There’s a sound, approximating wind and storm, that’s used in songs sometimes. For some reason I’m thinking it’s in the background of one of the Wizard of Oz songs, which would make sense. It’s a chorus of voices, starting soft, then increasing in volume, ending softly. It’s all very quick, like ooOOWHOAOOoooo and has the effect of a strong wind, a roller coaster, picking you up and spinning you around. Although the exhibit encompasses three centuries, that’s how I felt when I finished Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution at the Getty.
I believe this is a traveling exhibition that was just at the Met, so it’s great to see some things that usually don’t travel. Also, it’s a great companion the show of French marble busts they had last year that just blew my mind.
The show starts off during the Mannerist period, with a tomb effigy in relief by Barthelemy Prieur, who was the pre-eminent craftsman of the period, it seems.
This is the best picture I could find. The effigy is simple, and it’s design reminded me of the 1920’s. It wouldn’t seem out of place in the medieval fantasies of the early 20th c, and there was something in the lines that felt nouveau to me, I think, and it always strikes me how history repeats, or elements of it. Certainly the 16th and 17th century little bronze statue interest was repeated in the gilded age. Prieur was exiled, it seems, for being a Protestant, so there are these great little sculptures of non-religious subjects. Good art must trump religion, as Henry IV snuck away to visit Prieur in exile to have little portrait statues done of himself and his mistress. They're about a foot tall. And the placard mentions that they were recognizable and nude. Scandale!
I didn’t have my camera, but was struck by a little “Blind Orion being led by Cedalion”. The bronzes are meticulous and awe-inspiring. There were three Orions in a row, and I wish I had had my camera since they were fascinating together. Next to them, also by Prieur, were two “chained captives” – one a youth, and the other a bearded captive “in the prime of life”, whose thigh was veined and looked real enough to touch. They are a little larger than life-size. Awe inspiring.
The pose of both of them, struggling against their chains, looked like a standard fashion pose—shoulders forward, curved, submissive, that odd broken look of couture models. The work is, like all of it, unbelievable. That they knocked this stuff out is just beyond me.
The exhibit moves onto Louis XIV, and there’s a room devoted to the statue of him on horseback, including a bronze wall relief of him being shown the plans for the sculpture. There is a miniature version in the exhibit
And for me what was the most fascinating, which is a miniature of the sculpture with all the sprues (channels for the wax to melt). [A side note—downstairs there is also the fascinating From Foundry to Finish: the Making of a Bronze Sculpture, which shows just how the sculpture is made—I’ve read descriptions, but I’ve always been unclear. This is what a sculpture with the sprues and part of the cast looks like
It’s wild, and the exhibit has videos that you can watch online. I have never been able to picture it before, probably because it's extremely complicated--it doesn't sound like it would work]. This sculpture on horseback was gigantic, and I guess if you blow it, you blow it with lost wax casting, but they managed to make it successfully. It was destroyed during the revolution, and what survives is Louis’ left foot. It’s a good foot and a half tall, so you can only imagine the enormitude of the full finished project.
After this, the exhibit moves into Rococo. There is drapery everywhere. And it’s not simple drapery. Suddenly it’s as if everyone is saying “look what I can do!” There are some beautiful sculptures, though. Here's a wonderful Prometheus by Dumont. I love the way the bronze is polished to give his body a different feeling than the rest of the sculpture, as well as how lifelike it is. It's painful.
There is a spiraling “Leda and the Swan” by Van Cleve that’s breathtaking, and an entire set of Hercules by Lespignola that defies easy description. I couldn’t find a picture of “Hercules delivering the Erymathean boar to Eurystheus, but the entire energy of the sculpture moves out. It’s as if it’s going to blow off it’s pedestal at any moment. Eurystheus is toppling over backward and away, his arm reaching out, as Hercules is holding the boar who is wrestling against his grip. There is a whole series of Hercules, all of which were explosions of movement. Here's one:
Then you come upon Lespignola’s “Death of Dido”, which is almost cacophonous. It’s filled with figures, and includes and angel on a rainbow! It’s over the top. Literally!
Next comes Parnassus, which is over 2m tall I believe, and just crammed. At this point there is so much in the piece it’s almost overwhelming. It’s huge, and a feat of expertise, but I have to say with all else in the room it starts to be completely overwhelming.
All the decoration and drapery and action is a display of virtuosity to be sure (and they're all masterpieces), but in one room it’s quite astounding. So, naturally, there is a bit of an exhale when you come to the quietly simple and beautiful Diana by Houdon from 1790. It must have been scandalous in its time, having no clothing whatsoever.
It’s a totally different experience coming upon this after all the fuss of what came before. And I never realized the St. Gaudens Diana that was on Penn Station had such a clear precedent, but I guess everything does.
The exhibit ends with the Winter/La Frileuse, also by Houdon, which is spectacular. Not only does it feel so artful and lifelike in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without the skill that came before it, it’s a breath of fresh air after the tour of the last three centuries. It’s the exhale after the storm of bronze that comes before. It’s so real; you feel cold looking at it, which is supposedly why the Shivering Girl (La Frileuse) is actually a nickname based on the reaction to it. Along with the Diana, it feels revolutionary. Then you see the date of 1787, and you realize it was. If what came before is the monarchy, this is a harbinger of the revolution. It’s history, shivering in your face.