Jean Carriès

Jean Carriès. La matière de l’étrange Paris, Petit Palais, from October 11, 2007 through January 27, 2008

Having died prematurely before completing the Monumental Door which he considered to be his masterpiece, of which only a few fragments are left today (ill.1), Jean Carriès remains unfamiliar to the general public although a passionate subject for amateurs with his work continuing to set record prices at auctions, especially over the last decade. A visionary who experimented constantly with new ceramic techniques, a symbol of the juncture between traditional and modern art, this artist who was unlike any other spent his life in pursuit of an aesthetic ideal whose plastic forms convey a veritable metaphysical system. A sort of Bernard Palissy of the XIXth C., Carriès deserved a tribute on a level with his work. It is only natural that the Petit Palais should organize this event since, as the Musée des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris, it owns most of his work thanks to the George Heontschel donation.

1. Jean Carriès (1855-1894)
Grotesque mask, element for the Monumental Door, 1891/1894
Stoneware - 36 x 31 x 18 cm
Paris, Petit Palais
Photo : Philippe Ladet/Petit Palais/R. Viollet

2. Louise-Catherine Breslau (1856-1927)
Portrait of Carriès in his Workshop, 1885-1886
Oil on canvas - 165 x 139 cm
Paris, Petit Palais
Photo : Petit Palais/R. Viollet

Without further ado, let us say that the exhibition succeeds admirably in its breadth of coverage, the quality of the works on display (museum holdings, loans from private and public collections) as well as the museological arrrangement, the subtle staging and the lighting. In one word, it is spectacular.

3. Jean Carriès (1855-1894)
Head of Fawn, between 1890 and1892 ?
Stoneware - 31,3 x 28,8 x 20,8 cm
Paris, Petit Palais
Photo : Patrick Pierrain/Petit Palais/R. Viollet

4. Jean Carriès (1855-1894)
Horror Masks
Paris, Petit Palais
Photo : Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond

The museum goer is welcomed by a beautiful portrait of the artist by Louise-Catherine Breslau (ill. 2) and is immediately drawn into the heart of the show : a series of Fawns with rabbit ears (ill. 3) in various materials (plaster, bronze, stoneware) and horror masks treated in differing versions of varnished stoneware revealing both the artist’s unique imagination and his search for matter (ill. 4). Self-taught, Carriès was as interested in content as in shape. For him, inspiration and imagination were an integral part of the plastic execution and the technical search, be it with either wax or ceramics. Congratulations are in order also for the pedagogical initiative allowing the public to touch a series of masks after Carriès, which, although they are modern, are in the different supports he experimented with and offer a pertinent lesson on sculpture and its fragility.

5. Jean Carriès (1855-1894)
The Blind Man, 1879
Terra cotta - 43,5 x 44,5 x 29 cm
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond

6. Jean Carriès (1855-1894)
The Warrior, 1884
Plaster - 51 x 55,2 x 35,6 cm
Paris, Petit Palais
Photo : C . Pignol et C. Rabourdin, Petit Palais/ R. Viollet

The gallery displaying the sculptures from his period in Lyon reflects the environment in which he was trained and perhaps the religious influence exerted on Carriès. However, already here in his early years, one senses an unacademic eye. The nuns and other holy figures are inhabited by a presence so strange it becomes unsettling (in the positive sense of the word). Still at the beginning of his career, the artist manages to breathe a rare expressive force into his sculptures, whether they are imaginative creations or commissioned orders and even in the case of portraits. It is easy to understand how Carriès’ vocation quickly abandoned all formalism. In the gallery with the “désolés” series, the sculptor’s psychological implications are clearly discernible and one cannot help but find an eminently Symbolist introspection in these figures. Somewhere between an exarcebated Romanticism and the art of the "Décennie Décadente", these extraordinary sculptures constitute a mental self-portrait that transcends its matter. The admirable Blind Man (ill. 5), the Desperate Man, "L’Epave", the Old Actor, the Russian Beggar are different facets of the human soul in all its tragedy. These are not just expressive studies exploring physiognomical features but are closer to such characteristic Symbolist works as Weary of Life by Ferdinand Hodler, a psychological self-portrait of the artist, true, but also the symbol of a troubled generation. The “figures de fantaisie” (the Warrior (ill. 6), the Bishop, the Head of Charles the Ist or Velazquez) confirm this vision of humanity expressed with a depth that surpasses the often anecdotal or coldly grandiloquent statutes of the French III République. In Carriès’ work, the subject always finds a way to push matter beyond its limits.

7. Jean Carriès (1855-1894)
Photo : Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond

8. Jean Carriès (1855-1894)
Photo : Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond

An expert at producing both sculptural figures and traditional ceramics, Carriès belongs to that movement which witnessed the triumph of decorative arts and the abolition of hierarchical genres. When walking through the exhibition, the visitor is struck by the transition from sculpture to vases and other decorative objects, all of which are technically researched just as carefully without any problem. In approaching his creations with constantly varying techniques, Carriès is not far from achieving masterpieces meant for enlightened amateurs that also manage to reach a larger audience, reconciling both. This was in fact the question dominating fin de siècle debates : “grand art”, social art or industrial art. In Carriès’ work, the answer and the aesthetic coherence are one. Furthermore, the artist’s search goes beyond appearances or purposes. The gallery displaying the decorative ceramics is magnificent. On one side, a glass cabinet (ill. 7) presents a large number of exceptional pieces in the manner they appeared during his triumphant exhibition at the Salon of the Société nationale des beaux-arts in 1892. The raw and unfinished aspect of the stoneware lends itself to the utmost refinement : distortions, graininess, run-outs, baking effects, pigments and gold. To a modern eye it may seem totally ordinary but when realizing that these were made in 1890, we marvel at their originality. They will surely have a significant following. Several Japanese objects are shown alongside since it is well known that Carriès admired Asian art and was probably inspired by it. On the other side of the room, stoneware masks and heads hang against a photographic backdrop showing cathedral pillars as a kind of bamboo curtain (ill. 8). This insightful parallel underlines Carriès’ Medieval sources without overlooking the decorative process and particularly the Japanese influence.

9. Jean Carriès (1855-1894)
Fantastic Animals
Photo : David Jumeau-Lafond

10. Jean Carriès (1855-1894)
The Frog with Rabbit Ears, 1891
Plaster - 34,4 x 26,8 x 41 cm
Paris, Petit Palais
Photo : C . Pignol et C. Rabourdin, Petit Palais/ R. Viollet

The next gallery is devoted to fantastic animals and the artist’s personal bestiary (ill. 9). Once again Japanese pieces offer comparisons, and were probably familiar to Carriès, but his imaginative sculptures were totally original. The Frog with Rabbit Ears (ill. 10), the Grenouillard, the Fantastic Animal strike us by their wild imagination (from gothic gargoyles and infernal creatures to personal nightmares) and their technical complexity. The large size of the works, the intricacy of the forms, the subtlety of the baking and the patinas are the reasons why Carriès has often been called another “Bernard Palissy”. This stage of his work leads us at last to his final “grand oeuvre”. It is well known that the Monumental Door commissioned by Winnaretta Singer, future princess of Polignac, was supposed to be the culmination of his artistic achievement and that he did not survive to complete it. The full-size plaster cast had been finished and Carriès was working unrelentingly on the stoneware when he died.

11. Carriès room, Petit Palais from 1904 through 1935

12. Reconstitution of the Door after the model by Eugène Grasset
Photo : Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond

The Petit Palais displayed the ensemble in a lavish setting starting in 1904 (ill. 11) but today it only holds a reduced model along with several studies and fragments of the door. It is hard to understand why the full-size plaster door was destroyed in 1935 “to make room” for an exhibition of Italian art (already a sign of the transient taking priority over national heritage) ;the carting away of this valuable debris lasted until the late 40’s. And yet the person responsible for this scandalous act held the title of “conservator”. Although he passed away in 1971 his name is worth mentioning because, more than for the Prix Fémina in 1921 or a few artistic essays (ranging blithely from Greco to Delacroix and from baron Gros to Matisse...), he will be remembered for having unscrupulously ordered the demolition of a masterpiece of XIXth C. art. His name was Raymond Escholier. This sad story of vandalism leaves us speechless when compared to the recent incident of the young woman who disfigured a white canvas by Towmbly with her lipstick and now faces a two million euro fine and a suspended prison sentence. But, to return to the exhibition : the scenography for replicating the idea of this masterpiece is particularly well done. By enlarging the painted maquette of the door by Eugène Grasset, the commissioners of the show have recreated the visual space occupied by the monument had it actually been completed (ill. 12). The effect is striking with, on each side, partial reconstructions of certain groups in stoneware accomplishing the final result planned by Carriès. The accumulation of these grimacing faces (some of them modelled on the artist himself, as revealed by Montesquiou), of troubled and sarcastic masks hanging on the columns or sticking out of the structure are strikingly beautiful (ill. 13 and 14). A synthesis of a Medieval bestiary, of antique apotropaic figures, of the Symbolist poetical universe (reminding one of the evil toads in Jean Lorrain’s stories, the frogs of the baronne Deslandes, the bats of Robert de Montesquiou or the anthropomorphic serpents of Carlos Schwabe), this telluric and mysterious swarming gives off a sense of lost knowledge, of entering into a world of the unconscious. The rich patinas and reflections along with the effects of the colors and the materials is indescribable. It is hard not to compare this experiment with matter and the strange forms imparted to it by the artist to an alchemical process. Embodying a world of metamorphoses, both of figures and materials, Carriès’ universe touches the essential things in art : mental sources, creative passion, transformation, invocation of the invisible. To quote an expression of Baudelaire’s which is very apropos both literally and figuratively, the sculptor takes “mud and turns it into gold”. The art and the life of Jean Carriès remain an enduring lesson and an important development in the history of Western art.

13. Jean Carries (1855-1894)
Fragment of the Monumental Door

14. Jean Carries (1855-1894)
Fragment of the Monumental Door

The exhibition ends with a display cabinet illustrating the sculptor’s legacy. There seems to be a lack of space to explore his considerable following. Only a few works evoke a subject that could have been developed further, although this was not the purpose of the show of course. There is a fine head of Balzac by Rodin, executed in stoneware by Paul Jeanneney, the beautiful Vase by Hoentschel as well as works by William Lee, Vallombreuse, Bartlett and Pointu. In any case, the visitor is absolutely enthusiastic when leaving the exhibition.

The catalogue is the first true extensive work devoted to Carriès since the 1895 monographic study by Arsène Alexandre and assembles several fascinating essays : Amélie Simier, who directed the publication as well as acting as commissioner with Dominique Morel, is the author of a good number of these texts that open the doors of Carriès’ life and work. The essays by Dominique Morel and Edouard Papet reveal the complexity and audacity of the sculptor’s technical experiments in working with fire and earth. Jean-Michel Nectoux pierces the secrets of the Porte monumentale, called “de Parsifal”, with the same talent and acuity as always. Finally, the reduced catalogue of the Carriès holdings at the Petit Palais closes this publication which is a must for any library, public or private, devoted to modern and contemporary art. We will conclude by pointing out an excellent “petit journal” of the exhibition as well as a book on the same subject, also by Amélie Simier, published in the Découvertes Gallimard collection.

Amélie Simier (ed.). Texts by Patrice Bellanger, Laurence Chicoineau, Dominique Morel, Jean-Michel Nectoux, Edouard Papet, Amélie Simier, Jean Carriès. La matière et l’étrange, Paris Musée / Nicolas Chaudun éditions, 2007, 245 p., 55 €. ISBN 978-2-7596-0009-0

Amélie Simier, Jean Carriès Sculpteur et Céramiste, Paris Musées/ Découvertes Gallimard, hors série, 2007, 8.40 €. ISBN 978-2-07-034804-6

About Jean Carriès, see on this website the study by Phillip Dennis Cate : Sculpture by Carpeaux, Dalou and Carriès at the Petit Palais.

Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, jeudi 25 octobre 2007


Visitior information : Paris, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Avenue Winston Churchill, 75008 Paris. Phone : + 33 (0)1 53 43 40 00. Open tuesday throught sunday 10 am - 6 pm. Admission : 9 €, 6 € and 4,5 €. Free admission to the permanent collection.

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