"Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution": METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

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This great exhibition--it is absurd to mince adjectives--is a monumental event. Apart from the breathtaking loans, there is a daunting catalogue containing 144 entries on works by canonic figures (Goujon, Pilon, Falconet, Girardon, Coysevox, Pigalle, Houdon) in addition to lesser lights as one moves from French Mannerism past Louis XIV, XV, and XVI to the rationalist French sculptors of the eighteenth century. The occasion was largely orchestrated by savants at the Louvre, the Metropolitan, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where the show arrives this month.

The catalogue for Knoedler & Company's "The French Bronze, 1500 to 1800," an exhibition I reviewed some forty years ago (Artforum, January 1969), set a benchmark for the study of European sculpture from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. And questions already in focus then remain in place, issues ranging from workshop attribution to the variants of the Sun King equestrians, the Girardon prototype of which was demolished in the Place Louis le Grand (Place Vendome) during the French Revolution, the event that signals the current exhibition's finale--Enlightened Rationalism Gone South.

The remaining left foot of the Girardon Louis XIV on Horseback, a virtual relic of ancien regime veneration, is easily the most eccentric inclusion, as fascinating for its Roman gigantism as for its sorry state. The court of Louis XIV at Versailles remains the unequaled model for centralized government, its classicizing Baroque ostentation the finest flower of the academism fundamental to its realization. Versailles is unimaginable sans statuaire, a word far more suggestive of august academic pretension than the sense conveyed by the more neutral term sculpture.

Apart from many Kings on Horseback, there is the beautiful Louis XIV at the Age of Five, crowned by an Apollonian laurel wreath, a work by the little-known Jacques Sarazin. The pensive portrait conveys an unexpected sweetness considering the model. That heavy-cheeked, pouting child shortly became the squat monarch, indelibly present to us through his unyielding protocol. But in the end it is the transfigurative Baroque conceits used to disguise physical clumsiness--wig, cuirass, military and mythological attributes, and equestrian arrogance--that orchestrate the centrality of monarchy.

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Bronze connoisseurship all but implicates the desire for possession. …