ARTS | CONNECTICUT AND WESTCHESTER
In His Sculptures, Vitality; In His Portraits, Precision
The Lachaise Foundation
By SUSAN HODARA
Published: September 28, 2012
The Lachaise Foundation
Courtesy of the Colby College Museum of Art
The Lachaise Foundation
Collection of the Bruce Museum
PASSERS-BY at the Bruce Museumthis month may have spotted an eight-foot-long, half-draped bronze sculpture of a female nude suspended from a crane. Dangling horizontally, the approximately 1,300-pound figure glided through the air on her way into the museum, her toes pointed daintily at one end, her small head and powerful shoulders at the other.
Massive yet seemingly buoyant, “Floating Figure” now rests in the gallery, arms outstretched, legs extended upward, balanced on one sizable buttock. The piece is among more than 40 works on view in “Face and Figure: The Sculpture of Gaston Lachaise,” an exhibition of figures, busts, bas-reliefs and drawings by the 20th-century sculptor and portraitist. Curated by Kenneth E. Silver, adjunct curator at the Bruce, the show underscores the scope of Lachaise’s vision — from the vitality of his figurative sculptures, primarily inspired by his muse, model and eventual wife, Isabel Dutaud Nagle, to the personality and precision in his portraits, many of notable members of the American artistic community between the world wars, including Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe and E. E. Cummings.
“People know Gaston Lachaise for his female figures that are so exhilarating, intense and memorable,” said Dr. Silver, who is a professor of modern art at New York University. “The fact that he was also a very good portraitist is often forgotten. We thought it would be interesting to look at both sides of his body of work — no pun intended.”
Born and educated in Paris, Lachaise left France permanently in 1905 to travel to Boston in pursuit of Ms. Nagle, married and 10 years his senior. She was a voluptuous woman with a fleshy belly, wide hips and surprisingly delicate feet. In his 1928 essay “A Comment on My Sculpture,” Lachaise wrote about his creative obsession: “Throughout my career, as an artist, I refer to this person by the word ‘Woman.’ ”
Ms. Nagle’s presence is evident in nearly half of the pieces in “Face and Figure.” She is there in “Standing Woman (Elevation),” begun in 1912, a polished bronze nude more than six feet tall, perched on the balls of her feet, her closed eyes and raised arms conveying a sense of transcendence. Across the gallery, she towers even higher in “Standing Woman (Heroic Woman),” from 1932. Here, her proportions are elongated, her diminutive head turned slightly up, her tiny waist unfolding into substantial thighs, her eyes open and her soles planted firmly on the ground. Dr. Silver described these sculptures as “two of the great figures of the 20th century.”
Ms. Nagle’s form, usually nude, appears in an assortment of poses: slouched in an armchair, mounted sideways atop a horse, twice interwoven in the embrace of a man. In a marble bas-relief and a crayon drawing, she ascends a flight of stairs; in a bronze bas-relief, she drifts weightlessly through space.
Dr. Silver noted this repeated occurrence of gesture in Lachaise’s work. “There’s a dynamic quality to his figures,” he said, “even when they are at rest. There is an elasticity in the relationship of the parts that activates them and makes them exciting to look at.”
Gesture is a defining feature in another nude portrait in “Face and Figure.” The bronze “Man Walking (Portrait of Lincoln Kirstein),” which was completed in 1933 and stands just under two feet tall, depicts Kirstein, the author, cultural figure and patron of the arts, midstride, his right foot forward, his left arm bent, his mouth open as if speaking.
Kirstein, who with George Balanchine founded the School of American Ballet, and later the New York City Ballet, played a pivotal role in Lachaise’s career. In addition to promoting his work, Kirstein was instrumental in organizing Lachaise’s only retrospective, which was also the first retrospective of any living American artist at the then-fledgling Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition was held in early 1935, just months before Lachaise’s death at 53.
The Bruce’s 2010 acquisition of “Man Walking (Portrait of Lincoln Kirstein),” one of only two casts of the work, sparked the planning of “Face and Figure.” “We wanted to give context to our sculpture,” Dr. Silver said, calling the piece “Lachaise’s greatest male nude, and maybe his only great male nude.”
In contrast, “Man (Heroic Man),” also bronze, and, at more than nine feet tall, the largest piece in the show, exudes a graceless heaviness, with its undersized head and oversized limbs. “Clearly, Lachaise saw something in Lincoln Kirstein that he did not generally feel in the male figure,” Dr. Silver said.
Yet when it came to his portrait busts, Lachaise demonstrated deep feeling for both his male and female sitters. While many modern artists considered portraiture a distracting source of income, Lachaise embraced it enthusiastically. “My interest in portraiture has always been keen,” he wrote in his 1928 essay, “for a portrait of an individual is a synthesis of the prevalent forces within the individual, and in this process there is an expansion for the creator.”
In his “Portrait of Edgard Varèse,” for instance, Lachaise manifests the French modernist composer’s prevalent forces in the figure’s inquisitive brow and intelligent gaze. The Varèse portrait is one of eight male busts, each between 12 and 17 inches tall, displayed in a dramatic circular arrangement. Viewers may examine the specificity with which Lachaise modeled his subjects: the weathered visage of John Marin, the modernist painter; the meditative air and etched skin of Edward Nagle, Ms. Nagle’s son by her first husband; the pensive look and slightly parted lips of Edward M. M. Warburg, a philanthropist who was one of Lachaise’s patrons.
Among the female busts in the exhibition are “Portrait of Marianne Moore,” in which the modernist poet is presented with a stylish coif and a no-nonsense appearance, and “Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe,” an alabaster sculpture of the painter with a somber expression.
“His skill is remarkable,” Dr. Silver said of Lachaise.
“Face and Figure” gathers these bronze, marble, alabaster and sketched representations of the people who populated Lachaise’s life in America, from the cultural circle that surrounded him, to the woman who fueled his emotional and creative spirit. “I think it’s important that you get to see all the pieces together in one place,” Dr. Silver said.
Then he cited the Museum of Modern Art’s placement of Lachaise’s “Floating Figure” in its sculpture garden. “As lovely as it may be to see that piece outdoors,” he said, “something happens when it’s given a finite space in the gallery with all the other work. It just bursts with energy.”