PRINT April 1992


SO GASTON LACHAISE HAD ONE GOD. And it was a woman, his wife. He put this particular woman on a pedestal, both figuratively and literally. What did he need from her? What did she give him? This remains the mysterious mechanism of a relationship that worked.

Some artists, being masochists, must find a valid cause. They get a perverse pleasure out of suffering for the cause. They get their self-esteem from pain, in the overcoming of it. They are willing to pay in time, in labor, and in expertise for being listened to, considered, and noticed.

Some artists function only in a “feed me” setup, meaning “You feed me compliments. You feed me encouragement. You feed me self-esteem.” That’s all they ask. You feed them faith in themselves. The question in Lachaise’s art and life is: “Who fed whom?” When the sculptor met Isabel Dutaud Nagle (in Paris, sometime between 1902 and 1904), he met the muse of his life and art. He was 20 and she was 30, married, with a child. Photographs show that she was not stately or heroic. Contrary to the “signature” proportions in which Lachaise rendered her, she was far from being impressive and monumental. She turns out to have been a smallish, unassuming woman. Yet for Lachaise, she was “the Goddess I am searching to express in all things.”

The form of Lachaise’s masochism was that he let himself be the slave of this demanding woman. He was pumped dry by this muse, he sacrificed himself to this god. In what ways? In time: he devoted 33 years of his life to her. In labor: he worked tirelessly to support her. In social and financial expertise: he skillfully sought out collectors, commissions, and cash.

Isabel personified Lachaise’s unacknowledged dream of hope and adventure in the New World. After he married her, in 1917, he labored under constant financial stress in order to supply her every want and fancy: her One Fifth Avenue apartment, her summerhouse in Maine, her seamstress, hatmakers, and maid. To finance this woman’s endless demands, Lachaise made everything from cement plaques for a house on Long Island to zodiac designs for elevator doors to a spread-winged seagull for Arlington Cemetery—the gamut from hardware to monumental sculpture. In spite of everything, as the late work shows, the one thing he did not sacrifice was his talent.

Lachaise was a consummate technician. He had the traditional French academic training, and he had worked for René Lalique in Paris, making jewelry and designing vases and Art Nouveau ornaments. Once settled in America he was able to find work with the sculptor Paul Manship. Yet despite the strong support he received from patrons, he was always hard up. He borrowed to such an extent that people avoided him. He is said to have been reduced to having his bronze-casting done in Munich because he had exhausted his credit in New York. The hole in his pocket was Isabel.

Lachaise had a reputation as a portraitist. He wasone of those rare artists who could on occasion achieve a likeness and psychological depth at the same time, a talent I greatly respect. His bust of the painter John Marin in particular is quite powerful. Still, Lachaise did not reach the heights of Roman sculptural portraiture, or of Jean-Antoine Houdon, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, or Henri Matisse’s “Jeannette”series, 1910–13. We witness no transformation or formal evolution in his portraits over the years; he was a prisoner of his own talent, making flattering, commissioned likenesses of famous clients he sought out. After Lachaise, with rare exceptions, portraiture seems to have disappeared from sculpture and moved largely into the domain of photography.

Yet a certain part of Lachaise’s creativity remained his secret garden. It is only in the torsos, full figures, and abstracted female forms inspired by Isabel that Lachaise was able to reach his fullest expression as an artist. These forms are a convincing compulsion. I am all in favor of his authenticity, which bloomed only when he was alone in his studio. Only alone with the thought of his muse did he allow himself to express his sexual compulsion.

What are the secret demons in Lachaise’s relationship to his muse? Why the obsessions with breasts and cunts? Why did he have to keep repeating himself, and what did he have to prove? Therein remains the secret of his life. Can it be analogous to the insatiable Don Juan, who had to prove himself irresistible, seeking to replace his mother’s love with his conquests? Perhaps in this case the Don Juan complex involved the insatiable desire to possess one woman.

Contrary to Don Juan, and to what many feminists may feel, Lachaise did not exploit women but enjoyed them. To be a sex object is a flattering experience. Why her and not me? His sculptures are the greatest compliment to women, just as Francis Bacon’s work or Gary Indiana’s book Horse Crazy is a compliment to men: it is a compliment to grant the sex object such power that it can trigger such passion.

A consequence of Lachaise’s fixation is his tendency to repeat instead of to develop his style. This we deplore. But at the same time, it’s this obsessive quality that is so fantastic, such a gift. The formal distortions in the late erotic work, where the human body is deformed and enlarged, increase the audacity of Lachaise’s expression. These late pieces—Breasts with Female Organ Between (also known as Abstract Figure; large version), 1930–32, Dynamo Mother, 1933, In Extremis, ca. 1934, Kneeling Woman, Hands on Head, ca. 1930–35—reflect an extremely powerful and original vision of his relationship to this woman.1 It is in these works that Lachaise expresses his deepest emotion about woman—as mother, as lover, as ideal, as god.

Louise Bourgeois is an artist who lives in New York.



1. It is unfortunate that many of the late works were never exhibited before Lachaise’s death, in 1935, so that the versions we have of them, produced later from his casts, may not take the definitive forms he envisioned for them.