New York

Gaston Lachaise

Robert Schoelkopf Gallery

The retrospective exhibition organized by the Gaston Lachaise Foundation has at last arrived in New York City after touring these past two years and it is an event of capital importance––although it may pass relatively unnoticed. The oeuvre of the French-born and naturalized American sculptor who died in 1935, with its phenomenal mid-career shift from an extreme of classical poise to an unparalleled hedonism and sexual expressionism, is one of the most curious, nagging and still only superficially considered productions of a self-evident genius.The Foundation’s recent casting of unknown late Lachaises, the recent publication of a pretty but historically febrile biography, The Sculpture of Gaston Lachaise (1967), the grateful republication of Lachaise’s 1928 “Comment On My Sculpture,” in Barbara Rose’s Readings in American Art Since 1900 (1968), and the number of museums which have subscribed to the traveling exhibition amply testify to the certified rank of Lachaise and open, one hopes, a period of serious scholarship with regard to his oeuvre in place of the merely proficient offerings by graceful essayists with which we have had to make do up until now.

Let me point out some facets. We are familiar with the platitudinous Bénézit information concerning Lachaise’s training at the turn of the century at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in the studio of Gabriel Jules Thomas. It was on the basis of this training, one also has often read, that Lachaise was first engaged in Boston (whither he had followed the woman he loved) as the assistant to Henry Hudson Kitson from whose service he then moved to become the studio assistant of Paul Manship in 1913. As to Lachaise’s student production (and still later designs for Lalique) not an indication in the literature. What were, to continue, the projects with which he occupied himself for Kitson and Manship (our own Beaux-Arts heroes of the day)––in fact, to what degree were they Lachaise’s work and not that of the aforementioned sculptors? These questions, though obvious, are still unanswered.

It grows steadily more evident that by the mid-1890s there had grown a strong reaction to Rodin’s sculptural influence and in at least one aspect of this reaction, both academic and vanguard factions––French, English and American––had joined forces, that is, in the production of the small bronze statuettes and vitrine figures aimed at bourgeois collecting. This assertion is sustained by an examination of a growing body of recent scholarship: (1) the catalog British Sculpture 1850–1914 (London 1968), with its re-evaluation of Hamo Thornycroft’s inauguration of small-scale sculpture for the home (2) Professor Albert Elsen’s telling demonstration of Matisse’s development of themes familiar to vitrine statuettes from turn-of-the century salons, recently on these pages, a demonstration equally relevant to Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s production (3) Sidney Geist’s close examination of Brancusi’s early production in Roumania and Paris and (4) the already long acknowledged anti-Rodinism of Elie Nadelman’s production of about 1905–1912.

It is with the latter’s production especially that Lachaises’s early work is allied—it seems to me quite correctly. Both artists aimed at lithe, manneristically elongated surfaces and, in general, a Praxitelism that rejects Rodin and announces their affiliation with the earlier 19th-century tradition of Canova and Schadow. What have been rejected are the scoured, coloristic surfaces common to the 19th-century bronze work grown out of the humorous caricatures of Dantan and elevated to great art in the sculpture of Daumier, Carpeaux and finally Rodin. (In Lachaise’s case, however, the erotic focus will always in some measure affiliate him with Rodin although his treatment of surface more logically allies him with the monumental Greek archaism of Maillol’s terra-cotta statuettes of about 1903, the smooth broad surfaces of Gauguin’s Polynesian carvings of the same moment and Picasso’s pre-Cubist sculpture, such as his 1905 head of Fernande which is almost identically echoed in Lachaise’s heads of the early 1920s, especially the one known as the Egyptian Head of 1923.)

It is interesting to note, in the early work of Lachaise, the degree to which a lyrical and buoyant linearity controls his vision, as it does that of Nadelman and, it must be confessed, an army of lesser lights such as the young Jo Davidson who, in sculpting a relief panel in 1915 of the Dance, based on his enthusiasm for Isadora, achieved results very similar to Lachaise and Nadelman. In these connections Lachaise’s bronze relief of a Nude Dancing in 1917, a study obviously for the Elevation, his first major scale bronze finished in 1927, continues attitudes endemic in both academic and vanguard sculpture of the first decade of the 20th century. The threads which I am attempting to draw together will inevitably implicate the recent publication on Lachaise, as we are in no more need of pretty picture books. Such volumes only postpone the publication of other more historically able works. What, for example, were the demonstrable interconnections between Nadelman, Lachaise, and if you like, even Jo Davidson during this period? Such an elementary question still begs to be answered.

In one respect, however, Hilton Kramer’s introductory essay in the recent Lachaise volume must be praised; that is, in his capacity to describe Lachaise’s exteriorization of a profoundly erotic and emotional dependence on his wife, Isabel Dutaud Nagle, whom Gaston Lachaise called La Montagne: “If, as a man, Lachaise was in thrall to this woman to an unusual degree––unusual in so far as he made that thralldom the central emotion of his art. . .” is a phrase that comes to the heart of things. Lachaise, himself, in the “Comment” mentioned above, attempted to describe the process of inspiration:

Woman, as a vision sculptured, began to move, vigorously, robustly, walking, alert, lightly, radiating sex and soul. Soon she came to forceful repose, serene, massive as earth, soul turned towards heaven. “La Montagne”! The feet almost disappeared. Mountains neither jump nor walk, but have fertile rolling pastures, broad and soft as fecund breasts.

The “Woman” rose again, upstanding, noble, bountiful, poised on her toes, with closed, self absorbed eyes, nearly detached from earth. Still later, after communion with the universe and cosmic realization, “Woman,”––spheroid, planetary, radiative––was entirely projected beyond the earth, as protoplasm, haunted by the infinite, thrust forth man, by means of art, towards the eternal.

This entirely rapturous frenzy and sense of spiritual liberation through female physicality disrupts the anti-Rodinish and classicizing tradition which marks Lachaise’s early production. The later works transform the female anatomy into ritualized compendia of sexual deformations––certainly totemic and religious in their intent. The obvious parallels are the Stone Age “Venus” fetishes. For Lachaise steatopygics is accompanied by breast developments which seem universal. In the Torso With Raised Arms of 1935, for example, the headless figure presents mammoth breasts, the cleavage of which has become clearly vaginal. The In Extremis of about 1934, depicts the earth mother whose vast breasts cascade over her thighs. In the supreme Dynamo Mother of 1933, the figure is seen frontally, like a cult object. She explodes from a vagina thrust forward at the worshipper like a reliquary, legs and arms locked into a human chalice, the very nipples of the breasts surging outward as further testimony to sexual, life-engendering vitality. It may be of some interest that a Chicago sculptor, Cosmo Campoli, attempted a similar generative vision in his work of the late ’50s, although no dependency on Lachaise can be pointed to, as the Dynamo Mother was not publically exhibited until 1957.

By curious twists of sensibility, it is perhaps these last works which elevate Lachaise to the ranks of the most elect sculptors of the 20th century (although the work is at driving odds with the Constructivist idiom which dominates post-Cubist sculpture). Yet I cannot follow Lachaise. The sheer excess of bronze flesh (although, in reality, these are small works) are visions perhaps of an almost too awesome ambitiousness. I nostalgically glance at the earlier work for lyrical shield against the magnificent power of the Ur visions of the last work, these monuments of women birthing the world.

Robert Pincus-Witten