Editor's note: The following exhibition description was reprinted in Resource Library on November 24, 2007 with the permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly through her Web site:




Gaston Lachaise: The Monumental Sculpture

by Anne Barclay Morgan

 

In January of 1935, nine months before his death, Gaston Lachaise was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art's first one-person retrospective exhibition of a living sculptor. Now, sixty years later, this current exhibition allows for a timely, renewed appreciation of Lachaise's abilities and an examination of the changes in his creative output as he matured.

Although figuration has been an ongoing current in modern American sculpture, abstraction has dominated the scene for most of this century. In the past five years, however, interest has shifted toward the figurative with, for example, a proliferation of art based on the body and an acclaimed retrospective of the work of Louise Bourgeois, one of Lachaise's admirers.

Poised between traditional sculpture and the modern age, Lachaise bridged the gap. Although his work was figurative, he become more surreal and roughly-abstracted toward the end of this life. Lachaise was a modernist sculptor, following the breakthroughs of Rodin and influenced by Maillol, Matisse, and even, perhaps, Degas. Unlike the delicate, clever, refined approach of his contemporary Elie Nadelman -- who, like Lachaise, emigrated from Europe -- Lachaise chose robust, powerful forms, perhaps closer in spirit to the American era in which he lived. The monumentality and suppressed anatomical details of his work can also be seen in the context of the rounded, stylized shapes of the period's industrial designs such as the automobile or the sofa.[1]

Born in France in 1882, Lachaise moved to Boston in 1906, and then to New York; he became an American citizen in 1916. Son of a dedicated and well-known woodcarver and cabinet-maker, Lachaise learned early to use his hands and acquired an abiding interest in tools. While still a young student at the Académie Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Lachaise met Isabel Dutaud Nagle of Boston. In his journal he wrote that she "immediately became the primary inspiration which awakened my vision and the leading influence that has directed my forces."[2]

Though primed for a prestigious career in France, he left school to work for René Lalique to earn enough money to follow Isabel to Boston. Under Lalique, he was exposed to art nouveau and Indian temple art, which later informed the flowing lines and gestural qualities of his own sculptures. Lachaise had arrived in America at the age of twenty-four, but it was not until fifteen years later, after many emotional and financial hardships, that the artist and his muse finally married. Lachaise remained devoted to Isabel for the rest of his life.

Trained in traditional sculpture techniques in France, Lachaise was a meticulous craftsman with an expert command of materials. He worked as an assistant for the academic sculptor Henry Hudson Kitson, first in Boston and then in New York, where he also worked for Paul Manship. Lachaise earned additional income selling small figures and portraits that he sculpted in his spare time. Not until the early 1920s, however, was he able to focus on his own creative endeavors. Maturity, training, and experience converged into the most intensely productive period of his life, in which most of his monumental works were conceived.

Amidst a flurry of commissions, predominantly portraits, Lachaise worked indefatigably in private on his series of monumental concepts. Slightly larger-than life-in scale, the monumental sculptures were his most personal and deeply felt works, for both their passion and vision as well as their craft.

Known particularly for his exuberant expressions of the female form, Lachaise repeatedly sculpted his elegant, majestic, and eminently powerful archetypal woman, who embodied a supernatural abundance and fertility. The focus of his fervor was Woman, or, as Marsden Hartley put it, Lachaise "saw the entire universe in the form of a woman."[3] Lachaise's Woman has enormous breasts, rounded belly, full hips and thighs, and slender calves and feet. The face was directly inspired by that of his wife, Isabel, and the bodies of his early works resembled her full figure closely as well.

Elevation, the best-known of his oeuvre, was begun in 1912 and was exhibited in plaster in 1918 and in bronze in 1927 at New York's Bourgeois Galleries and the Brummer Gallery, respectively. When his dealer insisted on titles for his sculptures, the artist replied "anything you want."[4] With or without Lachaise's input in the naming of the piece, the title Elevation, is strikingly appropriate. The figure's pose and gestures make her body appear to rise above the force of gravity, transcending the heaviness conveyed by the volumes and the material, and suggesting composure rising above the mundane.

Isabel and her curvaceous figure were direct inspiration for this work, and Lachaise conveyed his reverence for her most eloquently. Isabel was just under five feet three inches tall; Elevation, at five feet ten inches, was an elongated version of her, metaphorically embodying the grace of a goddess poised delicately on her toes in a manner reminiscent of Indian temple statues. As in all of Lachaise's monumental works, the head is proportionally small for the body, and the torso, arms, and hips are enlarged. This anatomical exaggeration makes the sculpture appear larger, almost giant-sized, "emphasizing the powerful generative mysteries of the female body and (at the same time) suggesting the peculiar genius of the mind's relative weight to the powerful animal forces of life and its disciplinary wonder."[5]

Her regal stance, however, is all the more majestically conveyed by her full figure, much at odds with fashions of the time, when women intentionally flattened their breasts to fit the prevailing mode. Although its sleekness and poise pay homage to art nouveau, the sculpture is more traditional in style, especially given that Cubism was beginning to flower when Lachaise began working on it.

As in many of his subsequent sculptures, Lachaise used a device that lent buoyancy to his work: he raised the center of gravity. The high center, along with his figures' gestures create a sense of inner movement striving to express itself outwardly. It is particularly evident in Floating Figure: balanced on one buttock, the figure appears to hover magically. She gazes upward, her arms open as if to embrace the universe, her palms up in a welcoming gesture, and her chest expansive and unabashed. Anatomical details are smoothed out. The texture of her body is rough in contrast to the refined, fluid surfaces of Elevation. Floating Figure is a remarkably serene counterpart to Lachaise's earth goddesses.

Whereas Floating Figure leaves the earth with her gestures and gaze, Standing Woman (Heroic Woman), her head fixed on a powerful neck, looks slightly downward; her feet are planted firmly on a small mound of earth, and her arms are quite masculine. Long sensitive fingers rest on one hip and on one thigh, emphasizing those body parts that seem to lend power. The expression is constant yet firm, and the posture is of strong, rather than a meek, femininity.

Here is Lachaise's earth goddess incarnate. Lachaise was a romantic, yet his figures are earthy and massive rather than ethereal. Nevertheless, Standing Woman (Heroic Woman) embodies a lightness that her stolid stance would otherwise belie; she exhibits the dynamic interplay between weight and lightness, earth and heaven, and spirit and flesh that is characteristic of Lachaise's work.

Made in the year of his death, Standing Woman (1935), is very different from Standing Woman (Heroic Woman) of three years earlier. The 1935 Woman is now considerably older; her breasts are enormous and sagging; her belly, hips, and thighs show the signs of aging; her body appears in need of more support. The body exhibits more texture, more of the human touch, while the gross exaggeration of form still conveys a superabundance. Her face -- still serene, strong, and majestic -- seems more specific and personal, less stylized.

In The Mountain (La Montagne Heroique) completed in 1934, Lachaise depicts the ultimate synthesis of his Woman with the earth. Together they become a mountain; they become Mother Earth, a timeless absolute. Her large forms appears organically melded with the earth. Head turned, she looks outward with a glance conveying strength and moral fiber. Again Lachaise addresses his favorite theme: the predominance of natural abundance personified by Woman. Commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. George L. K. Morris for their estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, the work was cast in cement and placed on six cement pillars, on a rising hill in a grove of pines, intended to become part of the forest. Nine feet in length, it is one of the sculptor's largest pieces.

Lachaise executed several bas reliefs in alabaster, marble, bronze, and plaster. His monumental Relief-Woman again depicts the mature figure of his fecund Woman; in nearly frontal pose, she stands on tip-toe, surrounded by stylized draperies. As in Standing Woman, her right hand rests on her hip as support; the palm of the other hand faces outward in a gesture of openness that Lachaise favored.

In Dans La Nuit, two reclining lovers combine in a gesture of complete trust and ease. They seem molded as one natural element, one form, one flesh, in perfectly complementary postures. Lachaise planned this work for some time, developing it in his Maine studio, and finishing it in the summer of 1935, on the last day he ever spent there. Dans La Nuit combines his two archetypes; they appear naturally destined for each other. Their embrace is tender, completely entwined, just as Lachaise's life and his life's work was enmeshed with his wife, Isabel. Although she was ten years his senior, Isabel outlived him by twenty-two years, during which she devoted herself to preserving the integrity of his art.

The overt voluptuousness of his Woman was integral to Lachaise's large- and small-scale works. The erotic appeared, not lightly or gracefully so much as powerfully and forcefully, a sense of female sexuality closely linked with fertility. His female sculptures have been compared with the Venus of Willendorf, rising from the same primal view: an abstracted and symbolic representation of abundance and fertility portrayed in the female form.

This is not an intellectual view of sexuality, nor is it romantic, but rather, it is bound in the sheer physicality of natural forces. It is no wonder that Marsden Hartley called Lachaise a pagan, a man with a reverence for the feminine depicted as fruitful, abundant, and sexually potent, reminiscent of ancient earth religions based on goddess worship.

Although the critic Henry McBride pronounced Lachaise "the greatest of living sculptors,"[6] controversy surrounded the artist's work. The unabashed voluptuousness of his women was shocking in an era of flappers and Puritan ethic. In the 1960s, controversy was renewed and continues today. With the rise of the feminist movement, the sculptor's work has been highly criticized for its apparent exploitation of the female form and the male gaze. As recently as 1992, at a showing of his works at a New York gallery, the Guerrilla Girls, the art group, proclaimed him a misogynist, targeting his late, small-scale depictions of body parts. Yet in many ways Lachaise pre-saged Louise Bourgeois in her use of multiple breast shapes; her use of body parts became even more symbolic than his.

While the gender role implications are traditional, Lachaise's reverence for Woman is amply seen in these monumental works of heroic proportions. The critic Barry Schwabsky feels that there is a degree of shamelessness in Lachaise's work that is not theatrical but rather private and intimate.[7] The artist's lifelong devotion to Isabel and Woman was unpretentious.

Lachaise's technique was superb, and his ability to portray mass and volume in an ebullient fashion was highly inventive. He captured the transcendence of spirit over matter with expression and gesture, contrasting the earthy heaviness of form. His sculptures are transparent, without a hidden agenda; their primacy and boldness generate an immediate emotional response. Above all, Lachaise conveyed a deeper understanding of the beauty embodied in the female figure and the transcendent human spirit, with an immediacy that is still fresh and vital.

All of Lachaise's monumental works, except The Mountain, were completed (but not necessarily cast in bronze) without patronage, indicating that they were deeply significant to the artist. He did not have the money to cast the majority of his monumental sculptures, although Elevation and Standing Woman at the Museum of Modern Art were cast in bronze. Since the death of his widow in 1957, the Lachaise Foundation has scrupulously ensured that posthumous casts from his original plasters only complete the editions Lachaise originally planned for each work before his untimely death from leukemia. The casts in this exhibition were made in 1993 at the Modern Art Foundry on Long Island, New York, where all the editions have been made, overseen by sculptor Michael Steiner. All of these casts bear the stamp "Lachaise Estate." The Mountain, which was originally cast in cement, was cast as surmoulage, and is only slightly smaller than the original work.

 

1 Interview with Budd Harris Bishop, Director, Ham Museum of Art, June 1995.

2 Quoted in Sam Hunter's book Lachaise, Cross River Press, New York, 1993, p. 59.

3 Marsden Hartly's essay, originally pubIished in Twice a Year, Fall - Winter 1939, is reproduced in part in the catalogue Gaston Lachaise: The Monumental Sculpture, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, Inc., New York, 1992.

4 See Gerald Nordland's book Gaston Lachaise: The Man and His Work, George Braziller, New York, 1974, p. 21.

5 Ibid., p. 110.

6 See Nordland, p. 53.

7 Barry Schwabsky, "Shamelessness" in Sculpture, 11, no. 4 (July - August) 1992, p. 50.


About the author:

Anne Barclay Morgan received her doctorate in psychology, specializing in research methodology, from the University of Vienna, Austria, in 1977. She also completed the requirements for minors in education and art history. Concurrently, she studied sculpture and ceramics at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna and architecture at the Technical University of Vienna. She also attended sculpture master classes at the Summer Academy in Salzburg.

In 1990, she received her M.A. in art history from the University of Florida, specializing in modern and contemporary art. She has written and lectured extensively on sculpture, art, and art criticism, and conducts workshops for artists and students on writing artist statements. Her writings are published in Art in America, ARTnews, Art Papers, Camera Austria, and Sculpture, for which she is a contributing editor.

As the southeast representative for the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), she has organized regional meetings of art critics and created award-winning documentaries on contemporary art, including Video Art to Virtual Reality.

 

Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 24, 2007, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on August 20, 2007. Dr. Morgan's article pertains to a special exhibition, Gaston Lachaise, that was on view at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida, Gainesville, October 1, 1995 - May 31, 1996. The exhibition consisted of eight of Gaston Lachaise's monumental sculptures cast in bronze lent by The Lachaise Foundation, Boston, Massachusetts, courtesy of the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, Inc., New York.

This text was also published in the October - November 1995 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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