After an hour with the nearly 350 sculptures housed in the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum's exhibition "Breaking the Mold: Sculpture in Paris from Daumier to Rodin," a certain claustrophobia set in and my legs began to feel as heavy as the works surrounding me. As rich and admirably arranged as it is, the sheer weight of an exhibit like this gradually impresses itself upon you until you become one of Them. When I finally sat down, I thought I would never get up. The few people who could still move looked at me as they passed: I was no longer in the land of the living. I was Man Sitting on a Bench. The seated art students quietly sketching in their sketchbooks had turned to stone. This wasn't merely museum fatigue. It was as if the multitude of human forms and faces rendered in bronze, plaster, wood, wax, marble, terra cotta, and enameled stoneware had begun to impinge on my sense of reality, like a reverse version of what happens when a gallery of great paintings sends you into the outside world with rejuvenated vision. Then you seem to see with the eyes of the artist. But when you see with the eyes of the sculptor, you're not thinking color and light but mass and weight, death in life, humanity entombed or entrapped, the Stone Commandatore hustling Don Giovanni down to hell.
Or maybe my shoes were too tight. Or maybe I've been spoiled by the Grounds for Sculpture and J. Seward Johnson's Man Reading Newspaper near Borough Hall and Boy Eating Hamburger on Palmer Square. Or one of the glories of Princeton, the sculpture at the Wilson School plaza and the intricate, exhilarating sculpture-in-motion dynamics of water bombarding it from all sides.
Here's my personal favorite human-to-statue encounter. To appreciate it, it helps to believe that Balzac is the supreme novelist of all time, the monk-robed, coffee-swilling masterbuilder of the Human Comedy writing through the night, fleeing his creditors, making and unmaking and remaking Paris as he goes. Say you've been sitting on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens imagining it might be the same bench two characters in Lost Illusions sat on while one described to the other the dog-eat-dog world of Parisian journalism and literature. You get up and wander toward Montparnasse and suddenly there he is, perched on a grimy pedestal in a little square at the top of the boulevard Raspail, exposed to weather, pollution, and filth, his monk's robe streaked and spattered, his hands gone, his face eroded and eyeless. It's Rodin's Monument to Balzac. Talk about breaking the mold. You can almost feel the subject struggling inside Rodin's mold, an eternal work-in-progress. That's my idea of the ideal way to encounter sculpture, not with a guidebook in your hand or reading a placard identifying it between the walls of a well-lit room in a museum.
Back on the bench at the Zimmerli I was thinking of that long-ago encounter because I'd been staring up at a massive banner-like image of Rodin's Monument to Balzac displayed in place of the real thing. According to the lavishly illustrated catalog edited by the Zimmerli's retiring former director, Phillip Dennis Cate, when the work was first exhibited in 1892 (not the one on Blvd. Raspail but the white plaster original in the Musée d'Orsay), a critic said aloud: "Magnificent, grandiose, sublime!" And then whispered to a friend: "Who was the filthy pig that could have made this garbage?"
Rather than leave the impression that this exhibit was merely an exhausting experience, I'd just suggest that since it will be on display through March 12, 2006, the wisest course might be to pay several visits. The first time through you could give all your attention to Rodin. You can hardly ingore the three shades from his unfinished project The Gates of Hell that stand at the gateway to the show. Again, it's hard to escape the suggestion of entrapment, the same notion that inspired various wax-museum horror movies. The figures are grim. The idea that real human beings might be somehow embedded in sculpture is manifested in Paul Moreau-Vauthier's Monument to the Victims of Revolutions where you seem to see actual human faces entombed within the stone of the wall, a real wall in the cemetery of Pére Lachaise, the same wall thousands of communards had been lined up against to be executed by government troops; as the catalog points out, the sculpture "leaves no doubt that the ghostly scene of men, women, and children emerging in low relief from a stone wall refers directly to the Bloody Week of 1871." The work even incorporated remnants of the massacre, actual bullet-riddled fragments from the execution wall collected by the artist's father. Here you can't help but think of art as a monster consuming its human subjects even as it seeks to memorialize them.
Celebrating Loïe Fuller
In case you think it's all heaviness and darkness and death-in-life at the Zimmerli, consider the numerous pieces created in an attempt to catch the skirt-swirling dancing magic of the Folies-Bergère's Loïe Fuller, the toast of 1890s Paris. From all reports and from the different images of her on display, she was a sculptor herself, using lighting effects and masses of transparent Chinese silk to dazzle audiences, and artists in particular. In a series of six bronze statuettes of her in performance, Rupert Carabin creates a motion-picture-like sequence of sweeping poses in bronze (in one she looks like a matador furling his cape in an elaborate veronica). Another by Carabin, maybe the best, is an explicitly Art Nouveau version in enameled stoneware in which her skirt is shaped into sinuous folds curling and curving around her like an improvisation on the shell from which Boticelli's Venus emerges. Also on display are Charles Maurin's sprayed pigment and black chalk sketch of the dancer. The winged sea-shell effect of Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen's photo-relief may give the best idea of what was like to see her in action. A more fanciful, purely colorful attempt to catch the magic is Pal's Folies-Bergère poster, La Loïe Fuller.
Who was this glamorous creature? Some French grisette genius out of Balzac? No, just Marie Louise Fuller, an American girl from a suburb of Chicago who moved poet Stephen Mallarmé to talk of "the dizzyness of soul made visible by artifice." She also introduced Isadora Duncan to Paris audiences.
A Good Exit
The Zimmerli provides an excellent remedy for sculpture overload. Go back to the gate to the exhibit and turn right at the sign that says "Exit From Modernist Art." Perverse of you though it may be to enter from the exit, it's the visual equivalent of a breath of fresh air to run up against Robert Goodnough's massive Battle of the Sexes. From there you can refresh your eyes with Joan Miro's Asleep Under the Moon or Ben Benn's bold Landscape. The preponderance of dark, heavy tones in the rooms of sculpture you've seen may help bring out the color and motion in these abstract works, especially Jack Tworkov's Untitled (3 Women) oil on masonite.
Keep going and you'll see a distant doorway at the end of a hall out of Alice in Wonderland, beyond it a glimpse of -- Paris! It may seem a long walk to the 19th Century Galleries but your legs could use the exercise and you don't want to miss the fantastic posters for Le Lanterne de Bruant and Le Rire. You have through January 29 to see "Origins of the Twentieth Centry: Watercolors and Drawings in France, 1875-1915."
Located on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, the Zimmerli is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., weekends from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $3 per person for adults who are not members of the museum. Entrance is free at all times for members, all children under 18, and Rutgers University students, faculty, and staff with a valid I.D. In addition, the first Sunday of each month will be free to all.
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