Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 27, 2006
Phillip Dennis Cate, ed. Breaking the Mold: Sculpture in Paris from Daumier to Rodin The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 2005. 240 pp.; 410 color ills. Paper $45.00 (1976903016)
Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, October 23, 2005–March 12, 2006
Honoré Daumier. Charles Philipon, from the series Celebrities of the Juste Milieu. 1833 [cast in 1927]. Painted terracotta. 16.4 x 13 x 10.6 cm. Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Acquired in honor of Barbara Voorhees. 2001.0383.

The two titles of this exhibition curated by Phillip Dennis Cate are in many respects contradictory. The subtitle, Sculpture in Paris from Daumier to Rodin, is utterly banal and could apply to any of the dozens of exhibitions mounted in the past thirty years on the sculpture of the second half of the nineteenth century: an assemblage of masterworks, of famous names, of marbles and bronzes. But the main title, Breaking the Mold, announces an entirely different agenda: It recalls the moment when, at the end of the bronze-founding process, the clay form that surrounds the poured metal is destroyed to reveal the completed work. This phrase is used here to signal the real argument of the show—to destroy the shibboleths, habits, and attitudes that cloak this art. The exhibition reveals a history and a geography of sculpture markedly different from those that our assumptions have forged in the past three decades.

It is worth recalling, as Anne Pingeot does in her preface, how very recent is the current interest in nineteenth-century sculpture, especially in France. At the beginning of the 1970s, such works were at best placed in storage and at worst destroyed without compunction. It is therefore the more striking to see how quickly and firmly hierarchies have been established in such a brief span of time. How is it that so young an art history has been structured by excluding entire swathes of material from consideration? In order to attempt to understand not only this phenomenon but also its reconsideration by Cate, we must bear several facts in mind.

The collection of the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum was essentially formed by Cate himself. The additions to the exhibition of some works from private collections, dealers, and museums only underscores what the Zimmerli collection itself reveals. The works are assembled under the common denominator of sculpture. Under this noble title are grouped together works in an incredible variety of media, genres, and qualities, all set essentially on the same level. This ensemble poses the far-from-obvious question of the nature of sculpture itself. We generally accept applying this term to the works of Carpeaux or Rodin, Carriès or Larche; and we are willing to include the caricatures of Daumier or Dantan too, albeit less easily. Take Alexandre Charpentier, for example: the Zimmerli collection has rich holdings in bronze and enameled stoneware, bas-reliefs and medallions, including several keyhole covers (figs. 241, 242), but also works in embossed paper (figs. 210, 285–87); this range of materials upsets our certitudes about what constitutes a “sculpture.” The limits of the definition seem here to have been passed. Why should we call “sculpture” a sheet of colored paper that comes from an album, L’Estampe originale, as in the case of the marvelous Jeune femme jouant du violon of 1894 (fig. 286)? Shrugging off our surprise, we are nevertheless obliged to acknowledge that if Charpentier had made this same album of bronze rather than embossed paper we would unhesitatingly classify it as sculpture.

We see this problem clearly if we juxtapose these works with a profile of Puvis de Chavannes (fig. 288), which is, to be sure, made of embossed paper, but covered in a metallic coating and treated like a medallion. The argument is less convincing, however, when applied to zinc cutouts from the Chat Noir (figs. 152–54). These zinc objects, made for use as shadow puppets for the famous cabaret, are by artists of eminently graphic bent, such as Caran d’Ache, Henri Rivière, and Jean François Raffaëlli. An object is not a sculpture merely because it is made of metal; these works rely not on volume but on the silhouette and the projected shadow—an art not of mass but of light. Cate writes that these cutouts were not conceived as sculpture per se, and admits that they do not become sculpture. Yet on the same page of the catalogue are reproduced two works by Raffaëlli (figs. 155, 156) that, although similar to the silhouettes the artist made for the Chat Noir, do rise to the level of sculpture. These works are readable and complete without relying on the play of cast shadows; they comprise a veritable third dimension in themselves. But aside from this exception, the exploration in this exhibition and catalogue of Charpentier, Raffaëlli, and numerous other artists displays striking depth of analysis. In so tricky a project the authors show remarkable erudition and pertinence. Not only are many artists published for the first time, presented with all the advantages of fine photographic reproduction, but they are studied with persistence.

Cate violates another important boundary: the question not of a work’s three-dimensionality or otherwise, but the more peculiar issue of good and bad taste. Many of the works in the exhibition have never been considered relevant to the field of sculpture because they are offensive. In the section devoted to caricature and marionettes, it is striking to see how much this notion of taste has led us to exclude entire categories of sculpted production from the field of art history. Among the best examples of this are sculpted caricatures by Adrien Barrière of Queen Victoria and Waldeck-Rousseau as fetuses (figs. 399, 400), sculptures placed, for greater verisimilitude, in jars of formaldehyde. The domain of caricature, so rich in the nineteenth century, has scarcely been explored. The Zimmerli collection raises new questions. In the catalogue Florence Quideau places a photograph of Rodin’s Balzac (fig. 404) next to a caricature of a man as a walrus by Hans-Stoltenberg Lerche (fig. 405). The preceding page shows a sculpted caricature by Adrien Barrière. These audacious comparisons reveal the fragility of the boundaries between categories and call our assumptions into question.

This issue of good taste is not going to be resolved anytime soon. Ten years ago an exhibition of the ceramics of L’Isle-Adam, with a focus on the sculptor Joseph Le Guluche, curated by Frédéric Chappey at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire Louis Senlecq in L’Isle Adam, stirred some interesting debates. Following this, the publication by Stéphane Richemond of Terres cuites orientalistes et africanistes, 1860–1940 (Orientalist and Africanist Terracottas, 1860–1940, Editions de l’Amateur, 1999) further opened our eyes to this issue.

The exhibition at the Zimmerli also brings to light two other points that art history and art historians have failed to take into consideration with respect to sculpture—or indeed to any other media: In the development of the Zimmerli collection, the eye (if we may employ this not-terribly-meaningful term) precedes knowledge. It is, in fact, a collector rather than a curator who has determined the focus of this exhibition. It is the taste of the collector that has shattered the boundaries and identified affinities which knowledge alone could not spot. Many of the sculptures assembled here were unknown, not even identified when they entered the museum’s collection. Some attributions remain tentative; others are nonexistent. What makes the curatorial approach used here exemplary is precisely that the eye has driven research. The catalogue is the proof. This quest for the object, this harvest of many years, is now justified by new discoveries in the archives, the booklets of the Salons, the periodicals. In the catalogue’s preface Pingeot attributes the freedom and curiosity of Cate to his American character. Certainly he is little encumbered by hierarchies, prejudices, or classifications, and this probably is due to his US education, whose teaching gave little weight to received tradition.

Nevertheless, the curiosity of the collector is often the same the world over, as is that of the dealer. Cate underscores this second point in his acknowledgments—and this occurs rarely enough to merit note. He dwells at length on the importance of dealers in the evolution of his taste and ideas, declaring his debt to David and Constance Yates and Jacques Fischer, Lucille Audouy, Patrice Bellanger, Allan Chin, Jean and Sandrine Nicollier, Bertrand Talabardon, and Bertrand Gautier. The dealer may be essential in encouraging the making of art, and it is often their taste that forms collections. But only a client such as Cate can confirm and sustain that taste. This catalogue is one of those rare publications in which we are able to follow with some precision the complex development from dealer to museum, which sheds light on the important medium of sculpture in new ways.

Olivier Meslay
Curator, Department of Painting, Musée du Louvre

Translated from the French by Eve Sinaiko.

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