PRINT December 1963

Gaston Lachaise

THE LARGEST AND MOST IMPORTANT exhibition ever held of the work of Gaston Lachaise has been organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and opens on December 4. When the exhibit closes in January it will move to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York for the month of February. The collection has been drawn from more than forty-five museums and private collections as well as the estate of the artist’s wife. The more than 100 pieces of sculpture and 60 drawings provide the most comprehensive examination ever accorded the French-American artist. A number of the works have never been shown before and some have been exhibited only once in small exhibitions at widely separated times.

Gaston Lachaise was born in Paris in 1892 and began his apprenticeship at 13 in the nation’s art schools. He later wrote that “. . . after years of school­ing I had found to express only sweet-nothing compo­sitions and soulless reminiscences of classics.” In the first three or four years of this century, in Paris, Lachaise encountered “. . . a young American person who immediately became (his) . . . primary inspiration. . . .” Isabel Nagle was this person who awakened Lachaise and provided a continuing excitement for the artist through their more than 30 years together. Mme. Isabel Lachaise was indeed the “Woman” of whom he talked, wrote and for whom he labored. His devotion was enthusiastic and complete. His sculp­tures are unquestionably animated by his vision of Isabel, his considerable academic skills and his feeling for sculptural humanity.

The young artist resolved to follow his loved one to America and therefore took a position as a jewelry craftsman with René Lalique, the then-famous de­signer of jewelry and glass. After a year Lachaise had saved enough money to come to America and he arrived in Boston in 1906. He worked six years for Henry Hudson Kitson, the sculptor of uncounted Con­federate war memorials. He moved with Kitson from Boston to New York and later joined Paul Manship as a sculptural assistant. In New York Lachaise began his Standing Woman, 1912–27, which has become his most famous work. While with Manship, Lachaise exhibited in the Armory Show, married Isabel, became a leader of the Independent Society of Artists and held his first one-man shows at the Stephan Bour­geois Gallery on Fifth Avenue. Most of the reviews in the papers and magazines were favorable and treated the work with seriousness.

By the time of the artist’s second show at Bour­geois, a newly reconstituted magazine, The Dial, had published its January 1920 number with a La­chaise frontispiece and the February 1920 number with a eulogy of Lachaise’s work by the vanguard poet, e. e. cummings. Works like The Mountain became widely known and Lachaise’s reputation grew rapidly. He left Manship and soon thereafter was commis­sioned to do a major frieze for the American Tele­phone and Telegraph building in downtown New York City. The marble frieze of dancing child musicians, which surmounts the elevator core, is remarkable for its carving and the joyous grace of the figures. This important $20,000 commission was Lachaise’s last for some years as he found some difficulty in working with the leaders of industry who most often grant such opportunities.

From the earliest work in the exhibition, the Head of Allys Lachaise, 1898, (his sister), one recognizes a romantic sensibility joined with virtuoso skills and a dramatic flair. The Reclining Lovers, 1908–10, is a remarkable early work that came to fruition 25 years later, on the artist’s last day in his studio, in 1935. This reclining group of 1935 measures 88 inches over­all and was brought to completion in a whirlwind of work just prior to the artist’s final illness and prema­ture death in late 1935. The faithfulness of this sculp­ture to “ideal” proportions suggests that Lachaise was holding his mature fantasy in check and seeking to realize his vision of 1910 before moving on to a more expansive depiction.

The early standing figures of women show the ex­uberant forms which we have come to associate with Lachaise growing to their mature development. La Force Eternelle, 1917, (probably titled by Bourgeois), is a strong example of Lachaise’s vision. The dignity and ease of the pose, the simplicity and grandeur of the piece, lend it a scale that is impressive. Seen in photograph this 12½-inch sculpture compares favor­ably with the Whitney Museum’s Standing Woman or the Museum of Modern Art’s Heroic Woman. The Equestrienne, 1918, attempts to organize a galaxy of rounded breast and buttock shapes into a witty and meaningful work. If it seems somewhat dated or mannerist at this time, it must also be seen as the artist’s earliest effort in a series that includes the brilliant Floating Figures of 1924 and 1927.

The artist’s extensive body of animal and bird sculptures have more than a merely familial rela­tionship to the works of the period. Such pieces as Sea Lion, 1917, relate forcefully to the swelling and expanding forms of the standing women and the powerful “Mountain” series. Oftentimes the animal figures and groups were able to sustain Lachaise and his family when his more serious and difficult sculp­tures were shockingly unacceptable to collectors. The gallant little Penguin, 1925, and the various dolphin pieces, reveal the same sense of swelling volumes found in various acrobat figures as well as the ele­gantly simplified forms of the Standing Woman, 1912–27, or the Walking Woman, 1919. Nonetheless Lachaise edited out all of the animal sculptures and fountains from his 1935 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wishing only to exhibit his portrait sculptures and his women.

The portrait sculptures of Lachaise’s friends and associates were thought of by the artist as “ . . . a likeness with the skin removed.” The listing of the famous who sat for Lachaise portraits is distinguished indeed, numbering as it does such art figures of the 1920’s and ’30s as cummings, Marin, Buhlig, Van Vechten, Edgar Varese, O’Keeffe, George L. K. Morris, Henry McBride, Lincoln Kirstein, Edward Warburg, Stieglitz, Marianne Moore, Gilbert Seldes, Juliana Force, Antoinette Kraushaar and Hildegarde Watson. Surely among his greatest portraits are the busts of John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Richard Buhlig and the head of Timothy Seldes as a child, executed in alabaster. Among the full figures one should point out the distinguished Man Walking, 1933, of Lincoln Kirstein, and the Boy with a Tennis Racket, 1933, of George Morris. The alabaster portrait of Edward M. M. Warburg is particularly telling. These portraits usually took from ten to seventy sittings. Lachaise always achieved a photographic likeness at the first sitting but then destroyed it and rebuilt, working and re-working until he reached the point of “creating a Lachaise rather than a portrait.” His method seems to have involved working with the forms of the sub­ject’s face and head until he felt an intuitive visual and emotional truth about the sitter had been realized.

Marianne Moore recounts the story of her compli­ment to Lachaise regarding a small bronze, titled Pudeur, in one of the Bourgeois exhibitions. La­chaise shot back, “I never did anything that was prudish.” Indeed, Lachaise’s concern with the female figure and its amplification and simplification, was never embarrassed by feelings of prudery or false modesty. His work proclaims clearly his concern for the body and sex which was vital to his sculptural vision and reached its fulfillment in his women, who refer backward to the mother goddesses of all the races. Standing Woman, 1912–27, is the central work of Lachaise’s life. Once attacked as a “fat woman,” this grand figure displays an elegance, com­posure, and self-awareness that sets it apart as one of the great works of the 20th century and possibly the most important single American sculpture. It represents the idealism of a classically trained French discipline, transported by physical love and emotional intuition to a peak of sculptural achievement.

The Heroic Woman, 1932, standing 88 inches tall, is one of the most compelling and commanding works in memory. This is the archetype of the mother god­dess. As Lachaise said in 1928, “Of late a vision of the form of ‘man’ is growing more clear and precise to me. . . . Undoubtedly he will be the son of ‘Woman’.” But Lachaise’s Woman takes a number of forms. She is the “Mountain” and reclines, she is the “Eleva­tion” who ascends to the stature of queen, she is the “Floating Figure” and she is raised into the air, bal­anced unpredictably as an idea-symbol of Lachaise’s plastic fantasy. She is carried off by man in the fervor of Passion, 1932–34, seen here in bronze for the first time. She is also the bride of man in the last great work of Lachaise’s life—Dans la Nuit, 1935.

Lachaise found an active interest in the anatomical fragment throughout his productive years. Probably the researches of Rodin into dismembered elements and his familiarity with the Greek and Roman col­lections in Paris contributed to his interest in the fragment. The high points of the anatomical frag­ments tend to be the female torsos. The so-called Ogunquit Torso, 1928, of the Santa Barbara Museum, is the naturalistic extreme of this development. The torsos of 1928, the Warburg Breasts, 1930, the Torso with Pendulous Breasts, 1930–32, the Estate’s Breasts, 1930, and 1930–32, and the Smith College Torso, are all investigations of major importance to the artist’s work. These fragments may prove startl­ing in their obsessive and emotional examination of anatomy, but they soon reveal themselves as fully evolved and completely realized works. They are ab­solutes in a formal sense that is not removed from formal abstraction. Each work is an examination of formal relationships often never before explored, or at any rate, never explored with such frankness. Cer­tainly there is an emotional loading to the artist’s concern but it is transmuted by his skill and his pas­sion into a work of vitality and purity.

Dynamo Mother, 1933, was first cast in bronze in 1963. The artist originally intended to do a heroic ver­sion in granite. The work has only been shown once before, at the Margaret Brown Gallery, Boston, in 1957. The figure is posed in a seated posture with legs widespread and raised in the air. The figure’s arms parallel the gesture of the legs and emotionally ampli­fied breast forms establish a third pair of physical elements. The widespread legs reveal the vagina as if for birth and the counterpoint of legs, arms, and erectile nipples establishes an expression of the perpetuation of life which is unforgettable.

Lachaise could not blush before his own expression of life. His work is unavoidably bound up with his vision of woman, birth and motherhood. There is no compromise in this vision. It is a thoroughly evolved examination of variations that go back to his first years in the U.S. and to his lifelong love and reverence for Isabel. While the steatopygic Venuses of pre­history and the voluptuous dancing women of the temples of Hindu India might have served as influ­ences on this work, it is more important to recognize the amazing continuity of this fundamental inspira­tion to the plastic artist. The Lachaise woman lightly bridges 100 centuries from the paleolithic and re­minds us of the mysterious relevance of idol-making magic to art and life.

Mr. Nordland is a contributor to the catalog of the Gaston Lachaise Exhibition as is Mr. Donald Goodall, whose mono­graph on the artist will be published this month by Shorewood Press, N. Y.