PRINT October 1967

The Sculpture of Duchamp-Villon

“HE IS DYING BECAUSE no one believes in him.” This was Bourdelle’s explanation for his Dying Centaur, made in 1914, the same year as Duchamp-Villon’s Horse. These two sculptures are good examples of the backward and forward look of modern sculpture on the eve of World War I. For Duchamp-Villon the powers of mathematics, engineering and the machine were more inspiring and relevant to art and the time than the creatures of ancient myth. Perhaps the Horse has more successfully endured than the Centaur because the term, concept and admiration of horsepower are still with us. For many sculptors, however, it is not the sculpture’s mechanical reference that has proved most viable, but rather the artist’s means of metaphorizing. Less defensible than thematic relevance and influence, but somehow more certain as an explanation of durability is the sculptural excellence of Duchamp-Villon’s work, the result of a hard won intellectual effort for which his earlier art does not fully prepare us.

Duchamp-Villon’s high reputation is largely based on this one sculpture and it is generally thought that the total of his work consists of only a few pieces rather than the approximately ninety sculptures and studies that he did in about fourteen years. Consequently his first and very important retrospective exhibition this fall will please historians, but in some ways it may dismay the artists and public because these scarcely known works do not add to Duchamp-Villon’s image as a revolutionary.1 The many good small sculptures and drawings that are being shown for the first time in the United States at the Knoedler Galleries do not surpass in quality or impressiveness the Horse, Baudelaire or reliefs of the Lovers, all of which are already represented by bronze casts in American museums or collections. Along with the great virtue and rarity of allowing total concentration on Duchamp-Villon’s work, the exhibition should affirm that before 1914 he was a genuinely talented and inspired young sculptor who was very much of his time in both its progressive and conservative aspects. Further attempts to conscript his sculpture into the camp of Cubism will have less credulity and require more persuasive argument than in the past. Duchamp-Villon’s attempts (but not his ideas) at combining sculpture and architecture will seem the most dated, if not eclectic.

By pre-World War I sculpture classifications and because of his frequent salon exhibiting, Duchamp-Villon could be considered a decorative sculptor and sociétaire. He did a few portraits and tried his hand at a caricature. His were Utopian aspirations to reform sculpture and architecture along the lines of the stylistic and intellectual unity that he and other young artists admired in ancient Egypt, Greece and the Middle Ages but could not accept in Art Nouveau. These aspirations are more promising in Duchamp-Villon’s writings, for his architectural reliefs appear today like a streamlined collegiate Gothicism.2 He tried, in fact, to fuse his sculpture with a Gothic style in a project for an American college with results that were as eclectic as Henri Laurens’s post-war adaptation of Cubism to the Romanesque capitals and post and lintel gate for the garden of Jacques Doucet in Paris.

Unlike Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists, Duchamp-Villon did not want a complete break with tradition—only what he felt were outworn, restrictive conventions. There were conventions in which he was willing to participate. Like thousands of sculptors between 1900 and 1914 (at which time the war interrupted his work and led to his death in 1918), he knew that sculpture literally had a home in the modern apartment and garden, or in public buildings, squares, parks and museums.3 The entrée to these locations was largely by salon exhibitions. In the 1890s, sculptors like Théodore Rivière and Gérome led the movement toward making small finished sculptures suitable for the modern bourgeois apartment. By the time Duchamp-Villon was exhibiting at the Salon de la Société des Beaux Arts in 1904 (and thereafter each year until 1914 at the Salon d’Automne) provisions were made for the display of hundreds of small scale sculptures known as “petit genre.” The inventory of his exhibited and non-exhibited works before 1914 is similar to that of hundreds of other sociétaires: feline-framed ink stands, decorative garden sculptures and vases with agitated caryatids, animal reliefs, portraits and partial figures, nude girls shown dancing, sitting, reading, reclining and singing, and couples making love in reliefs that could have been set into certain contemporary fireplaces. These works were baptized with salon titles like Nymph des Bois, Pastorale, Les Amants, Esope, Nu Couché and Dans le Silence. Occasionally the works were in stone, wood or bronze, but generally most were in the conventional white plaster. Both sculptor and public assumed that some day they might be enlarged, cast or carved. Duchamp-Villon did some stone and wood carving himself, but occasionally employed a metteur au point. (Gauguin and Brancusi were not the initiators of the revival of wood and stone cutting, as the former had new admirers in the early 1880s and by 1906 carving in stone was popular with many shades of the sculptural spectrum.) His involvement with decoration took various forms. In 1909 he accepted a fee of four thousand francs to make a marble reduction of a Coysevox sculpture of a nymph on a shell. He advised a friend in Moscow that a marble sculpture would be more appropriate for the living room than a bronze. The powerful head of Baudelaire he once thought of for the mantel in the living room of his friends, the Mares.

Duchamp-Villon was a conservative in his preference for working out new but not always original stylistic variations on old motifs. Although he had no drawing school training, his drawings sometimes resembled “academies” in terms of postural studies. In style and reworking they also resemble certain drawings by Seurat as well as some by Jacques Villon, notably in his striving for greater continuity, severity and simplicity of inflection in the human silhouette. If the sculpture salons of Duchamp-Villon’s day were now better known it would be apparent that the theme of lovers was frequent and that it is a mistake for us to think only in terms of Rodin’s The Kiss as the foil for similar motifs treated by Maillol, Brancusi and Duchamp-Villon. (Dalou’s lovers, P. Gasq’s Hero and Léandre, Emile Derré’s Grotto of Love and column capital of embracing couples carved in 1906 that still stands in the Luxemburg Gardens, are a few examples.) Acknowledging that new esthetic ideas were grounded in the recent past, Duchamp-Villon omitted to point out in his writing that there was also a continuity of subjects. By 1910 he did come to the view that subject matter was of little or no importance and this adds to our understanding of why, despite the widespread talk of the machine and new symbols for the masses, the revolution in early sculpture was largely stylistic and not iconographic.

Like many other intelligent and alert young sculptors in their twenties and in Paris after 1900, Duchamp-Villon was highly susceptible to new ideas, particularly those that provided alternatives to naturalism or the “cult of nature,” and “surface beauty” in sculpture. Jacques Villon remembered that his brother came to sculpture from being a “spectator” and that like a “collector” he chose a certain art that he followed “intransigently.”4 As the first modern, full-time sculptor, who had no art school training, Duchamp-Villon had a lot to choose from. Besides Rodin’s exhibited work, he witnessed the discoveries and early development of Maillol, Nadelman, Brancusi, Archipenko, Lehmbruck, Boccioni, and may have known Derain’s stone sculptures of 1906 and 1907. According to Jacques Villon, he seems to have not become aware of Picasso’s work and Cubism until around 1911.

His own development as a sculptor was bound up with many of the aspirations, problems and possibilities that his generation thought, talked, wrote and acted on before 1914. Number one was how to move away from the imitation of nature while still drawing one’s themes from life. This meant finding an “equivalence” for nature in art that testified to its intellectual origin within the artist himself. (“Nature viewed through a temperament” was associated with Impressionism and imitative art.) Allied to the first problem was how to move away from both Rodin’s rhetoric based on gesture and facial expression, and his surface esthetic built upon modeling, nuance and unstable light effects that it was felt deprived form of “truthfulness” or self-sufficiency. (Too much was considered to be left to accident.) Rodin himself provided one influential solution to the first problem by his demonstration of the possibilities of the partial figure which did away with gesture and often the face. Of great appeal to young sculptors was the ideal of expression derived from the total effect of a composition rather than details. This led to the objective of “restoring” to sculpture resistance to disintegration by light through the absence of modeling, greater firmness of shape, measurability and clarity of design. The museums offered models for this ideal of greater physical certainty in sculpture by their collections of pre-classical, primitive and early medieval art. Cézanne was the hero for sculptors like Duchamp-Villon as well as painters, for what they considered to have been his transforming of the masses and details of the human body into explicit and expressive “structures.” Sculptors wanted an art that looked like it had been acted upon and not, as in Rodin’s case, one of self-effacement before nature.

This was a great time for redefining the terms and concepts of sculpture. Not only the Germans, from Hildebrand to Kahnweiler, but many young French sculptors and critics sought to rediscover the true nature of sculpture, to “purify” its language. When they redrew the boundaries of sculpture’s domain, the “modelers” were exiled. Rodin’s art was considered to be Impressionism, “pictorial” and not “sculptural.” There were serious investigations of the “true nature“ of relief sculpture, sculpture in the round (the problem of making a work that held up from all sides), out-of-door as opposed to gallery sculpture, and sculpture to go with architecture. For Duchamp-Villon, the great example of sculpture successfully joined with architecture that survived the adversity of weather conditions was Rude’s Chant du Depart on the Arc de Triomphe. There was also a widespread consciousness of being modern and the need to create an art that belonged to the new century. Rather than looking at sculpture in terms of its environment, as do certain assemblagists today, Duchamp-Villon and others looked at their time through the filter of what was appropriate for their style of sculpture. After 1910, when he indicated that sculpture should have a beauty and social relevance by being clothed in the “virtues” of “simplicity and austerity,” Duchamp-Villon was writing about qualities already to be found in his own style. (It is not surprising that he admired Rude’s neo-classical sculptures.) The “tyrannies” from which young independent sculptors thus sought to liberate themselves included those of the hand (that “execrable facility of the fingers” Zola called it) and hence individuality; subject matter or the “literary,” all that smacked of the anecdotal or illustrative; and eclectic taste.

Ironically, if we had only their statements, we could not always understand the difference between Rodin and the younger sculptors like Duchamp-Villon. The former spoke of his sculpture, notably his monument to Balzac, as possessing the “great planes,” “the essential,” “architecture,” and “geometry.” Rodin shared with Duchamp-Villon a decorative ideal that presupposed the harmony of lines, planes and volumes seen from a distance.5 Both men dreamed of reviving the medieval collective effort for making sculpture on buildings. It was Duchamp-Villon, inspired by photographs of New York skyscrapers, who believed that a modern cathedral was possible. When the portraits of Baudelaire by both sculptors are placed side by side the different implications of their words are apparent. In contrast to Rodin’s interpretation of the poet as a visionary and voluptuary, that of Duchamp-Villon seems a de-psychologizing and hermitic portrayal. It has a superficial resemblance to the poet’s death mask which paradoxically seems more relaxed and lacking in the intense fixity that signifies life in the sculptured head. Where Rodin sought to capture the mobility of Baudelaire’s being, Duchamp-Villon found a thin lipped, immobile, Egyptian-like set to the face that minimized the question of the poet’s seeing.

Geometry for Rodin meant visualizing the sculpture’s existence within an invisible block, while for Duchamp-Villon it meant generating a shape such as that of the skull that had the look and feel of geometric calculation and precision without its actual derivation. None of the latter’s other portraits, which were from life, either before or after that of Baudelaire, have its convincing presence and character, or reflect any serious capacity or intent to probe personality and feeling. All through the treatment of heads, for example, Duchamp-Villon denied the existence of the iris as if it were something not appropriate for sculptural distinction apart from the eyeball; hence the affinity of his faces with those of Egyptian, Archaic Greek and early medieval sculpture. (Jacques Villon’s portrait of his brother of 1911 does not depict the iris.) Duchamp-Villon’s decorative ideal did not permit a sequential reading of the face as Rodin desired. Unless his soon-to-be-published private papers reveal it, the reason for Duchamp-Villon’s interest in Baudelaire must be fathomed from the sculpture itself. Was there a mutuality based on their both being visionaries, putting passion at the service of intellect and disciplined craft, and common aspirations for a modern art?

Duchamp-Villon was not alone in taking what might be called the cool hard line away from Rodin. He evolved singularly tough, dense shapes with ascetic surfaces that avoided allusion to flesh and muscle but which still hinted at the existence of bone. Their closest historical analogy may be Egyptian Saitic portraits. His style had personal ethical as well as esthetic implications. We may better understand what Pach referred to as the sculptor’s “essays in the nature of solids,” the immobility of Baudelaire, and Duchamp-Villon’s attitude that sculpture was a religion, when we read what he wrote toward 1913 about Eiffel’s Tower:

This masterpiece of mathematical energy had, outside of its ingenious conception, an origin drawn from the subconscious domain of Beauty. It is more than a cipher, or a number, since it includes an element of profound life to which our spirit [“esprit”] must submit itself if it seeks its emotion in the arts of sculpture and architecture. I would give the most striking example of this: a plumb line, immobile, suspended in the center of a free space. This is the purest element of sculptural language of which man has a certain incontestable and unexplainable notion. This harmony, absolute and definitive, makes tangible for man a point in the infinite. It is for having translated this first truth, without crushing it with finery, that Eiffel has made a living and durable work.6

Perhaps Baudelaire, Maggy, Seated Woman and Dr. Gosset in their psychological and physical closure, their black, textureless, gem-like hardness were Duchamp-Villon’s equivalents for the plumb line.7 Were they for him the solid, stabile centers around which life could polarize itself? Since he felt the subject unimportant, perhaps he foresaw sculpture replacing the old conventions of instruction, elevation and delight of the community by countering society’s mobility and flux with physical and philosophical points of certainty. To move the mind and spirit by sculpture, he could not suddenly abandon life for abstraction or the machine.8

In retrospect, Duchamp-Villon’s ideas seem to begin to crystallize with the important Torso of a Young Man of 1910. Although sometimes cited as evidence of his break with the art of Rodin, this sculpture reminds us that the latter’s influence took many forms. The work’s style is often compared to Archaic Greek sculpture, notably the sculptures of the Aegina pediment that were supposedly known to the artist in photographs. (They were actually available to him in plaster casts housed in the Cour Yvon at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.) What is not always pointed out is that this partial figure came from another sculpture of 1910 entitled Pastoral, in which the full figures of a nude man and woman are shown energetically striding out from under a tree that separates them. This suggests the salon theme of “Adam and Eve After the Fall.” For an artist without formal training this was an ambitious and difficult project. By academic standards the composition was awkward and the gestures not explicit. Duchamp-Villon’s editing of the male figure may have expressed his own dissatisfaction with these things. When the full male figure is seen and its style traced back through the artist’s own preceding sculptures, the Aegina source does not seem exclusive or abrupt. The original striding pose of the youth and its subsequent dismemberment followed not only Rodin’s practice of separating the original full figure conception from rhetorical expression, but quite possibly both were inspired by the latter’s enlarged Walking Man, which was the clou or central attraction of its public exhibition in 1907. (Compare the position of the feet, the thrusting diagonal stance and division of the body’s weight.) Both in Torso of a Young Man and that of a Woman of 1907, Duchamp-Villon had the experience of breaking away from imitation or likeness by depriving the human form of some of its parts and learning for himself that completeness in sculpture need not presuppose the whole figure. It is not impossible that this lesson learned from segmentation, coupled with an increasing stylization contributed to the Horse in 1914.

Matisse felt the cold domination of intellect over feeling when he saw this sculpture in 1914. Although he had strong feelings about his conceptions, emotion by itself and sentimentality were anathema as motivations and motifs for Duchamp Villon and fellow sculptors like Archipenko. The spare form of the poet’s head, the frugal shaping of Wood Nymph, and the Seated Woman, strikingly like an artist’s mannikin (which Jacques Villon owned), display no feeling or individuality, but are endowed with what Pach so aptly called a “hard and healthy beauty.”9 Unless one has been exposed to the disease of anecdote and emotional insincerity that afflicted Prix de Rome winners and legions of salon sculptors at the time, it is hard to understand the antidotes that sculptors like Duchamp-Villon prescribed. His reliefs of the Lovers may have been a gesture against the surfeit of sentimentality in the treatment of this motif by such as Derré, Gasq and Rodin. It is probable that Duchamp-Villon was deliberately reworking Rodin’s Eternal Springtime as a relief to show how it should be composed and made more suitable for architectural decoration. By leaving much of the relief’s original surface plane untouched, he may also have been showing a more “architectural” alternative to Rodin’s own “unfinished” relief style.

The younger sculptor, possibly emulating the example of Archipenko, focused on a reformation of the bodies into more simple, legible parts and then put their respective shapes, rhythms and intervals into concert. He modulated the difference between their arabesque and that of the rectangular shape of the outer frame by means of an amorphic halo-like border, whose overlapping concave planes speak of Villon’s influence. The reformation of the bodies had not reached the inventiveness of the Horse, as they are still divided and mobilized at the joints so that, although schematic, human physiology was kept intact. Unwilling to succumb to the obvious geometricizing of the body used by Archipenko, Duchamp-Villon manifested the sensibility of a man who knew and loved anatomy and did not want to completely divest his new sculptural forms of all nuance, irregularity of shape, projection and variable proportion that the body had taught him. He was one of the first sculptors, along with Brancusi and Archipenko, to become “shape” conscious, as we use the word today, but living bodies tempered his fascination with abstraction. His ideals of precision and economy presupposed a distillation of possibilities for form rather than starting from a simple geometrical shape. The motivation for his style governed by these ideals after about 1910 can be paraphrased from his statement about words: “The sculptures our minds prefer express most in the least time.”10

It is not demeaning of Duchamp-Villon’s lucid, intelligent writing to say that the qualities of his fine mind have their highest expression in the Baudelaire and the Horse. By having no precedent in word or image for its form and being, the Horse is one of the true creations in the history of sculpture. Its original version and evolution through several studies is still one of the great events of modern sculpture. In 1913, several months after the 1912 Futurist exhibition in Paris, Duchamp-Villon wrote to Walter Pach about how “the power of the machine imposes itself upon us and we can scarcely conceive living bodies without it.”11 But until the Horse mechanical reference did not even implicitly enter his work as it did in the paintings of Marcel Duchamp. (Duchamp-Villon’s concrete Cat of 1913 is stylized but not mechanized.) In the same letter the sculptor wrote of analogies between objects and things. “We accustom ourselves without knowing it to perceive the forces of [beings] in terms of the forces they dominate in [objects].” In his work there is a prior history of interest in animals, vigorous unclimactic movements, and a style whose subtle generalization of living forms had eliminated textural and anatomical detailing. As in Brancusi’s art of the same time, his smooth surfaces and simplified shapes could prompt associations between comparable structures. But it is the leap of imagination visible in the many studies of the Horse that landed sculpture in new territory of form and meaning. The Horse, for example, demonstrates the difference between conventional metamorphosis (Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne), or hybrids (Barye’s, Rodin’s and Bourdelle’s centaurs), and the modern sculptural analogy or metaphor in which there is an absence of a clear transition between different entities, each of which gives up much of its distinguishing form.

Medically trained and with an appreciation of engineering, Duchamp-Villon brought to his sculpture at the proper moment a knowledge of the comparative anatomies of living forms and to a lesser extent those of machines. Added to this at the crucial juncture was the instinct or decision to create a third, new and imaginative entity that would still have a plausible physiology. This last attainment helps to make the Horse both credible as an imaginary being and esthetically successful as an integrated structuring of curved and straight, hollow and round components.

It is likely that this great sculpture had its beginnings in the sculptor’s observance of sport and it is certain from the studies that the mechanizing element was not premeditated before he began work. His widow recalled that the Horse began in a series of stylized drawings in a notebook, since lost, while the artist was watching the Polo de Bagatelle. (The Paris Société de Polo played on the famous Pelouse de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne and Degas and Lautrec were among those artists to have been inspired to make drawings and sculpture from what they saw.) The lost drawings probably showed horse and rider in movement. The two earliest modeled sketches, known as States I and II of Cheval et Cavalier, do not show horse and rider in the movements of galloping, trotting, rearing or about to jump. In the first version the horse has been brought to an abrupt halt. The forelegs are solidly braced against the ground, and like a good polo pony the neck is well arched. The hind legs, which in well-trained horses are principally responsible for the braking action, are bent from the effort and have slid under the horse’s belly.12 The rider stands in the stirrup in the effort of reining in his mount. The second state suggests the possible inspiration of a circus trick in which the more upright rider makes his horse mount a small circular base, causing all four hoofs to be drawn close together. (Such a base is suggested in the modeled sketch.) It is these initial conceptions of the circus or horse-show trick and the equestrian sudden halt that probably accounts for the otherwise curious positioning and firm planting of the legs away from the front of the base in the final version. The posture alone makes the Horse unique in the history of equestrian sculpture.

Having first made the form of the horse compact in the series with the rider, he went on to discard the rider, symmetry and considerable equine reference as he contracted his shapes into a few strong competing gestures. He reworked his earlier stylized treatment of chest, flanks and legs—the areas of the animal’s locomotion—until they assumed spring, gear and piston rod-like shapes which seem capable of movement. The recently discovered six chess-size studies show how Duchamp-Villon evolved the idea of integrating the polygonal base and sculpture into one cohesive form.13 The plinth-like base rises up in the back and curves forward to make the housing of the coiled shape that replaces the horse’s body. (In the back there is a coming together of two curved forms that still suggests the horse’s haunches.) As one moves clockwise around the final version of the sculpture there is an upward angular spiraling until the great concavity of the equivalent of the neck area and the movement downward and to the side of the residual form of the horse’s head. If there is one part of the sculpture in which the sculptor’s inventiveness and judgment of formal balance let down, or were still to be resolved, it is the Horse’s left side, rarely photographed perhaps for this reason.

How much the sculptor’s experience as a doctor attached to the Eleventh Regiment of Cuirassier’s, which improved his horsemanship, influenced changes in the sculpture is not clear. (It would be helpful as well to know exactly what changes Marcel Duchamp and Jacques Villon made when they cast their brother’s work.) More important, one suspects than military influence was the sculptor’s contact with artist friends who, as Pach points out, were interested in comparative anatomy and the analogies between different bodies. If Duchamp-Villon had been influenced by Boccioni’s Paris sculpture show of 1913, it was not something sudden, and the Italian’s formal ideas of breaking into the mass may have been slowly assimilated along with ideas from Duchamp’s paintings such as the King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes, and Archipenko’s substitution of concave for convex forms of the body. Duchamp-Villon is known to have admired the skeletalized iron form of the Eiffel Tower. All of these works could have conditioned his imagination to act as it did on the animal’s anatomy and the opening up of its form. In retrospect the Horse seemed to have evolved from a disciplined, elegant but immobilized subject trained for sport and show into a generalized metaphor not of speed but of latent power. Though firmly anchored to the ground it is a creature capable of articulated, variable and graceful movement. (The mechanical parts are not shown as moving and, like Seated Woman, this sculpture has, it seems to me, esthetic rather than physical movement.)

Why didn’t Duchamp-Villon mechanize a dog, cat or bird, particularly the latter in view of the excitement artists displayed over the feats of aviators? All through the 19th century attempts had been made to explain in treatises and diagrams the mechanics of the horse by means of algebra, geometry, biology, and physics, notably statics and dynamics. (Géricault’s Ecorché sculpture of the horse’s anatomy belongs to an older convention of analysis.) Since the middle of the last century at the hands of Francois Baucher (the most famous and controversial horse trainer and horsemanship expert), sports and circus trainers, as well as those of the French cavalry at Saumur, the horse had been bred and reared as a highly disciplined animal whose instinctive habits were suppressed or destroyed. The horse had been subjected to the changing interests of science, the military and social tastes. Duchamp-Villon did not manifest Marcel Duchamp’s cynical attitude toward science, and the Horse does not strike me as an attempt at “amusing physics.” While perhaps indirectly related to the events outlined above, the Horse was undoubtedly the result of the artist’s strong feelings, intuition and reason with which he may have sought to create something his mechanically minded society would recognize as certain, but unexplainable. He wanted a serious equivalence for the horse “outside of nature,” and the same should be said for the machine. He did not take an actual machine as a model but invented one. The tangible signs of the mechanical that were introduced were harnessed to a schematic concept that still leaned on the physiology of the horse. In 1914 his style was ripe for hard, machined-looking shapes and so were his esthetics, probably influenced by listening, at their weekly meetings, to Léger’s insistence that in form and theme art should be based on contrasts. As a final mechanical analogy for his sculpture, Duchamp-Villon expressed to Pach and Jacques Villon the hope that his work would be remade in steel.

Owing to Marcel Duchamp and Louis Carré, there is today a new but discrete enlargement of the Horse in bronze. In its first exhibition in Paris this past year it was mounted on a square, steel, motorized pedestal. One may question whether or not the sculptor would have changed any of the proportions or shapes for the enlargement as he did in the case of the Lovers. What little the larger version may lose of the original compressed energy of form is balanced off by a magnification of its beauty and surprise from every angle. The greater smoothness of the surfaces in the larger version jibes with Duchamp-Villon’s taste for an impersonal finish. With the revolving pedestal, however, several disturbing questions come to mind. Duchamp-Villon had reservations about Matisse’s reference to the Horse as a “projectile” because, as Pach recalled, “a projectile was, after all, a man-made thing, with an uncomplicated curve of flight, and he spoke of the varied rhythms of the horse’s pacing and trotting.”14 How appropriate is it to mount the Horse on a turntable with a fixed speed? Does this not also compromise the sculptor’s ideal of fixity in space? Does it not detract from the artist’s considerable compositional achievement that forces the viewer to circle the immobile sculpture? Is not the possible implication of energy, or symbolism of “horsepower” cut adrift by placing the sculpture on a motorized base? (One could also point out facetiously that turning in circles also evokes memories of the training of polo ponies.)

When Duchamp-Villon began the Horse he wanted to show it in the 1914 Salon d’Automne, possibly as an alternative to the dozens of small equestrian figures that he knew would be shown as before. As his work progressed and he reflected on it during the war, the Horse may have assumed in his mind the scale of an out-of-doors’ decoration, but it is doubtful that he saw it as a monument. In 1912 he expressed the view to Pach that “in an epoch of floating ideas and aspirations there can be no definitive or durable monument.”15 Though not intended as such, today the Horse seems a fitting commemoration of the pre-1914 period of transition from muscle to horsepower, and the tendency of society to think of the machine in terms of living beings. It is a personal tribute to those qualities in Duchamp-Villon largely realized in this last great work that he had praised in Eiffel’s Tower, namely “audacity, strength and grace.”15

Albert Elsen



1. On October 10, 1967, the Knoedler Gallery in New York will open the largest exhibition of Duchamp-Villon’s drawings and sculptures ever held. In conjunction with this exhibit George H. Hamilton, William Agee and Bernard Karpel will publish a book on the artist that will contain unpublished manuscripts, photographs and commentaries on the works, and a complete bibliography. Access to much of this material was not possible for me this past year as it was being reserved for this publication. My own work on Duchamp-Villon and the beginnings of modern sculpture in general benefited from a Guggenheim Fellowship and the assistance of Louis Carré and Mademoiselle Chantal Maisonnier.

2. The most sympathetic view of Duchamp-Villon’s efforts to unite sculpture and architecture was taken by Walter Pach in his A Sculptor’s Architecture, published in 1913 in conjunction with the Armory Show.

3. In his Sculpture 19th & 20th Centuries, Fred Licht speciously argues that after 1800 sculpture had no home and the conventional patrons, Church, State and private persons failed to look upon sculpture with favor. I have reviewed this curious book in a forthcoming issue of the Burlington Magazine.

4. Dora Vallier, “Jacques Villon, Oeuvres de 1897–1956.“ Cahiers d’Art, 1957.

5. In his response to an inquiry into the subject of Carpeaux’s “The Dance,” in front of the Paris Opera, Duchamp-Villon wrote an essay first published in 1966 by Louis Carré in his catalog of Le Cheval Majeur. In this essay the sculptor wrote, “The work must live decoratively from a distance by the harmony of volumes, planes and lines. The subject is of little or no importance.“ p. 30.

6. Published for the first time in the Galerie Louis Carré catalog, Le Cheval Majeur, Paris, 1966, p. 39.

7. In a letter to Walter Pach, Jacques Villon wrote that before his death Duchamp-Villon was moving further from representation and was more passionately involved with the machine. Pach, Raymond Duchamp-Villon Sculpteur, Paris, 1924, p. 21.

8. Many of Duchamp-Villon’s bronzes had an all-black patina, perhaps in part a reaction against Rodin’s taste for nuance of color in his patina. This black finish and the bronze itself had the quality of hard density beyond what one sees in the plasters, but professional sculptors like Duchamp-Villon knew what to anticipate from bronze as they worked in clay and plaster.

9. Pach, op, cit., 15.

10. Pach, op. cit., 18.

11. Pach, op. cit., 19.

12. These characteristics are described by Fred Galvayne, manager of the Société du Polo of Paris in an essay included in Sydney Galvayne’s The Twentieth Century Book on the Horse, London, 1912, p. 294. Muybridge’s photographs of horses do not show them in the positions of Duchamp-Villon’s studies, particularly with respect to jumping.

13. These studies were in the exhibition of the Cheval Majeur at the Galerie Louis Carré in the winter of 1966–1967. Mr. Carré did not think these were studies for chessmen. It is known that during the war Duchamp-Villon did contemplate making a chess set.

14. Pach, Queer Thing, Painting, New York and London, 1938, p. 146. In the Carré Gallery catalog, Le Cheval Majeur, Walter Pach’s account of Matisse’s visit is only partially quoted, and that which I have cited was omitted.

15. Pach, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, p. 17.