New York

Aristide Maillol

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York

Aristide Maillol’s work lies between French academicism and 20th-century sculptural experiments. He was trained as a painter at the École des Beaux-Arts but, after meeting Gauguin and the Nabis, he abandoned academicism for decorative sculpture and painting. In the 1890s he began producing small statuettes of women in terra cotta and wood, something he continued to do at intervals throughout his career. In 1902 he made his first monumental sculpture. Never feeling the need, like Giacometti, to come to terms with Cubism, the remainder of Maillol’s career, as this major retrospective reveals, involved a replication of a limited repertoire of full-fleshed female figures. His celebration of the female figure is never in ordinary human terms. Some, in the truest sense of the phase, are “vest-pocket Venuses,” while others are monumental women drawn from a race of Amazons in our primordial past. Other large figures are three-quarters life-size, so that while we perceive them as adult women we relate to them, because of their scale, as children. Only the small terra cottas have any sense of grace of movement.

The large figures all seem to be cut out from geometric shapes. Maillol states he learned this compositional technique from the Greeks: “I try to achieve what Polyclitus did; I always start with a geometric figure, square, lozenge, triangle, because these are the figures which hold best in space.” This statement echoes Cézanne’s slightly earlier one about the way in which the painter should look for the cone, sphere and cylinder in nature, and links Maillol to the Post-Impressionists and their conceptual use of pattern and form. The result is a static image. Even when the pose is such that the distribution of weight causes the figure to seem active in space, it retains an encapsulated air. The late horizontal figures such as River (1938–40) represent the only major exceptions. In many of the statues the figure becomes a frozen column, and the only action is in the hands; which, like the mudras or ritual hand gestures of the Buddha, imply a richer potential of meaning.

Maillol favored partial figures and made several sculptures of women without arms. As in Rodin’s work, a deliberate partial figure is an image of physical maiming which implies a corresponding psychological state. Rodin’s partial figures represent a kind of streamlining to suggest outward energy and motion, but Maillol’s emphasize the imprisonment of woman in a geometric volume. This limitation of woman’s contours, both structurally and in the constraints and decorative roles they are permitted to play, is one of the principal reasons Maillol remains a lesser sculptor, whose popularity derives from the simplistic winsomeness of his images.

––Ann-Sargent Wooster