PARIS — The intriguing Musée Bourdelle is highlighting the never-before-shown working process behind the making of sculptor Antoine Bourdelle’s politically charged bronze statue “Monument aux Combattants et Défenseurs du Tarn-et-Garonne de 1870–1871” (“Monument to the Fighters and Defenders of Tarn-et-Garonne in the War of 1870–1871,” 1902). The sculpture is also, more simply, known as “Les Combattants” (“The Defenders”). The Musée Bourdelle is located in the studios and gardens where Bourdelle (1861–1929) lived and worked, so the work is presented more or less within its exact original context.
After greeting visitors splendidly with one of Bourdelle’s most powerful works, “Centaure mourant” (“Dying Centaur,” 1914), the show, Of Sound and Fury, pulls back the curtain on what went on during the creation of his monumental tribute to soldiers from the Tarn-et-Garonne departement who participated in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). Bourdelle created “The Defenders” for his birthplace, the town of Montauban in the Midi-Pyrénées section of southern France, and took photographic documentation of the impressive production process for posterity. These 130 photographs, such as the anti-heroic pile “Work Studies in the Studio” (1899), are some of the most interesting things in the show — works of art in and of themselves.
Bourdelle won the competition for this commission in 1895, when he was 34. Together with the fantastic photographs, the show presents preparatory studies and variations in clay, plaster, and bronze for the monument. But this allegorical piece, in addition to paying respect to those who served, were injured, and died, also projected hoped-for vengeance and optimism about the birth of the Third Republic after the collapse of the Second Empire.
Noise and Fury opens with a brushy sketch. Depicting little of the violent energy and none of the nudity of the final production, it is only the seed. We are yet to detect what will become the finished monument’s almost bizarre mixture of the funerary and the erotic. This eros/thanatos mixture only begins to emerge with Bourdelle’s insertion of the female nude into the work. His photographs of the classical nude female who would come to represent France, Nude Study in Studio (circa 1898), are of Stéphanie Van Parys (his paramour).
On the thanatos side, there are some expressionistic clutching hand fragments, expressive of ample agony and coming death, matched with Bourdelle’s photographs of them from 1900. This is the same year that Bourdelle founded a free sculpture school in Montparnasse with the sculptors Jules Desbois and Auguste Rodin (in whose studio Bourdelle had previously worked).
There are some marvelous photographs from 1901 of the finished monument, still in plaster before casting, taken from the rear. Particularly great are those photographs Bourdelle took in 1901 at Jef Lambeaux’s studio in Brussels, in which Bourdelle explores the play of light and shade in the style of Alfred Stieglitz. I also was very attracted to “Les Combattants” (1901), one of his photographs of a detail the monument, in which he has blotted out the background with white paint that has cracked. It is almost as magically spooky as the earlier “Corner of the Studio” (1899).
Perhaps to our contemporary eyes, as shaped by minimal tastes — such as Maya Lin’s powerful “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” (1982) — Bourdelle’s “The Defenders” monument may appear overly flamboyant, awkwardly asymmetrical, and almost hysterical. To me it does. But, even though the end result of Boudelle’s monument-building process may be less than satisfying, the seemingly more rational process of minimalist reductionism seen in many of the monuments made since 1902 proves less and less interesting in our heated political period, with its far right drifts toward authoritarian narrow-mindedness fueled by intolerance. As this engaging show reveals, the dreamlike and feverish intensity that went into making “The Defenders” appears closer to the sensibility of our noisy socio-political conflicts than respectful, abstract, minimal tranquility ever did.
Of Sound and Fury: Bourdelle Sculptor and Photographer continues at the Musée Bourdelle (18, Rue Antoine Bourdelle, 15th arrondissement, Paris, France) through January 29.