Los Angeles

Rico Lebrun

Pavilion Gallery Newport Beach

One of the most important single events to grace an otherwise prosaic California art history was the 1950 showing of Rico Lebrun’s “Crucifixion” series at the Los Angeles County Museum. This awesome presentation was either attacked as being merely extensive exercises based on Picasso’s Guernica or rigorously praised as the work of a newly recognized master. In any event, it was not, nor could be ignored. Its impact on the local art scene was both immediate and lasting and initiated not only a dedicated following for Lebrun but ignited a long-delayed pride in the domestic product. His work provided the first convincing evidence of the growing stature of Los Angeles as an art center second only to New York. Although there were too few others whose names could provide additional conviction in proving the point, the name of Lebrun seemed sufficient.

The exhibition of paintings, drawings, mural cartoons, and the dazzling new sculptures at the Pavilion Gallery was the most conclusive survey of Lebrun’s talents since the 1950 triumph. Certainly it could hardly have been shown in more hospitable surroundings. The timeliness of the undertaking, the appropriateness of the setting, and the handsomely prepared catalog with an incisive article by Frederick Wight all added up to an exhibition deserving admiration and applause for the dedicated Fine Arts Patrons of Newport Harbor. It was most praiseworthy that such a project, so carefully conceived by them, should receive a greater audience than that which the Pavilion alone could offer. Subsequent shows were scheduled for the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs and the Portland Art Museum.

The recent sculptures in the display, many in the delicate wax state, cannot travel, and this will be a serious disappointment to subsequent showings since it is in these last few three-dimensional objects that Lebrun approached the culmination of a lifetime devotion to the human figure. All that went before seems to have been a preparation for this ultimate pronouncement. To see the exhibition without them is like omitting the final chapter of an absorbing document.

Of particular impact was the authority with which the artist approached a medium of negligible use to him in former years. Nowhere is there a suggestion of hesitation to confront what would appear to be tedious subjects The bronze Hand is immediately expressive and affecting. Lebrun’s assurance in preparing the wax model for Lazarus, a bound torso of tremendous inner vitality, suggests that this is the final moment before the shrouds disintegrate under the strain of reactivated life.

But the means to this sculptural end are equally imposing and the catalog of Lebrun’s earlier endeavors included in this survey, such as the terrifying concentration camp indictments and the preparatory drawings for the profoundly impressive Genesis mural at Pomona College, demonstrate a deeply passionate involvement with and love of mankind. His so-called preoccupation with death, seen in the eloquently tortured figures which possess such vivid reality as to nearly exhaust the eye, only accentuates a respect for life. Through his bitter disappointment in man’s determined self-annihilation, one feels too the warmth of a forgiving heart.

But most of all, it seems there were pronouncements of such timelessness as to find sustenance both in years long past and those yet to come. The significant Memorial to Caiazzo would look as comfortable ensconced on the tympanum of the Saint-Lazare Cathedral in Autun as it would on a pedestal in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, or mounted before the Chapel of the Air Force Academy in Colorado. By dealing directly and decisively with only pertinent form, the torso, Lebrun has imbued his sculpture with a universal sympathy and understanding appropriate to every era.

It may be that a preoccupation with man’s history of inhumanity towards man prompted Lebrun to surround his figures with a terrapin-like armament—both a wall to deflect and a cage to imprison. Even nudes possess an impregnable skin—a shingled sheath—within which the soul rattles or flutters about in the dark. If not protected they are lost, mutilated, beheaded, burnt, ravaged and put to such torture that their cries of anguish and pain become an endlessly flowing fountain of sound.

The fifty-nine paintings and drawings, and the fourteen sculptures included in the exhibition served as visual markers pointing step by step to successively simpler, progressively profounder statements that remind us once again of the monumental gifts endowed to a most compassionate man. One might be tempted to say “theatrical” but this implies a feigned concern, an artificial play on emotions which would be most inappropriate to apply here. For Lebrun, a lifetime of dedication to his art has resulted in proving only that an artist must tell the truth.

Curt Opliger