New York

Aristide Maillol

Perls Gallery

The Maillol bronzes, spanning the artist’s entire career in sculpture and most of them quite small, were stunning. It is flabbergasting to find a sculptor who at that time (Maillol didn’t die until 1944) found it entirely adequate to place a self-contained volume in a neutral space—flabbergasting, and an immense relief. What was Maillol thinking about? I mean that he couldn’t have had the confidence to do these pieces if he had been working in the isolation they seem to imply because they’re so anomalous. One thing he apparently thought of from time to time was a kind of official sculpture involving ideas of Rude, Barye, Rodin—a very rhetorical, baroque kind of sculpture that is at opposite poles from his own bent. The drapery in the Cézanne is an example of it, and of how it can ruin a piece—one need only compare it with some of the. other versions of this subject. Also discordant, although easier to account for, is the art déco classicism that used to be so frequent in official, monumental sculpture; in this country we associate it with—excuse me—Paul Manship! The monument to Debussy is in this vein, and the Rosita and the Nude Flora narrowly avoid it.

But when Maillol is right it is harder to say what he is thinking of, because, as I suggested, his work doesn’t look like anybody else’s. I have found it helpful to take it for a moment as a complex of concepts—antique simplicity, purity and other ideals, harmony with nature, the beauty of female forms, the pastoral, and so on. If you think of Maillol’s work in this way you see that he was a Symbolist. These ideas are those of Sérusier, Bernard, Denis, and others of that type, after all. Why aren’t they recognizable as that? I suppose that it’s largely because Maillol works in sculpture in the round, while Symbolist painting is not only painting that is programmatically flat: the one bas-relief in the present show is much easier to “place.” If one isolates the contours of Maillol’s women, they are very much like those of the Symbolist painters, especially Gauguin. Then again, unlike the painters, it is not a bit anecdotal; and I imagine that his approach is never anecdotal because he didn’t want an art that was circumstantial—which is why it doesn’t seem to be of a period, even though it is. A style of this sort is terribly risky, since of course it would condemn itself to a pretentious sterility if the work weren’t as good as Maillol’s is.

Jerrold Lanes