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A Juxtaposition

Gaston Lachaise

Louise Bourgeois


Louise Bourgeois & Gaston Lachaise

(1911–2010)

(1882–1935)


Obsession By Louise Bourgeois Originally published in Artforum, April 1992, p. 85–87

So Gaston Lachaise had one god. And it was a woman, his wife. He put this particular woman on a pedestal, both figuratively and literally. What did he need from her? What did she give him? This remains the mysterious mechanism of a relationship that worked. Some artists, being masochists, must find a valid cause. They get a perverse pleasure out of suffering for the cause. They get their self-esteem from pain, in the overcoming of it. They are willing to pay in time, in labor, and in expertise for being listened to, considered, and noticed. Some artists function only in a “feed me” setup, meaning “You feed me compliments. You feed me encouragement. You feed me self-esteem.” That’s all they ask. You feed them faith in themselves. The question in Lachaise’s art and life is: “Who fed whom?” When the sculptor met Isabel Dutaud Nagle (in Paris, sometime between 1902 and 1904), he met the muse of his life and art. He was 20 and she was 30, married, with a child. Photographs show that she was not stately or heroic. Contrary to the “signature” proportions in which Lachaise rendered her, she was far from being impressive and monumental. She turns out to have been a smallish, unassuming woman. Yet for Lachaise, she was “the Goddess I am searching to express in all things.” The form of Lachaise’s masochism was that he let himself be the slave of this demanding woman. He was pumped dry by this muse, he sacrificed himself to this god. In what ways? In time: he devoted 33 years of his life to her. In labor: he worked tirelessly to support her. In social and financial expertise: he skillfully sought out collectors, commissions, and cash. Isabel personified Lachaise’s unacknowledged dream of hope and adventure in the New World. After he married her, in 1917, he labored under constant financial stress in order to supply her every want and fancy: her One Fifth Avenue apartment, her summer house in Maine, her seamstress, hatmakers, and maid. To finance this woman’s endless demands, Lachaise made everything from cement plaques for a house on Long Island to zodiac designs for elevator doors to a spread-winged seagull for Arlington Cemetery—the gamut from hardware to monumental sculpture. In spite of everything, as the late work shows, the one thing he did not sacrifice was his talent. Lachaise was a consummate technician. He had the traditional French academic training, and he had worked for René Lalique in Paris, making jewelry and designing vases and Art Nouveau ornaments. Once settled in America he was able to find work with the sculptor Paul Manship. Yet despite the strong support he received from patrons, he was always hard up. He borrowed to such an extent that people avoided him. He is said to have been reduced to having his bronze-casting done in Munich because he had exhausted his credit in New York. The hole in his pocket was Isabel. Lachaise had a reputation as a portraitist. He was one of those rare artists who could on occasion achieve a likeness and psychological depth at the same time, a talent I greatly respect. His bust of the painter

Gaston Lachaise Kneeling Nude c. 1922-30 black ink on paper 11 x 8 1/2 in 27.9 x 21.6 cm


John Marin in particular is quite powerful. Still, Lachaise did not reach the heights of Roman sculptural portraiture, or of Jean-Antoine Houdon, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, or Henri Matisse’s “Jeannette” series, 1910–13. We witness no transformation or formal evolution in his portraits over the years; he was a prisoner of his own talent, making flattering commissioned likenesses of famous clients he sought out. After Lachaise, with rare exceptions, portraiture seems to have disappeared from sculpture and moved largely into the domain of photography. Yet a certain part of Lachaise’s creativity remained his secret garden. It is only in the torsos, full figures, and abstracted female forms inspired by Isabel that Lachaise was able to reach his fullest expression as an artist. These forms are a convincing compulsion. I am all in favor of his authenticity, which bloomed only when he was alone in his studio. Only alone with the thought of his muse did he allow himself to express his sexual compulsion. What are the secret demons in Lachaise’s relationship to his muse? Why the obsessions with breasts and cunts? Why did he have to keep repeating himself, and what did he have to prove? Therein remains the secret of his life. Can it be analogous to the insatiable Don Juan, who had to prove himself irresistible, seeking to replace his mother’s love with his conquests? Perhaps in this case the Don Juan complex involved the insatiable desire to possess one woman. Contrary to Don Juan, and to what many feminists may feel, Lachaise did not exploit women but enjoyed them. To be a sex object is a flattering experience. Why her and not me? His sculptures are the greatest compliment to women, just as Francis Bacon’s work or Gary Indiana’s book Horse Crazy is a compliment to men: it is a compliment to grant the sex object such power that it can trigger such passion. A consequence of Lachaise’s fixation is his tendency to repeat instead of to develop his style. This we deplore. But at the same time, it’s this obsessive quality that is so fantastic, such a gift. The formal distortions in the late erotic work, where the human body is deformed and enlarged, increase the audacity of Lachaise’s expression. These late pieces—Breasts with Female Organ Between (also known as Abstract Figure; large version), 1930–32, Dynamo Mother, 1933, In Extremis, ca. 1934, Kneeling Woman, Hands on Head, ca. 1930–35—reflect an extremely powerful and original vision of his relationship to this woman.1 It is in these works that Lachaise expresses his deepest emotion about woman—as mother, as lover, as ideal, as god. 1

It is unfortunate that many of the late works were never exhibited before Lachaise’s death in 1935, so that the versions we have of

them, produced later from his casts, may not take the definitive forms he envisioned for them.

© The Easton Foundation

Louise Bourgeois Hair c. 1948 ink on paper 10 5/8 x 8 1/4 in 27 x 21 cm


Gaston Lachaise Abstract Figure (Acrobat Woman) 1934 bronze 16 1/2 x 10 x 11 1/4 in 41.9 x 25.4 x 28.6 cm


Louise Bourgeois Femme 2005 bronze, silver nitrate patina 5 x 6 x 8 in 12.7 x 15.2 x 20.3 cm


Louise Bourgeois Pregnant Woman 2009 gouache and colored pencil on paper, suite of 12 9 1/2 x 8 in each 24.1 x 20.3 cm each


Louise Bourgeois Nature Study 1984 bronze, polished patina 29 1/2 x 20 1/2 x 15 1/2 in 74.9 x 52.1 x 39.4 cm


Gaston Lachaise Abstract Figure 1930-32 bronze 5 1/2 x 13 x 5 3/4 in 14 x 33 x 14.6 cm


Louise Bourgeois Janus Fleuri 1968 bronze, gold patina 10 1/8 x 12 1/2 x 8 3/8 in 25.7 x 31.8 x 21.3 cm


Gaston Lachaise Passion 1932-34 bronze 25 3/4 x 13 x 6 in 65.4 x 33 x 15.2 cm


Louise Bourgeois Couple 2001 fabric 20 x 6 x 4 in 50.8 x 15.24 x 10.16 cm


Gaston Lachaise Torso c. 1935 bronze 12 3/4 x 19 1/4 x 13 in 32.4 x 48.9 x 33 cm


Louise Bourgeois Untitled 2001 fabric and steel 69 x 33 x 33 in (in vitrine) 175.3 x 83.8 x 83.8 cm


Louise Bourgeois Untitled 2005 bronze, silver nitrate patina 16 x 4 x 4 in 40.6 x 10.2 x 10.2 cm


Gaston Lachaise Torso (Legs) c. 1930-35 bronze 12 3/4 x 5 x 5 3/4 in 32.4 x 12.7 x 14.6 cm


Gaston Lachaise Dynamo Mother 1933 bronze 11 1/8 x 17 3/4 x 7 1/4 in 28.3 x 45.1 x 18.4 cm


Louise Bourgeois End of Softness 1967 bronze, gold patina 7 x 20 3/8 x 15 1/4 in 17.8 x 51.8 x 38.7 cm


Louise Bourgeois Pregnant Woman 2008 gouache and colored pencil on paper 30 3/4 x 21 in 78.1 x 53.3 cm


Gaston Lachaise In Extremis c. 1934 bronze 15 1/4 x 10 1/4 x 9 1/2 in 38.7 x 26 x 24.1 cm


Gaston Lachaise Standing Woman 1935 bronze 79 x 28 x 18 in 200.7 x 71.1 x 45.7 cm


Louise Bourgeois Girl Falling 1947 ink and charcoal on paper 11 1/4 x 7 1/8 in 28.5 x 18 cm


Pri n t e d i n an ed itio n o f 2,000 o n t he oc c a sion of t he Art D ea le rs Assoc ia t io n o f Am er ic a : The Ar t Sho w Ma r c h 5– 9 , 2 0 1 4

Gaston Lachaise and Louise Bourgeois: A Juxtaposition

Design John Cheim. Editor Ellen Robinson. Photography Brian Buckley, Christopher Burke. Louise Bourgeois images © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA. Gaston Lachaise images courtesy of The Lachaise Foundation. Printed by GHP Media. ISBN 978-0-9914681-1-9. Cover: Photograph of Gaston Lachaise in his studio at 55 West 8th Street, taken shortly after December 7, 1931. Photograph of Louise Bourgeois in 1975 wearing her latex sculpture AVENZA (1968-1969). Photo: Mark Setteducati, © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA. Special thanks to Modern Art Foundry.

Cheim & Read


Cheim & Read


Gaston Lachaise and Louise Bourgeois: A Juxtaposition