Santa Barbara

Emile Antoine Bourdelle

The major exhibit of sculpture and drawings by Bourdelle (French 1861–1929) is a refreshing and overdue re-examination of the romantic sculpture of a bygone day when important artists still reckoned with the Greek ideal, or at least admitted to the involvement.

Bourdelle’s style is credited with fostering the sentimental statuary found in parks and public monuments. The difference between sentiment and sentimentality was scrupulously observed by him, however, even though his imitators did not.

Rodin, a contemporary of Bourdelle, overshadowed his genius but did not deny it, declaring in a much-quoted conversation, “Bourdelle is a beacon of the future. I love his sculpture, so personal, so expressive of his sensitive nature, of his fiery and impassioned temperament. And I find in it a certain delicacy which is proper to the strong.”

Bourdelle, quite naturally, was influenced by Rodin; but it was minor and scarcely apparent, except in the texture and gesture of some of the pieces. He was an eclectic who took what he wanted without apology. The classical tradition attracted him chiefly because it was a useful departure for his own romantic point of view. His romanticism was taken to a grandeur that still dazzles.

This doesn’t mean that Bourdelle was sweetness and light. His gnarled and tortured Beethoven, whose face launched many of Bourdelle’s masks and sculptures, is heroic but agonizingly so.

His Maternity, an early mother and child, is wonderfully tender and on the far side of being maudlin. Not everyone shares the same ideal, of course, but most will respond to Bourdelle’s. The study for the Fighter of Montauban, a huge-scale monument in which Bourdelle’s reputation safely rests, is compelling proof of his genius. The snapped, outstretched hand and the sweep of the coiled arm gripping a sword is the best of Bourdelle’s lyricism.

Much of the large bronze castings, including the smaller ones for that matter, have a structural quality to them, reminding one of Piero della Francesca’s paintings. Bourdelle’s deliberate avoidance of fastidious detail infuses the work with a spontaneity and sheer emotionalism which come through in distinctly twentieth century terms.

Some of the more quiet works are also worthy of investigation. His Cloud, for instance, may be more sensual than sensuous, for there is a touch of bawdiness in this reclining woman, but one can be sure that it is in polite good taste.

The exhibit, organized by the Charles E. Slatkin Galleries in New York, is scheduled for the San Diego Art Museum June 8 and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Aug. 1–Sept. 8.

Larry Rottersman