How do you celebrate the 4th of July in a French city with next to no Americans? I didn't even realize I'd done so until I returned from the show of sculpture by Jean-Antoine Houdon at the Musée Fabre.
It's not a large show, as the wall-note at the entrance to the three rooms in which it's mounted notes. Instead of trying to gather up a definitive collection of the prolific sculptor's work, the curators have concentrated on two themes: two statues, Summer and Winter (also known as La Frileuse, which can't be directly translated, although my dictionary says the adjective means "sensitive to cold") which are allegories, and the portrait busts for which he's best known. This one, for instance, isn't in the show:
You have to do what Houdon did -- go to Mount Vernon, Washington's estate -- to see that one, although there's also a full statue of Washington by Houdon in Richmond, Virginia, and for both we have Thomas Jefferson, noted Francophile (and conoisseur of Languedoc wines) to thank, since he's the one that got the money raised.
As for what's here, the first thing one sees is the two allegories. If I read the wall notes right, it was Winter that got Houdon into trouble with the judges of the Salon when he showed it in 1783, with the academics noting that a nude allegory of winter was ridiculous. Given that you have to pass through a half-dozen rooms strewn with gigantic paintings of writhing flesh (mostly male) in ridiculous postures to get to the three galleries in which this show stands, and that these acres of mediocrity are what the judges liked back then, a point is nicely, if inadvertently, made.
The absolute purity of this form reminds me that one thing Houdon was part of was the movement away from the fussiness of the Baroque into the simplicity of neo-Classicism. Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum in New York may also recognize this statue, without the cracked urn, from the bronze version on display there, which is also part of this show. In contrast, I'd guess that Summer made the academics happy. It's almost noisy next to La Frileuse: she's got a bunch of wheat tucked under one arm, flowers in her hair, a mess of fruit spilled all over the ground, and she's looking right at you and smiling. And unless she was conceived as a big, fat "fuck you" to the censors who'd banned her sister, I'd say she's not one of Houdon's major works.
The next room has an analysis of the sources and interpretations of the statue, along with the bronze version from New York and a tiny Diana the huntress by Houdon standing next to her. Several Baroque series of engravings portraying the four seasons and how they were interpreted are on the walls, a Houdon head of a Vestal, and another female portrait draw attention to the drapery, a gorgeous 15th Century carved wood Rhenish Pietà emphasizes the mourning aspect, and two paintings symbolizing the loss of innocence (ie, loss of virginity, which is pretty explicit in one of them) point at another, possibly complementary, reading of the piece. There are also two models of funerary sculptures, one of which is a direct, if better-clothed, rip.
The really famous stuff lines up in the next room, which is loaded with portrait busts, not all of which are by Houdon -- in fact the majority aren't. There's plaster, terracotta, marble, and bronze, and among other things, this room gives you a strong sense of the business of sculpted portraiture in the 18th Century. Six months before he died, Voltaire sat for Houdon at his house, and Houdon sketched and measured like crazy. This was an honor of the highest sort -- Voltaire was a rock-star of the times, and he strictly controlled access to himself. Houdon got a couple of "shots" of his head, wigless and otherwise unadorned, which are here, one in terracotta, another in bronze, but both with the sort of deeply human expression Houdon was famous for. He also got enough data to do a seated figure of a robed Voltaire, gazing off to the side with an amused expression that probably portends a searingly witty remark, and there's a tiny copy in one of the showcases here, but a much bigger one that lives at the Fabre in the adjacent room.
This is the big deal: if you got something like that, you could sell as many copies as you could get commissions for. The Fabre's seated Voltaire isn't really unique: there was a mould, and Houdon squeezed 'em out on demand -- and with Voltaire's death and the fact that Houdon had really "gotten" him, he probably made a good deal of dough on the results of this particular sitting.
And let's not forget that he was good. Oh, so were the best of his competitors, but you don't have to be an expert to look around this room and pick out the Houdons (and heaven knows 18th Century art isn't my thing at all, but I could do it). There's just something extra in his work, as the side-by-side comparison of a pair of portraits of Marie-Adelaïde de France, a princess, shows. There's one by Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne from 1768, and one by Houdon from 1777. Lemoyne's is nice. It's probably accurate. It's dull. Houdon's shows an older woman, one who's retained some of her beauty. But there's something shocking about her face: she's just beginning to smile and you can see some of her teeth. This is Not Done. It also made me look a little longer at this piece: the piled-up hair, the delicacy of the lace on the top of her dress, and the complexity of her expression. Lemoyne's Marie-Adelaïde is a cute chick. Houdon's is an interesting woman. This made me check out his bust of Napoleon again. And that made me leave the room.
Actually, I did that because, as I mentioned, next door is the seated Voltaire, which is one of the very best pieces in the Fabre's collection (not that, coming from me, that's saying a lot). There are a number of other portrait busts by him in this room, too, including one I'd forgotten.
The Fabre's Franklin's only a terra-cotta, but that means somewhat sharper detail than you'd get from marble. The complexity of expression that was so obvious with Voltaire and Marie-Adelaïde is, as you can see, right there with Ben. We stared at each other a while, I wished him a happy Fourth, and then I went back through the endless galleries of fleshapoids and out the front door.
Well, not directly. I had to stop and see if something I remembered was true. It was: for six euros, you can buy a copy of La Frileuse in rubber. It's an eraser. Which led me back to the ideas of mourning and loss of virginity. And erasure.
And then I went home.
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Jean-Antoine Houdon, la sculpture sensible will run through Sept. 12 at the Musée Fabre, 37 boulevard Sarrail, Montpellier. The museum is free the first Sunday of each month. For further information see the museum's website.
9 months ago