New York

“Cast in Bronze"

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This great exhibition—it is absurd to mince adjectives—is a monumental event. Apart from the breathtaking loans, there is a daunting catalogue containing 144 entries on works by canonic figures (Goujon, Pilon, Falconet, Girardon, Coysevox, Pigalle, Houdon) in addition to lesser lights as one moves from French Mannerism past Louis XIV, XV, and XVI to the rationalist French sculptors of the eighteenth century. The occasion was largely orchestrated by savants at the Louvre, the Metropolitan, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where the show arrives this month.

The catalogue for Knoedler & Company’s “The French Bronze, 1500 to 1800,” an exhibition I reviewed some forty years ago (Artforum, January 1969), set a benchmark for the study of European sculpture from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. And questions already in focus then remain in place, issues ranging from workshop attribution to the variants of the Sun King equestrians, the Girardon prototype of which was demolished in the Place Louis le Grand (Place Vendôme) during the French Revolution, the event that signals the current exhibition’s finale—Enlightened Rationalism Gone South.

The remaining left foot of the Girardon Louis XIV on Horseback, a virtual relic of ancien régime veneration, is easily the most eccentric inclusion, as fascinating for its Roman gigantism as for its sorry state. The court of Louis XIV at Versailles remains the unequaled model for centralized government, its classicizing Baroque ostentation the finest flower of the academism fundamental to its realization. Versailles is unimaginable sans statuaire, a word far more suggestive of august academic pretension than the sense conveyed by the more neutral term sculpture.

Apart from many Kings on Horseback, there is the beautiful Louis XIV at the Age of Five, crowned by an Apollonian laurel wreath, a work by the little-known Jacques Sarazin. The pensive portrait conveys an unexpected sweetness considering the model. That heavy-cheeked, pouting child shortly became the squat monarch, indelibly present to us through his unyielding protocol. But in the end it is the transfigurative Baroque conceits used to disguise physical clumsiness—wig, cuirass, military and mythological attributes, and equestrian arrogance—that orchestrate the centrality of monarchy.

Bronze connoisseurship all but implicates the desire for possession. In this regard, one is especially drawn to such seductive masters as Barthélemy Prieur, an Italianizing genius in the employ of the courts of Henry IV and Marie de Médicis. Here the panoply of learned Baroque classicism, its resident Apollos, Daphnes, Dianas, and Amphitrites—even those cast in the obese lineaments of Marie de Médicis—vivifies instants of delectation for the kinds of objects that now, as forty years ago, remain condescended to by our younger art world.

Of course there is a host of reasons why we should sniff at a vastly disastrous and exploitative Eurocentric history and at any obeisance to the intolerant “because I say so” of divine right and its twin, academic power. The Marxist historical inevitability once used to explain these phenomena is by now a tattered veil of illusion. The rejection of European academism as fin de race and the concomitant rise of new paradigms date to the early twentieth century, when primitivism (both the Cubist and the German Expressionist variety) knocked the academy out cold. The repugnant role played by a conformist academy in resisting modernism from Courbet on hasn’t helped much either. And our subjugation to a media-driven celebrity has only intensified con- temporary alienation from the seventeenth-century models. Thus, young artists—despite habitual lip service to unfettered experience— would naturally be reluctant to allow the French bronze a fair seeing. More’s the pity.

As academic technique moved toward the unimaginably virtuoso, smaller theatricalized ensembles depicting mythological histories rose in favor. François Lespingola’s groups retailing the Labors of Hercules are a revelation and his Death of Dido actually sculpts a rainbow! Such high-wire pictorialist sculpture began to be collected by a new-rising bourgeoisie—a development that suggested the future debasement of standards in modern times.

But the middle-class achievements of nineteenth-century sculpture are another story, one but hinted at here, the fruits of which we were able to estimate just last year when, exquisitely embarrassed, we witnessed Jeff Koons usurp the seat of Louis XIV in the Sun King’s very own Hall of Mirrors, that reflecting abyss of infinite self-glorification. Talk about Lèse-majesté!

Robert Pincus-Witten