Aristide Maillol: la quête de l’harmonie

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Roubaix, La Piscine, February 25th - May 28th

1. Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)
L’Action enchaînée, between 1905 and 1906
Bronze - 215 x 97 x 90 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay, on long-term loan to the Jardin du Carrousel
Photo: RMN-GP/H. Lewandowski/T. Le Mage
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La Piscine in Roubaix is most certainly the ideal place to host the final stage of the excellent Maillol retrospective discovered at the Musée d’Orsay last year and subsequently offered at the Kunsthaus in Zurich : Born in 1861 and died in 1944, Aristide Maillol does not necessarily fit into the famous chronological range (1848-1914) assigned to the Musée d’Orsay, which is moreover located between the "two" Maillol museums in Paris, the one that bears his name [1] rue de Grenelle and the gardens of the Louvre were used by the late bronzes installed in the 1960s. Wanted by André Malraux and Dina Vierny, this open-air Maillol museum (ill. 1) gives only an imperfect idea of the artist’s talent: for many, the exhibition is therefore a revelation, since the work carried out by its curators is so complete, and does not obscure any shadowy areas of the Catalan sculptor’s career, whose Germanophilia made him suspicious during WW1 & WW2. His classical modernity could not but condemn his art, whose timelessness succeeds perfectly in seducing us today, despite a reduced corpus of forms - underlined in the preface of the rich catalog - which could give a false repetitive impression. Maillol certainly deserved this new major retrospective.

2. Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)
The Crown of Flowers, 1889
Oil on canvas - 129.8 x 161 cm
Tokyo, National Museum of Western Art
Photo: akg-images/Erich Lessing
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3. Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)
Women profile, circa 1896
Oil on canvas - 75.3 x 103 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay, on long-term loan to the Musée Hyacinthe Rigaud in Perpignan
Photo: RMN-GP/P. Schmidt
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The exhibition begins with paintings and focuses on the early career of the Catalan artist, which is little known despite the presence of Woman with a Parasol in the Musée d’Orsay collections. From Tokyo, Wreath of Flowers from the former Josefowitz collection opens the exhibition and is one of the most beautiful rediscoveries of the exhibition (ill. 2). This now-Japanese painting is in dialogue with the female profile (ill. 3) deposited by Orsay at Perpignan museum, and the two canvases already share the hieratic style that would be found in Maillol’s sculpted figures. An admirer of Gauguin, Maillol was also a fellow companion of the Nabis, but without ever joining the brotherhood: Estelle Bégué wisely emphasizes the highly decorative intent and elegant treatment of the fig tree branches which alone enliven the background of the Tokyo painting.

4. Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)
The Wave also known as Woman with a Wave, 1896
Needlepoint embroidery - 105.5 x 92.5 cm
Paris, Dina Vierny Foundation - Musée Maillol
Photo: J.-A. Brunelle Vignaud
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Eager to make a living from his art, when he did not experience poverty, the young artist groped and tried successively embroidery, ceramics and finally sculpture: thanks to the subtlety of the hanging, the visitor follows without effort this surprising path, already evoked in recent years through exhibitions such as "The Nabis and the Decor" (see article) where we could admire The Wave in embroidered version (ill. 4). Always curious, Maillol was interested in all materials, assisted by his embroiderers in Banyuls or his friend André Metthey in the Paris region, as could be discovered last summer in Beauvais (see article). "Across the arts", one of the sections of the catalog, could have served as a subtitle for this exhibition which shows how much Maillol owes to Gauguin, whom he discovered through his friend Georges-Daniel de Monfreid (see article): how can one not think of Gauguin’s vagues in front of Maillol’s celles? Five years ago, "Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist" (see article) already proposed to explore the great permeability between the different techniques experimented by the artist.

5. Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)
Dancer 1896
Wood - 22 x 24.5 x 5 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo: RMN-GP/H. Lewandowski
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6. Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)
The Garden, also called The Enchanted Garden, 1899
Needlepoint embroidery - 196 x 107 cm (detail)
Private collection
Photo: Alexandre Lafore
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The circulation of motifs across mediums was a constant for Maillol, as evidenced by the different versions of The Wave, whose solid female figure became a leitmotif of his productions, even as he began to tackle wood, first carving bas-reliefs like his Dancer (ill. 5) whose features and Art Nouveau spirit are found in the women of the Garden, a magnificent embroidery of 1899 (ill. 6) fortunately better preserved than the two pieces belonging to the Design Museum in Copenhagen. These come from the collections of Princess Hélène Bibesco, a providential Romanian patron who was one of the artist’s first supporters. Harmoniously blending painting, textiles, ceramics and early wood, this section (ill. 7) is undoubtedly the most stimulating of the exhibition, allowing the visitor to discover Maillol’s artistic grammar and to follow each of his experiments step by step. While the statuette from the Folkwang Museum in Essen (see news item 5/3/13) was shown only in Paris and Zurich, the superb Standing Bather or Bibesco Bather is to be admired.

7. View of the exhibition "Aristide Maillol" at La Piscine in Roubaix
Photo: Alexandre Lafore
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8. View of the exhibition "Aristide Maillol" at La Piscine in Roubaix
Photo: Alexandre Lafore
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9. Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)
Standing Bather also known as Bibesco Bather, ca. 1897-1900 ?
Wood - 77 x 33 x 33 cm
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum
Photo : Stedelijk Museum
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"If Princess Bibesco had not bought me this statue, I would have returned to Banyuls and given up sculpture," the artist said of this essential piece, which came from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam to dialogue with Maillol’s early creations in clay and plaster, assembled in a showcase (ill. 8) where one can recognize another Bather as well as the famous Leda, a copy of which in Marly clay was presented at BRAFA 2022 (see article). As Antoinette Le Normand-Romain nicely writes in an essay in the catalog entitled "Un bouquet de bois", it was with these pieces of great simplicity that Maillol definitively turned to sculpture and made another decisive encounter, that of the dealer Ambroise Vollard. Vollard appreciated his statuettes, exhibited them and began publishing them. It was in front of a statue of Maillol that Vollard posed for Bonnard in his famous portrait in the Petit Palais. Maillol’s works gradually invaded the compositions of his Nabis friends, the iconic Léda thus taking pride of place alongside a ravishing bouquet of flowers by Édouard Vuillard (ill. 10); both the exhibition and the catalog carefully review these artistic complicities.

10. Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940)
Still Life with Leda, circa 1902
Oil on cardboard - 60 x 79.5 cm
Aerdenhout, April in Paris Fine Arts
Photo: Peter Cox
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11. Méditerranée and La Nuit on display at La Piscine in Roubaix during the "Aristide Maillol" retrospective
Photo: Alexandre Lafore
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"She is built all over. When you hold it in the air, like this, it makes a complete architecture" said Maillol of his Leda, which he considered to be one of his best sculptures. It was a great success, produced in bronze by Vollard in numerous copies acquired by amateurs and museums, and definitively imposed its creator as an important artist. He immediately took advantage of this to change scale and tackle the large format with his Méditerranée, whose genesis and variations are described by Ophélie Ferlier-Bouat (ill. 11). A milestone in the history of modern sculpture, it was commissioned by a new German patron, Count Henry Kessler. "It is beautiful; it means nothing; it is a silent work? I think you have to go back a long way to find such a complete neglect of any preoccupation alien to the simple manifestation of beauty" declared André Gide when it caused a sensation at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, where it was placed in front of a painting by Douanier Rousseau. Having found his feminine ideal, the artist could decline it, as shown by the combination of the foundry plaster of The Night on loan from the Dina Vierny Foundation and the marble of Méditerranée from the Musée d’Orsay. Acquired by the French State in 1923, the latter was first placed in the Jardin des Tuileries, where it has now been replaced by a bronze copy, while the original version in limestone sold by Kessler to Oskar Reinhart remains in Switzerland, in Winterthur.

12. Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)
The Cyclist, 1907-1908
Bronze - 98.5 x 28 x 22.5 cm
Basel, Kunstmuseum
Photo: Kunstmuseum Basel
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An aristocrat with refined taste, a faithful client of Vollard, Count Harry Kessler thus made Maillol his favorite sculptor, even going so far as to give him a singular commission: a male nude. Unable to refuse his patron anything, the artist abandoned female flesh and set to work, posing a young cyclist named Gaston Collin, who was none other than Kessler’s lover. The public can finally see the collector’s copy (ill. 12), usually kept at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, presented alongside several preparatory drawings and photographs showing the young man posing in Maillol’s studio, while Kessler’s Journal recounts in detail the execution of the sculpture. Admiring the work at the Salon d’automne, Rodin said to Maillol: "I would not have believed you capable of doing this". This finely muscled ephebe certainly stands out in the sculptural output of Maillol, who was himself dissatisfied with this bronze, finding it too naturalistic. His relationship with Count Kessler is emblematic of the links forged with German and even Russian collectors and museums, since Maillol also delivered - through Maurice Denis, even though the Moscow amateur was also a client of Vollard - four large bronzes for Ivan Morozov’s music room, a fantastic setting recently reconstructed at the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

13. View of the exhibition "Aristide Maillol" at La Piscine de Roubaix
Photo: Alexandre Lafore
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Proudly standing at the end of a platform (ill. 13) and close to a reproduction of Brassaï’s photo that takes us into Maillol’s studio, Île-de-France underwent a complicated gestation period, recounted in the exhibition by several drawings. Thanks to a fortunate long-term loan from the Musée d’Orsay since the opening of the extension of La Piscine in 2018 (see article), this one is enthroned in Roubaix like a stylized figurehead, even if the wording seems paradoxical since we know that the figure is taken from a youthful vision of the artist observing his sister entering the sea. If the models vary, the opulent and solid canon is now fixed and tirelessly declined. Now benefiting from important commissions, Maillol drew on the repertoire of forms he had established over the years, giving a false sense of déjà vu from one sculpture to the next.

14. View of the sketch and the Monument to Claude Debussy in the exhibition "Aristide Maillol" in Roubaix
Photo: Alexandre Lafore
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The city of Aix-en-Provence having finally refused the commemorative monument to Paul Cézanne commissioned from Maillol, this one benefits from an even more prestigious location since it gains the terrace of the Jeu de Paume in the Jardin des Tuileries, from where it will be removed and replaced by a lead version, the original in pink marble from Canigou ending in the Musée d’Orsay. The Monument to Claude Debussy is probably even less well known (ill. 14): although it was commissioned and accepted by the composer’s native town, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, it aroused the same incomprehension as the Cézanne monument, since the desired references disappeared in favor of an idealized female allegory. To allay the fears of the committee presided over by Gabriel Astruc, Maillol thus had to transform the base to add the first bars of the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun while the brothers Jan and Joël Martel raised another monument to Debussy, which was very different and therefore logically refused by the town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which entrusted the project to Antoine Bourdelle and then to Aristide Maillol.

15. Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)
Door Hammer, 1925
Gilded bronze - 14.5 x 50 x 31 cm
Paris, Musée des Arts décoratifs
Photo: Musée des Arts décoratifs
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We can only fervently hope to see such misunderstandings dispelled nowadays, thanks to the enlightening work of the two curators of the exhibition, Ophélie Ferlier-Bouat and Antoinette Le Normand-Romain - assisted in Roubaix by Alice Massé and Bruno Gaudichon - and supported by the admirable scenography of Cédric Guerlus (Going Design). The icing on the cake for this last stage is a fascinating excursus entitled "Complètement marteau", an exhibition-dossier organized - alas, without any catalog, which we will never cease to deplore - around a few door hammers made for the Fontaine company and presented at the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in 1925. Two of them were already preserved in Roubaix: the one by Antoine Bourdelle corresponds to his Medusa’s Head, a bronze copy of which was sent as a long-term loan by the Musée Bourdelle in 2018, while the one by Joseph Bernard was recently acquired by La Piscine (see the news item of 10/2/21). During the exhibition-dossier, The Open Arms by Aristide Maillol (ill. 15) came from the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris, accompanied by Paul Jouve’s door hammer, which remained in the possession of the Maison Fontaine, while the portrait of the industrialist Henri Fontaine painted by Edouard Vuillard, on long-term loan from the Musée d’Orsay to the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille was also part of the trip. The whole thing also justifies a short trip to Roubaix, for all those who have not yet seen or who would like to see again an essential exhibition of which there will soon be nothing left - don’t panic, it only closes in three weeks - but its excellent catalog as a consolation prize.

Exhibition curators : Ophélie Ferlier-Bouat & Antoinette Le Normand-Romain
Exhibition curators in Roubaix : Alice Massé & Bruno Gaudichon

Edited by Ophélie Ferlier-Bouat & Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, Aristide Maillol (1861-1944). La quête de l’harmonie, Coédition Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie/Gallimard, 2022, 352 p., 45 €, ISBN : 9782072979927

Camille Jolin & Brice Ameille, Aristide Maillol (1861-1944). La quête de l’harmonie, L’Objet d’art hors-série, n°159, 2022, 66 p., 10 €.

Practical Informations : La Piscine, 23 rue de l’Espérance, 59 100 Roubaix. Tél : +33 (0)3 20 69 23 60. Tuesday to Thursday from 11 am to 6 pm, Friday from 11 am to 8 pm, Weekends from 1 pm to 6 pm. Ticket : 11 € (reduced : 9 €).

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