II? And what factors allowed the formalist tendency to flourish? For the conservative French critic Bernard Champigneule, writing shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the sculptors who had once gravitated around Auguste Rodin and Emile Bourdelle had not followed in their masters' footsteps because they "wanted an art that was more rigorous, more concentrated, more general and more distant from the expressive"; Charles Despiau and Aristide Maillol were two sculptors who fit this description.(3) To Bernard Dorival, Expressionist painting between the wars had also become "more distant from the expressive" manner of Georges Rouault's earlier generation of French Expressionist painters.(4) The same author did explain that another wave of Expressionist art had emerged in the 1920s, "impure in its essence," "morbid," exhaling "a heady perfume," looking "tortured with anxiety," and in all these respects "different from the national model of this movement."(5)

The latter group was comprised mostly of Jewish artists of Montparnasse who formed the core of the Ecole de Paris: Chaim Soutine, Moise Kisling, Amedeo Modigliani, Ossip Zadkine, Jacques Lipchitz, among others.(6) Although they did not in fact show a uniform Expressionist facture, Expressionism was the overall label under which they were placed. In the thirties tension between French and non-French artists increased to the point that few non-French artists were allowed to participate in the 1937 Paris Exposition Universelle.(7) The controversy over whether to turn Lipchitz's Prometheus' Victory over the Vulture from plaster to bronze after its display at the Pavillon de la Decouverte of the Exposition Universelle, and the resulting victory of the anti-Lipchitz forces, added to the tension. "No highly placed protectors for Lipchitz," wrote Mady Menier. "Its enormous size condemned it to a mere plaster existence, and the immense Prometheus was destroyed."(8)

During the Occupation years in Paris, Nazi officers spying on the French art world made sure that no mutinous art was shown and that no work by a Jewish artist was ever on display, Expressionist or not. Classical sculpture by Maillol, Despiau, and their followers--Paul Belmondo and Hubert Yencesse, among them--became extremely popular, and its juste milieu sensibility was greatly admired by Hitler's favorite sculptor, Arno Breker.(9) As for Expressionist art per se, it became exemplary of decadence in art. Although not censored as such, it was rarely on display and prompted vulgar outbursts in the pro-Nazi press.(10) Because it was suppressed during the years of intense suffering in France, an Expressionist, humanistic art focusing on the battered body might understandably have exploded in the aftermath of war. (The horrific renderings of dismembered bodies by Otto Dix in Germany and the Surrealists in France after World War I come to mind as a precedent. …