The first woman to exhibit in her lifetime at the National Museum of Modern Art in 1956 and celebrated throughout the world in her time, Germaine Richier had not had a major exhibition in Paris for decades. His sculptures are at the Center Pompidou until June 12, 2023.
The Center Pompidou is devoting an awaited retrospective to Germaine Richier, a sculptress who was somewhat forgotten despite being very well known in her time, in France and abroad. The exhibition crosses all his work, intense and extremely varied, rich in many experiments, from his first busts to his last colored sculptures. Centered on the human, it will also invite the animal and vegetable world, creating fantastic hybrid figures.
Well planted on his feet, one arm outstretched as if he were going to advance towards us, the Loretto by Germaine Richier (1902-1959) welcomes us to the exhibition. This bronze depicting a delicate young naked man is a work from the sculptor’s youth. Noticed during his first personal exhibition in Paris in 1936, he was bought in 1937 by the French State. The recognition will be confirmed in the years that follow. And yet, Germaine Richier remains a somewhat confidential artist.
“This exhibition aims to put Germaine Richier back in the light she deserves. She is a major artist in the history of sculpture”, emphasizes Ariane Coulondre, curator at the National Museum of Modern Art and curator of the exhibition, organized by the Center Pompidou in collaboration with the Fabre Museum in Montpellier where it will be presented from July 12 to November 5. Germaine Richier’s work is short, barely 25 years old, “but dazzling”, commented the commissioner. “She was considered during her lifetime as the greatest sculptor of her time.”
The human figure in the center
Germaine Richier was born in 1902 in Grans (Bouches-du-Rhône) into a family of winegrowers and millers, and grew up near Montpellier. Nothing destines her for art. It was when she discovered at the age of 12 the Romanesque sculptures of the Saint-Trophime cloister in Arles that she decided that she would be a sculptor. She studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montpellier before moving to Paris in 1926 where she became a pupil of Antoine Bourdelle.
Thanks to his academic training, “She perfectly masters the anatomy and the human face”. In the early years, she made many portraits, always working from live models, always trying to capture their intensity, putting a lot of expressiveness into her modeling. She multiplies busts, nudes, heads of friends. The human figure will remain at the center of his work but it will be won over by a powerful expressionism.
When the war broke out, she remained in Zurich where she lived for six years in exile with her husband, the Swiss sculptor Otto Bänninger. War operates a rupture in his art. The human, who was at the center of his work, takes on another dimension. “She will gradually free herself from a very powerful realism to go beyond appearances.” The faces are hollowed out, sometimes disappear, gaping holes appear in the skulls, the bodies are flayed, the eyes hallucinated, the spindly arms, the surfaces of the naked bodies tortured, his walking man from 1945 looks groggy.
While the artist has returned to Paris, she imagines The storm (1947-1948), a massive male figure who seems ravaged by the times. The skin is eaten away, the hands clenched by who knows what, the face is nothing but a gap and the navel a chasm. The photographer Brassaï, who discovered him in his studio with his female counterpart, The Hurricanecreated in 1948-1949, will speak of “two skinned alive, miraculously escaped from who knows what catastrophe”. The stormexhibited at the Maeght gallery, caused a sensation, and the State bought it, just like a little later The Hurricane.
In the 1940s, Germaine Richier began to create hybrid figures, born of her love of nature, a feeling dating back to childhood, when she was skipping school, running in the scrubland, fascinated by insects. She mixes human and animal forms and also materials, using pieces of wood in her modeling. Under the wooden torso of The Forest Manof which you can see a rare original modelling, the earthen legs are knotty like trunks and adorned with engravings reminiscent of plants.
Women-grasshoppers (1944-1956) with strange slender legs, surmounted by a very small head, squatting and leaning forward, extending their arms towards us. But the most fascinating figure is his tall Mantis (1946) filiform, which we do not know if it stands in a position of attack or if it implores us.
To evoke the artist’s working method, a set of objects that populated Germaine Richier’s studio are presented in the exhibition, a bric-a-brac of tools, branches, shells, stones, the skeleton of a bat. mice, chicken feet.
Germaine Richier “connects the human to the forces that go beyond him”, highlights Ariane Coulondre, “his work is imbued with a relationship to mythology and tales, a feeling of origins”. So beyond simple hybridization, she will imagine fantastic, enigmatic creatures, like a six-headed horsea strange Mountain which confronts two figures further and further from the human.
THE Christ of Assy, commissioned from the artist in 1950 for the Plateau d’Assy church in Haute-Savoie, was loaned exceptionally for the exhibition. The figure of Christ, extremely bare and merging with the wood of the Cross, caused a scandal and was removed from the church, only to return in 1969.
In the 1950s, Germaine Richier began to stretch threads which were added to her sculptures, such as this brilliant Ant from 1953 seated which seems to weave a web. Threads that evoke the plumb line that she uses to check the verticality of her sculptures and that extend their volume. The Clawed (1952), a fantastic figure inspired by a character from Provençal folklore, hung from the ceiling and stretched with threads, floats strangely on the ceiling and projects its shadow on the wall, thus multiplying in space.
The joy of color
The works of the last years before his premature death at the age of 56 show the extreme diversity of his experiments. Germaine Richier began to work with lead, which she melted herself in her studio, adding colored glasses to it. “Color became essential for her in the 1950s. It allowed her to bring joy and fantasy to her works. There is mystery and shadow in Richier, but also a joy, a pleasure to work with, explains Ariane Coulondre. In a last interview, a month before his death, the artist declared: “The purpose of the sculpture is first of all the joy of the one who makes it. You must feel his hand, his passion. The sculpture is serious, the color is cheerful. I want my statues to be cheerful. , active.”
Her painter friends, Zao Wou-Ki or Maria Elena Vieira da Silva, created very beautiful colorful decorations for her. From 1956, when she was seriously ill, she added paint or enamel herself to small bronze figures. The Tate in London has loaned its latest major work for the exhibition, the five pieces of its Chessboardfantastic figures in painted plaster, perched on high pedestals.
Germaine Richier had no dealer. Aimé Maeght exhibited it in 1948, but when he offered Giacometti to sign a contract, he set him one condition: it would be him or Richier. And Maeght chooses Giacometti. His works are present in the collections “but it’s as if she were there without anyone looking at her”, notes Ariane Coulondre.
She was successful in Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom in particular. She participated in two exhibitions at MoMA in New York in 1955 and 1959. She was the first woman exhibited during her lifetime at the National Museum of Modern Art, in 1956, the same year as Matisse. She had not had a major exhibition in Paris since. “The fact that it is difficult to classify means that it has not always been given its place in the history of art,” tries to explain the commissioner. A good reason to go see this welcome retrospective.
Center Pompidou, Paris 4e
Every day except Tuesday and the 1er May, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., late opening Thursday until 11 p.m.
Prices: €17 / €14
From 1er March to June 12, 2023