With the passage of time, and the radical shifts of taste and sentiment that have shattered so many of the orthodoxies that once reigned supreme in the art world, certain larger-than-life reputations become more and more difficult to fathom. Consider the once-colossal renown enjoyed by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). For many of us today, Rodin is little more than a historical embarrassment, the relic of an overreaching, self-inflated romanticism whose work marks the decadent culmination of a tradition of which, in his lifetime, he was widely believed to be the heroic embodiment.
In his heyday, Rodin did indeed loom as a colossus, enjoying a scale of adulation and influence that is without parallel on the international art scene today. Yet it’s worth recalling that when the inevitable repudiation of Rodin’s romantic excesses began to make itself felt in the early decades of the 20th century, it wasn’t public opinion that led the way, but a younger generation of artists.
This anti-Rodin impulse took a variety of forms. The one most familiar to connoisseurs of modern sculpture is what may loosely be called the avant-garde response, which, beginning with Constantin Brancusi, rejected the high-flown rhetoric and unruly passions that were distinguishing features of Rodin’s immense sculptural oeuvre . A number of sculptors of this avant-garde persuasion-Picasso and Lipchitz among them-famously embraced primitive art, especially the tribal art of Africa, as an alternative source of inspiration in their headlong flight from Rodin’s influence.
At the same time, however, there was another group of sculptors who came of age under Rodin’s influence and pursued a quite different, more temperate course of aesthetic emancipation from the master. It is to these gifted artists that Charles Janoray has now devoted an illuminating exhibition in Classical Modernity: From Bourdelle to Despiau, 1907-1937 .
As Mr. Janoray writes in a foreword to the catalog, “The period covered by the exhibition begins with the reaction against the romanticism of Rodin at the beginning of the 20th century and it ends with the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1937.” A number of these sculptors, Bourdelle and Despiau among them, had served an apprenticeship in Rodin’s studio, and all had to come to terms with the magnitude of his influence. For their source of aesthetic emancipation, this group turned to the classical sculpture of Greek antiquity, believing that this classical tradition offered them a means of restoring sculpture to its fundamental tasks.
Theirs was essentially a search for aesthetic order in a world dominated by what they saw as cultural chaos, especially in the face of the devastating consequences of the First World War. To achieve such an order, these sculptors also favored what they regarded as classical materials and techniques. “In contrast to Rodin,” writes Mr. Janoray, “they favored carving over modeling, and devoted themselves almost exclusively to the effects of the volume and mass that allowed them to attain balance and harmony. Form, volume, and space became the principal terms in the new debate.” Or as another writer puts it: They were “fleeing from art that featured muscles and veins everywhere.”
Needless to say, many of these sculptors are now unknown to the art public, yet in their day they were much admired by the leading connoisseurs of modernist art. Mr. Janoray reminds us that “the first work to enter the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art upon its founding in 1929 was not a painting but a sculpture. Moreover, it was neither a Cubist nor an abstract work-rather, a sculpture completely stamped with classicism: Aristide Maillol’s Ile de France , of about 1910.” Never mind that MoMA later sold Maillol’s sculpture to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: That and other significant sales from MoMA’s early collection had to do with a cockeyedscheme-quicklyabandoned- that called for the transfer of works of art from MoMA to the Met as soon as they were thought to have “passed from the category of modern to that of classic.”
Of the sculptors represented in the Classical Modernity exhibition, the best-knownare Emile-Antoine Bourdellew(1861-1929)and CharlesDespiau (1874-1946). Yet another fine sculptor, JosephBernard (1866-1931),was sufficiently admired in his lifetime to be represented in the 1913 Armory Show. If Despiau may now be said to have become the most underratedof20th-centurysculptors, it’s worth remembering that he had his first New York exhibition in 1927 at the Brummer Gallery, which alsointroduced Brancusi to the American art public. The sheer quality of the Despiau sculptures in the currentshowcertainly suggests that he is long overdue for a retrospective exhibition on this side of the Atlantic. But it’s hard to think of a museum that wouldundertake such a project: Ours is nowan art world with a very imperfect memory of the cultural past.
Classical Modernity also suggests that we’re overdue for a major exhibition on the entire period this show addresses-the period of what has variously been dubbed “a call to order” (Cocteau’s name for it), “the return to calm” and a “classical revival.” This was the period immediately following the end of the First World War, when a powerful neoclassical impulse temporarily dominated the avant-garde, enlisting in its ranks such stalwarts as Picasso and Stravinsky.
What a great exhibition that would make-and most, if not quite all, of the sculptors in the Classical Modernity show would have to be included. So would some of the early work of the Spanish sculptor Julio González (1876-1942), who is currently the subject of a retrospective exhibition at Dickinson, 19 East 66th Street, through June 28. I shall be discussing this fine exhibition next week. Meanwhile, Classical Modernity remains on view at Charles Janoray, 11 East 76th Street, through May 31. Both exhibitions are accompanied by excellent catalogs.