San Francisco

San Francisco

A comprehensive exhibition of sculptures and drawings by Gaston Lachaise (1882–1935), which is scheduled to tour some fifteen small museums and college campus galleries over the next two and a half years under the management of the Felix Landau Gallery of Los Angeles and the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery of New York as agents for “The Lachaise Foundation,” began its tour at the San Francisco Museum of Art last October.

In 1906 at the age of 24, Lachaise, a native of France, came to America where he spent the remainder of his life, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1917. The era between his arrival here and his untimely death in 1935 encompassed the most turbulent years of America’s participation in a transatlantic community of “modernist” artistic movements, heralded by the controversial New York Armory Show of 1913, to which Lachaise was a contributor. Hence, partly by adoption and partly by historical circumstance, Lachaise was destined to become America’s first acclaimed modern sculptor. While Lachaise’s name is thus assured a secure niche among the “historically important,” his abilities were commensurate, at best, with pursuasive talent rather than with genius, and it is doubtful whether such interest as may be promoted by this show, even following so closely as it does upon the major Lachaise exhibition of 1963 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), can do much to place him more prominently.

Lachaise, reflecting more than influencing the trends of his time, exhibited a considerable range of qualitative variability within a wide range of styles. There are patently dated and trivial “period pieces” like the Reclining Woman plaster bas relief of 1917, which, like most of his drawings, is little more than a cliché in the mannerisms of that “streamlined Art Nouveau” which originated with the Austrian Secessionstil and ultimately degenerated into the popular “modernism” of American cinema palace and office building mural decoration in the 1920s. That Lachaise, however, was capable of producing small, essentially decorative pieces of extraordinary refinement, restraint and elegance is attested to by two small bronzes: the Hazen Collection’s Flock of Seagulls and the Whitney Museum’s Dolphin Fountain, neither of which, unfortunately, is included in the current exhibition, but which are both illustrated in the book, The Sculpture of Gaston Lachaise (The Eakins Press, 1967) which the Lachaise Foundation is circulating with the exhibition as a somewhat elaborate catalog supplement.

In sharp contrast to the restraint and lyricism of his decorative idiom at its best, a rugged expressionistic vein is to be found in Lachaise, emerging spasmodically in such early pieces as Lovers (1908–1910), Standing Woman (1910), and Nude With Coat (1912). This tendency was to assume dominance in his work after 1924, and finds its culmination in such works as the two bronze Torsos of 1928 and the Burlesque Figure of 1930. In these works as well as in the Rodinesque Passion of 1932–34 Lachaise is at his best.

Lachaise’s preoccupation with monumentalizing biological womanhood perhaps reaches its zenith in the heroically proportioned, simply stated, plaster Torso of 1934, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Pursuing this theme in a more tortured and expressionistic vein, the agony of childbirth as suggested by In Extremis (1934) is awesome and convincing. However, there was for Lachaise something obsessive about this preoccupation which inevitably compelled him to excess and overstatement in Dynamo Mother (1933); today, even its title has the ring of almost comic histrionic extravagance, while its frenetic and obvious bio-symbolic anatomical exaggerations and gestural contortions seem almost to have stemmed from the promptings of unconscious humor and self-mockery, parodying rather than extolling Lachaise’s fin de siècle “feminine mystique”—as dated in concept as is the 1917 bas relief in style.

After the departure of the Lachaise show, the museum installed an exhibition of 31 simple abstract forms in highly polished stone by the con, temporary Japanese sculptor, Masayuki Nagare, by courtesy of the Staempfli Gallery of New York whence this exhibition is ultimately destined after a scheduled sojourn, en route, at the Arts Club of Chicago. The exhibits are small sculptures, seldom exceeding three feet in any dimension, and each is made from a single piece of stone; while all are of granite, a wide variety of colors is employed, and the work is exquisitely lyrical and precious in its ultra-sophisticated subtleties of combining nuances of visual and tactile texture and form. Mr. Nagare is spiritually a “traditionalist” in terms of his culture; his viewpoint as an artist and his attitudes and disciplines as a craftsman are deeply rooted in Zen esthetics, and reflect his early and intensive aristocratic education at a Zen seminary in Kyoto.

Gerald Gooch is represented by an extensive exhibition at the Achenbach Foundation For Graphic Arts (California Palace of the Legion of Honor).

He is a consummate draftsman with an acid satirical wit; he can be sardonic, irreverent and bawdy in a manner spiritually akin to Hogarth and Rowlandson. The economy and power of his drawing is sufficient for what he has to say and loses rather than gains in impact by his recent attempts to extend a fundamentally graphic approach into the mobile and three dimensional by somewhat elaborate and Pop-artish gimmicky contraptions involving images sequenced on receding panes of transparent sheet acrylic, serially flashing electrical light images and the like.

Recently the California Palace of the Legion of Honor was host to an exhibition entitled French Paintings From French Museums, XVII–XVIII Centuries instigated by negotiations between the French Government and Mr. Warren Beach of the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, where the exhibition started its tour (which also includes, in its small itinerary, the E., B. Crocker Art Gallery of Sacramento and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art). Economy and educational value were prime considerations in the organization of this show, which was obviously tailored to meet both the community service responsibilities and the budget limitations of the small museum and which happily achieves a maximum of historical informativeness in a minimum of space. Its modest inventory of only 36 paintings (representing as many artists) was so thoughtfully chosen as to present a coherent and comprehensive survey of the major personalities, styles and schools of French painting during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The high achievements in decorative painting which characterized this period and which evolved through various styles within the two centuries encompassed are well presented in examples ranging from the Baroque rhythms, lighting and opulent sensuousness of Riches by Simon Vouet (1590–1649) to the Rococo bravura and strong Tiepolesque accents of The Miraculous Cure by Gabriel-Francois Doyen (1726–1806) who was invited to Russia by Catherine II where he spent the rest of his life as a court painter and teacher at the St. Petersburg Academy, first under Catherine and later under Paul I, who commissioned from him many murals and ceiling paintings for his palaces. While a few of the era’s celebrated painters are represented by typical but minor paintings, the exhibition is not without distinguish- ed works by great artists. Foremost among such gems of the exhibition are the magnificent Orpheus and Euridyce by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), a major work of the mature and distinctive “classical landscape” style which he evolved under Italian influences and which in turn influenced many of his contemporaries and successors in France and in Italy, and The Thunderstorm, sometimes designated as The Hay Wagon, by Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806).

Palmer D. French