Le broyeur de sombre. Bourdelle, Early Drawings

Paris, Musée Bourdelle, from 6 March to 7 July 2013.

Here a Macabre Vision, there a Scene of Desolation rise in black or brown ink, India ink, graphite and charcoal... The dark drawings in "broyeur de sombre", as Bourdelle defined himself, are now displayed in full light, no doubt impregnated with Victor Hugo’s lines : "The man who meditates lives the darkness. Our only choice is black. [1].

1. Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929)
Fleshless Head of One of the Mummies
in the Church of Saint Michel in Bordeaux
, c. 1883
Pen and Chinese Ink - 30.7 x 21.3 cm
Paris, Musée Bourdelle
Photo : Musée Bourdelle / Roger-Viollet

2. Antoine Bourdelle
Winged Man, c. 1883
Pen and Chinese Ink Wash - 32.4 x 25.2 cm
Paris, Musée Bourdelle
Photo : Musée Bourdelle/Roger-Viollet

The Musée Bourdelle which last year had organized a large exhibition on the sculptor’s - extensive - graphic works, retracing his career from 1875 to 1929, is now focusing more precisely on his early drawings, an "oeuvre noir" both in form and content (ill. 1 and 2), but which became lighter with happier times. This relatively unknown aspect of his production in fact corresponds to his difficult start on the Parisian artistic scene. It also illustrates the "fin de siècle" spirit, a period which saw the demise of Romanticism with Victor Hugo (who died in 1885) and the flourishing of Naturalism.

3. Musée Bourdelle, a view of the temporary exhibition
Photo : Pierre Antoine

The exhibition echoes beautifully the one at the Musée d’Orsay and though it is contained in a single room (ill. 3), it nevertheless assembles some sixty-six drawings from the museum collections, accompanied by one or two sculptures, paintings and photographs, rounded out with a few loans. The visit progresses from 1880 to around 1890, leading the visitor from one cellar to another, from Death to success. In 1880, the artist produced studies of mummies (ill. 1) found under the church of Saint Michel in Bordeaux, contemplated before him by Stendhal, Gautier, Flaubert, Hugo...as well as Descamps, who left us a troubling souvenir in the form of a charcoal drawing. In 1890, Bourdelle finally left the darkness, partly thanks to Félicien Champsaur who on 13 February of that year, in L’Evènement], praised his paintings, pastels, drawings, plaster et terracotta sculptures exhibited in "La Cave du 4", a brasserie at 4 rue Gay Lussac in Paris.

4. Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929)
Turning and Swinging in the Wind -
the Wedding of the Corpses, the Dance of the Hanged
, c. 1885
Pen and Chinese Ink - 10.7 x 13.2 cm
Paris, Musée Bourdelle
Photo : Musée Bourdelle / Roger-Viollet

Bourdelle used pen and ink for his drawings but for his poems as well. He composed a certain number of them, inspired by classic and contemporary literature. Should we then see his graphic works as those of a writer ? This is the question raised by the first section of the exhibition : "In the horror of a Dantesque night / I like to hear voices moaning / In the sky a colossal fresco / Where the martyrs hang on the cross" [2]. Dante haunts Bourdelle’s writing, pondering on the infernal circles through the eyes of Gustave Doré whose illustrations for The Inferno he copied.
Other artistic and literary references crop up throughout the drawings : behind the hanging bodies and condemned souls, we sense Baudelaire’s Litanies de Satan or Victor Hugo’s Ce que dit la bouche d’ombre. Goya is not far away either in Turning and Swinging in the Wind (ill. 4), a work which also alludes to The Kidnapping by Félicien Rops, another Baudelairien artist. Though accepting his influence, Bourdelle nonetheless kept his distance, avoiding any perverse connotations or the idea of the guilty flesh depicted by his images.

5. Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929)
An illustration of "Césette", c. 1885
Pen and Chinese Ink, Grey Wash - 17.8 x 23.4 cm
Paris, Musée Bourdelle
Photo : Musée Bourdelle/Roger-Viollet

The second part of the exhibition shows Bourdelle "between the symbol and real life", never far from Symbolism and the universe of Odilon Redon, in fact participating, in 1892 and 1893 in the first two salons of Rose+Croix of Sâr Péladan. Winged men, monsters, gorgons inhabit his early drawings, while other, more enigmatic figures are presented devoid of context or narrative setting. Love Agonizing in a corner, no longer bears the aspect of a nude angel, but that of a woman already draped in her shroud. Death stalks and slaps a face sketched in charcoal accompanied with these words : "Your eyes closed to the things of this world reopen for eternity". Mummies and Medusa plagued Bourdelle who became a thanatologist and teratologist ; because monsters have exutory virtues, act even as a prophylactic as Colin Lemoine writes [3], at the same time reminding us of the etymology of the word monstrum : the "prodigy who warns us of the gods’ will".
We suddenly move from these "têtes hurlantes" in their pain, sculpted or drawn, to the figure of the young peasant woman. The sculptor produced a series of drawings to illustrate Césette : histoire d’une paysanne, a novel by Emile Pouvillon (ill. 5). One of his drawings juxtaposes Seurat’s Ploughing, revealing the same velvety black, despite different techniques, Seurat using pencil, Bourdelle preferring charcoal. But the artist is of course paying tribute to Millet.
The exhibition ends with the somber and melancholic self-portraits of the artist in a dialogue with the Beethoven portraits with which Bourdelle identified. A deaf musician and a "broyeur de sombre" or artist of darkness. The representations of the composer became lighter over time, between 1887 and 1929 the stroke more peaceful, in search of harmony. He would eventually introduce color into his drawings.

6. A view of the permanent collections
Photo : Musée Bourdelle

This exhibition allows visitors to discover the rooms in the museum, refurbished in June 2012 under the supervision of Amélie Simier, who also directs the Musée Zadkine which reopened to the public in October 2012 after a year long renovation.
At the Musée Bourdelle, the beautiful space initially made up of several studios in a row, before the walls were torn down in order to welcome temporary exhibitions has now been returned for the use of the permanent collections (ill. 6) ; the glass ceilings have been cleaned to let in as much light as possible. The chronological visit here takes us from the sculptor’s first steps, then the time spent in Rodin’s studio and so on until his acclaim by the critics and his role as a teacher. One room is devoted to Beethoven whom he represented throughout his career, with over eighty sculptures.

7. Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929)
Study of a Male Nude
Paris, Musée Bourdelle
Photo : Eric Emo / Musée Bourdelle / Roger-Viollet

The elegant and understated setting is in keeping with this former artistic commune and preserves the spirit of a studio ; we find the same spirit in the permanent collection which includes, besides finished sculptures in bronze or stone, archival documents, photographs, drawn or modelled studies, plaster sculptures, terracottas or clay figures, stoneware, casts... In the rooms, some of the signs on the studies reproduce with a small vignette the finished work or even present old photographs of it.
The visitor can experience the work in progress. In fact, next May the museum will inaugurate a new educational room presenting sculpture techniques and materials, to be installed in the studio of Eugène Carrière, adjacent to Bourdelle’s. To maintain this approach, the director recently acquired the study for Seated Man from 1881 (ill. 7) which attests to Bourdelle’s training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse, a rare vestige. The young sculptor produced it from a live model, with no idealization, and this plaster is probably the cast for the First Sculpture Prize (which today has disappeared) awarded to Bourdelle in 1879.
Among the future projects planned by the museum, about 600 drawings will be posted online and the correspondence between Rodin and Bourdelle will be published in May 2013. Lastly, the artist’s apartment will be rearranged in 2014 in order to present objects from his personal collection, tanagras, antiques, medieval sculptures, casts and paintings. Bourdelle was an artist of the dark but definitely an enlightened collector.

Curators : Stéphane Ferrand, Amélie Simier.

Collective work, Le Broyeur de sombre. Dessins de jeunesse de Bourdelle, 2013, Paris-Musées, 128 p., 25€. ISBN : 978-2-7596-0210-0

Visitor information : Musée Bourdelle, 18 rue Antoine Bourdelle, 75015 Paris. Tel : +33 (0)1 49 54 73 73. Open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm. Admission : 5€ (reduced : 3.50 and 2.50€).

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, samedi 27 avril 2013


[1] L’homme qui médite vit l’obscurité. Nous n’avons que le choix du noir.. Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, 1864, quoted by Jérôme Godeau in the exhibition catalogue, p. 56.

[2] Dans l’horreur d’une nuit dantesque / J’aime entendre gémir des voix / Dans le ciel colossal fresque / où pendent des martyrs en croix. Cahiers "Essais mêlés", undated. Paris, archives of the Musée Bourdelle.

[3] Colin Lemoine, "Encre les peurs et les démons. Bourdelle tératologue", exhibition catalogue, p. 43.

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