The Oldest Obsession


On Art THE OLDEST OBSESSION BY VIVIEN RAYNOR The old maxim that man comes out of the womb only to spend his life trying to get back in is abundantly illustrated by the work of Gaston Lachaise His...

...On Art THE OLDEST OBSESSION BY VIVIEN RAYNOR The old maxim that man comes out of the womb only to spend his life trying to get back in is abundantly illustrated by the work of Gaston Lachaise His attitude toward the female was so archetypical that it is a wonder he achieved recognition at the very moment in history when the idea of woman-as-earth-mother was sustaining its first broadsides But it may well be this anachronistic aspect of his art that has enslaved his admirers In any event, the exhibition at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery (through November 29) was, at the time of my visit, well attended by people clearly enjoying themselves Some brought along the kids too So elemental is the appeal of Lachaise's nudes that biographical information is almost superfluous It clarifies slightly but doesn't really explain either him or his work Born in 1882, the son of a prosperous Parisian cabinetmaker, he grew up, with a sister, in comfortable bourgeois surroundings He began studying sculpture at the age of 13, progressing eventually to the Beaux Arts, from which he emerged at about 20 Whatever outrageous ideas he may have cherished during adolescence, they did not impede the training process, nor is there any evidence of his having been affected by the new movements swirling around him What did have a lasting impact on his career was his meeting Isabel Nagel, a Canadian-American married to a wealthy, older man For she was to be his lifelong love, subject matter, inspiration and, in a sense, technique In due course Isabel, who was Lachaise's senior by some 10 years and also the mother of a young son, had to return to Boston, whereupon the sculptor took a job with Lahque, the jeweler, to pay for his passage to the United States He arrived here in 1906 with $30 and no knowledge of English, but academic sculpture being then a lucrative business, he soon found work as an assistant After six years with Henry Hudson Kitson, who led him finally to New York, he worked on his own for a while and then took employment with the highly successful Paul Manship It was about this time that he was able to marry Isabel, who had been waiting for her child to grow up before divorcing her husband Lachaise's first one-man show--delayed by the outbreak of World War I--was in 1918 By the early' 20s, he had become well established in the New York art world and was beginning to receive good commissions for public sculpture In addition, he was doing outstanding portraits not only of the rich but of notables like Alfred Stieghtz, Georgia O'Keeffe, E E Cummings Carl Van Vechten, Scofield Thayer, and Sibley Watson The latter two, owners of The Dial, encouraged him and published reproductions of his work in their magazine Despite a tendency to give short shrift to those who bored or irritated him, regardless of their social standing, Lachaise had a respectable income Marriage to Isabel, however, involved considerable over-head, and he was chronically short of funds In the catalogue to his Whitney show of 1964, Geraldine Nordland mentioned him making "the rounds" of his patrons to raise money for his wife's new winter coat, shortly thereafter she was seen at the ballet in an ankle-length mink On the whole it is difficult to picture their relationship because, their devotion to one another notwithstanding, they did not spend much time under the same roof When in New York, he is said to have lived in his studio, visiting her in the evenings at her residence in the Brevoort Hotel (The show includes a sketch of a female nude done on hotel writing paper ) In summer, she repaired to their Maine house and he made intermittent brief trips there Yet the arrangement was no odder than anything we are hearing about Bloomsbury these days, and there is no doubt it worked well The sculptor's oeuvre is, after all, one long swelling tribute to her as mother, goddess and, I suppose, sex object Still it is worth remarking that his very last work, not included at Schoelkopf, was a more realistic study of an entwined, reclining couple--a relatively subdued acknowledgment of woman and man Although this exhibition presents mostly late drawings and sculpture--three dozen of each--many of them never before shown, as well as some first casts taken posthumously, it is not likely to alter opinions already formed In part this is because Lachaise's reputation has not been allowed to lapse and be rediscovered Since his death in 1935 the year of a Museum of Modern Art retrospective, his work has been shown on the average twice a decade, and for the past six years it has been touring the U S and Canada His art seems immune to the passage of time and the rhythms of fashion, consequently, it does not disclose new qualities either formal or emotional In fact, one suspects Lachaise looked much the same in the '20s as he does today--neither revolutionary nor academic, just powerfully idiosyncratic Reactions then seem to have been as polarized as they are now You get off on him or you don't, it has little to do with moral climate or the ebb and flow of puritanism, and even less with intellect Whatever it was in his vision that Daniel Cheste" French found "monstrous" is still I think, what avant-gardists and academics alike find offensive today The revulsion is visceral rather than cerebral Being at times no more than a roiling mass of hips and udders, his Woman could be claimed as the mother of all Playboy centerfolds His drawings trace endlessly the forms of his obsession the line drifts around Lachaise haunches, and caroms down Lachaise breasts heavy enough to require a wheelbarrow for transportation, it disposes of heads in a Fuseli-type diagram, yet lingers dreamily around nipples like spigots Of course he was refueling his inspiration at burlesque houses, but they can't be held wholly responsible for the eccentricity of his drawings These were done by someone so absorbed in an internal terrain that he no longer felt the need to look beyond On the other hand, programmed reaction of emancipation would do Lachaise an injustice, especially with regard to his sculpture No matter how bizarre the impulse, it is always reined in short of madness by technical discipline Many times the amplitude and fecundity of the items in this show sickened me, one more lusty female protuberance and I was ready to quit But invariably some expert piece of modeling would draw me back, and never more sharply than in the case of one small and very explicit plaster torso that literally reduces femaleness to basics Headless, limbless and almost trunkless, it is a composition of flattened breasts pointing downward and outward over a bulging belly bisected by a scrupulously modeled vulva resembling some unfurling, rare tropical flower In this instance--as occasionally in the writing of Henry Miller--obscenity standards and feminist objections have to be thrown out of court by art The torso clearly shows, too, that Lachaise's love for his subject was unadulterated by any feelings of resentment The heads--some of them masks --are worth a look, even if the great ones, like that of John Marin, are absent As subtle as the figures are preposterous, they would be blandly classical were it not for the beautifully treated asymmetries around eyes and cheekbones There are also some small figurines standing, draped nudes and a sedate reclining woman, which is atypical not only for being fully clothed, but for its simplified forms containing a trace of Cubism More interesting emotionally, albeit not sculpturally, are the artist's essays into male anatomy The prancing man here, with muscles in a frenzy of action, is the only possible mate for Lachaise's Woman Gut misgivings aside, his achievement is unique He could scarcely be denied an important place in American art, though perhaps not for purely esthetic reasons, and there is no question of his place in the national sex mythology, which tends to treat the issue as a problem rather than a resource Even if he was glandularly predestined to work in this fashion, he probably could not have gotten away with it in his own country, because his eroticism is a peculiar combination of refined mannerism and manic disorderliness One can only guess at Lachaise's state of mind He may have been profoundly disoriented by the change of venue, since the transition from there to here is seldom accomplished without some psychic damage, especially when made in maturity It is a truism that immigrants either become parodies of their original nationality or over-compensate with undue patriotism for then new home Lachaise may have fitted--esthetically, at least--into the second category, he said, for example, that America had the opportunity to found a supreme, complete and permanent expression which would overwhelm the world The most favorable ground for the continuity of art is here " Given his own reason for coming and the tact that Pans was still at the height of its powers, this statement sounds suspiciously like a rationalization of the irreversible step While it has been suggested that Lachaise picked up where the prehistoric creator of the Willendorf Venus left off, his work has the appearance of a highly personal kind of immigrant's retreat into fantasy (I tremble to think what form it would have taken without his basic French training ) "All art,' he said, "is a confession one can conceal nothing of one's weakness " Whether his came from weakness or strength, it was a dramatic response and contribution to a culture where dream and reality are not becoming any easier to distinguish...

Vol. 56 • November 1973 • No. 23

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