Monday, September 22, 2014

La Rivière

A few months ago I had a series of post about the art outside the Portland Art Museum. I actually still have a couple of those left to do. Our next installment is La Rivière (1943) by the French sculptor Aristide Maillol, one of a pair of giant bronze Maillol nudes flanking the museum's main entrance. Their presence here is a fairly new development, both sculptures having arrived in the last decade or so. It strikes me as a little odd and retro to do this in the early 21st Century. I don't know whether it necessarily rises to the dreaded "problematic" or "reactionary", but the two Maillols do make it pretty clear that the visitor isn't entering a museum of contemporary art.

So the museum context is kind of weird, but taken by themselves I rather like the two Maillols, the dynamic La Rivière and the placid, posed La Montagne. Even better, from a blog standpoint, there's some rather fascinating history to relate about them.

As with many of Maillol's best-known works, the model for La Rivière was Dina Vierny, who also modeled for Henri Matisse and other prominent French artists, although she worked primarily with Maillol until his death in 1944. Matisse and others encouraged her to get into the business side of the art world, and after World War II she became a prominent art dealer and collector, eventually opening a museum dedicated to Maillol and his work. NPR had an entertaining interview with her in December 2008, in which (among other things) she explained that the nude modeling was originally her idea, and she had to persuade the shy (and elderly) Maillol to do it. When Vierny died in 2009, media outlets including the New York Times and The Guardian published lengthy obits. The NYT piece noted that during World War II (and while modeling for La Rivière) Vierny worked with the French Resistance, guiding refugees over mountain paths in the Pyrenees and helping them escape into neutral Spain. She was captured twice, was acquitted once, and was released the second time after Maillol somehow persuaded Arno Breker, Hitler's favorite sculptor, to intercede on her behalf.

La Rivière is one of Maillol's most famous works, and naturally this is not the only copy of it in existence. New York's Museum of Modern Art has one, as does the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Other copies are located in Zurich; St. Louis, MO; and Pasadena, CA. In 2013, a copy from Vierny's collection sold for $8.2M. The MoMA page about La Rivière has a couple of paragraphs about it, originally excerpted from a book of museum highlights:

The daring instability and torsion of The River are rare in Maillol's sculpture. Instead of trying to emulate the dynamism of twentieth-century life, as did so many artists of his time, Maillol usually sought an art of serenity and stillness, of classical nobility and simplicity. As late as 1937, in fact, he remarked, "For my taste, there should be as little movement as possible in sculpture." Yet within a year or so afterward he had conceived The River, a work in which the movement is almost reckless.

Commissioned to create a monument to a notable pacifist, the French writer Henri Barbusse, Maillol conceived the sculpture as a work on the theme of war: a woman stabbed in the back, and falling. When the commission fell through, he transformed the idea into The River. In a departure from the usual conventions of monumental sculpture, the figure lies low to the ground and rests apparently precariously on the pedestal, even hanging below its edge. Twisting and turning, her raised arms suggesting the pressure of some powerful current, this woman is the personification of moving water.

I haven't come across anyone mentioning this, but I have to wonder whether the precarious pose is a reference to Vierny's dangerous Resistance work. It just seems like it would be difficult to work on something like this and not see the obvious analogy.

Curiously, the Portland Art Museum's website doesn't mention anything about the statues out front, and I have yet to figure out exactly how they came by the Maillol duo, whether they were purchased, donated, or loaned, or from whom, or when. (The museum's online catalog lists six other Maillol sculptures & drawings, but nothing about the giant ones outside.) I did find a couple of old Oregonian articles that pass along a remarkable historical anecdote, though. Among the many people Vierny helped to escape the Nazis was a young girl named Vera Pistrak, who grew up to be Vera Katz, Oregon House Speaker and three-term Mayor of Portland.

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