New York

The French Bronzes and Jean Marchand

Knoedler & Company

Knoedler cannot be overpraised for its revelatory exhibition, The French Bronzes, 1500 to 1800. This show presents a remarkable survey of fine connoisseur productions which, while raising arduous technical and historical questions, still provide the full play of indulgences implied by the term connoisseurship. The space limitations of this review must stress the sensuous character of these works, since the historical knowledge required to adequately grapple with this exhibition is of such an order as to temper the enthusiasm of even the most expert authorities in the field of decorative art. Many of the issues brought into play are referred to in the catalog introduction and the notes to the plates, both of which provide a model for what an exhibition catalog can be. F. J. B. Watson, Director of the Wallace Collection and Surveyor of the Queen’s Works of Art, who wrote the introduction, has brought several dilemmas to our attention in an essay that will long remain, I am sure, the central reference for the study of French bronzes. I will return to some of these momentarily. Let me only indicate that they range from hand attribution, workshop designation, initial versus subsequent casts, anonymous craftsmen, fragmentary literature and the like.

As to the bronzes themselves, they are a shimmering dark delight produced for a luxurious patronage. Their scale allows them to be taken in in single views and this comparative smallness itself tends to deal, therefore, with emotions and sensations reserved to that which is precious and rare. The glistening of polish and lacquered patinas provoke the desire to stroke or touch these surfaces already long burnished from such loving self-indulgence. To feel the smooth bronze grow warm to the touch is to understand why the French were loathe to give up the idea of matières nobles, for certainly nothing, with the possible exception of highly finished stone, affords such luminous and tactile delight. One sees again the truism that issues of connoisseurship are inevitably tied to the desire to possess.

This admirable selection was assembled by Mr. Michael Hall of New York City and Mr. Jean-Georges Rueff of Paris. Mr. Hall installed the exhibition, and opened the survey with a great mound of Sun-King equestrian variations, either of a Desjardins or Girardon origin (a typical example of the historical dexterity required to tackle the problem of French bronze). He then introduces us to a large number of Fames, Apollos, Daphnes, Dianas and Amphitrites—in short the whole constellation of Baroque mythological imagery. The supreme sculptors of the French tradition—Coysevox, Falconet, Houdon, Clodion, Puget, etc.—are all represented either in the original or in masterful reproductions of attributable prototypes. There are also obscure but superb masters, such as Michel Anguier.

F. J. B. Watson quite frankly discusses the uncertainty with which these works might be described as either original or high quality reproductions fabricated by the skilled army of craftsmen and ornamentalists who form the backbone of French decorative art from the 16th century onward. There is even the possibility, quite apart from determining the hand of the prototype, that a few of these exquisite works may have been cast as late as the mid-19th century. Such disturbing facts in no way argue against the sensuous qualities of the bronzes, but they most certainly speak for, as Watson points out, the need for greater and deeper scholarship in this heretofore neglected area.

Golding and Fry only mention him inadvertently as a name on an exhibitor’s list from a period review—and Rosenblum mentions him not at all. I refer, of course, to various works on the history of Cubism which are central to any required reading syllabus in a college colloquium on the subject. The oblivion to which Jean Marchand has fallen is itself striking when his work is no less deplorable than such remembered second rankers as Gleizes and Metzinger, whose essay on Cubism (1912) expresses why they as well as Marchand were doomed only to partial success. Marchand’s later painting, from the teens and twenties, was almost on a par with that of Derain and Dunoyer de Segonzac during the same period.

The problem with Marchand, as with Gleizes and Metzinger, is that while born for academism he was rerouted momentarily by Analytical Cubism, a technique of vision and analysis which seemed to the daring young artist of 1908 the Kabbalist’s key to universal order. Marchand’s failure of course lies in the fact that while his simple analytical breakdowns skirted very closely to pure abstraction, he never for a moment doubted that such abstraction was a mirage—a hollow illusion—a cul-de-sac. He still believed that painting was representational art, while Picasso and Braque could in fact exploit some of the abstract potential of Analytical Cubism and at length transform it into the vital though somewhat decorative exercises one associates with Synthetic Cubism.

Jean Marchand later retrenched from the vanguard position, reverting to a kind of slick painting of conventional themes. This disaffection is well demonstrated in comparing Marchand’s forward looking still life, Bouteilles of 1909, and his Nus au Cupidon of 1911. In the 1909 painting (a small work and regrettably stolen from the exhibition), the lessons of Cézanne have been arresting-ly integrated into a Cubist amalgamation of still-life material. A faceted goblet is placed on the same foreground plane as a wine bottle. The channel of space between these objects forms the neck of a second bottle. Its base is replaced by a horizontal knife which becomes the parallel to the base of the first bottle as well as setting up the perpendicular to the glass stem. Certainly the turgidity of such a description argues for the fact that Marchand in 1909, an early date, is seriously confronting elemental and difficult structural questions—though the answers were largely extracted from Cézanne, who is very sensitively imitated in a number of landscapes of 1910.

The Nus au Cupidon of 1911 can be described much more easily: two nudes in a landscape attended by a blossom-bearing Cupid who flits foolishly and charmingly above the heads of the figures. The right-hand nude, particularly in her arms crossed upon her breast, demonstrates the step backward which the larger body of less intrepid Cubists were taking at this moment instead of continuing to grapple with complex spatial postulates. Such a solution deals in naturalistic simplifications which one admires more for its cleverness than for spatial contentiousness. In an odd way, what Marchand is doing in 1911 echoes the work of Emile Bernard, who at this moment is caught up by a similar Baroque academism and clever simplifications of forms.

Letting this issue go by, since the influence of later Bernard is still so open a question, I would like to signal one other remarkable Cubist painting by Marchand, the Nature Morte à La Lampe of 1910, which includes a piece of primitive sculpture, a Peruvian stirrup-spout container in the form of a bird, a hitherto unremarked primitive source for Cubist simplification.

By 1917, the suave Italianism of Derain is quite sensible in Marchand’s work and, to my view, the latter’s serious contributions to the modernist mainstream is at an end. While all this may seem unsympathetic, I hasten to add how instructive the Marchand retrospective was—particularly in sorting out the claims of a young artist attracted by the new vision which Cubism provided. Certainly Marchand’s failure—if it can be called that—is far less disturbing than the inexpert later work of a Derain, or a Vlaminck, or a Severini, all of whom at some critical and early period of their career had played with fire. Of course, some meritorious portion of progressivism lies in a young artist’s recognition that a vanguard option even exists, and in this respect the Jean Marchand retrospective was considerably enlightening.

Robert Pincus-Witten