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Impressionist & Modern Art

Carving Out Meaning: Modern Existential Sculpture

The authentic experience of selfhood, freedom of choice, and ownership of individual ethics: these are the core tenants of Existentialism, a philosophical movement that influenced some of the greatest figurative sculptors of the 21st century. Existentialism first emerged in the late 19th century as a philosophical approach focusing on the individualistic lived experience. This expression of an individual versus collective experience resonated with artists in the post-war period, as anxiety about the fate of humanity in the atomic age rose. This is particularly evident in the works of Germaine Richier and Alberto Giacometti, but the emphasis on a personal, subjective experience in sculpture can be traced back to Auguste Rodin.

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AUGUSTE RODIN, FIGURE DE L'HOMME QUI MARCHE, MOYEN MODÈLE, BRONZE, CONCEIVED IN 1899-1900 AND CAST IN AN EDITION OF 8 BETWEEN 1955-65 BY THE GEORGES RUDIER FOUNDRY; THIS EXAMPLE CAST IN SEPTEMBER 1960, IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART DAY SALE NOVEMBER 15TH, 2017. ESTIMATE $600,000-800,000.

Although not considered to be “Existentialist” art, Rodin’s sculptures were radical for his time and paved the way for the succession of sculptors to follow, including those under his tutelage. As the progenitor of modern sculpture, Rodin was particularly interested in capturing individual characteristics in his mythological and allegorical sculptures. This is particularly apparent in the powerful physicality and expressive force of L’Homme qui marche. For this work he combined a pair of legs modeled for his sculpture St. John the Baptist in the late 1870s with a clay torso he discovered in the studio, cracked and with deep fissures, now resembling an antique sculpture. Rather than facing forward, the torso is placed at an angle to the left, accentuating the forward motion of the figure and its dynamism. By choosing to keep both feet firmly planted on the ground and to distribute the figure's weight equally across both, entirely at odds with academic sculpture conventions, Rodin meditates on the representation of movement in its essence and depicts the moments at the beginning and the end of a step rather than the motion itself. 

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AUGUSTE RODIN, LE PENSEUR, PETIT MODÈLE, BRONZE, CONCEIVED CIRCA 1880-81; THIS REDUCTION WAS CONCEIVED IN 1903 AND THIS WORK WAS CAST BETWEEN 1916-19, IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART EVENING SALE NOVEMBER 14TH, 2017. ESTIMATE $1,000,000-1,500,000.

Similarly, Rodin’s Le Penseur, initially created for his monumental bronze portal The Gates of Hell, a sculptural telling of Dante’s Divine Comedy, transcends Dante’s narrative and has become a universal symbol of reflection and creative genius. To some historians, Penseur is the creator Dante, sitting atop the gate akin to God at the Gate of Heaven, while Rodin’s foundry workers gave the sculpture its accepted name for its likeness to Michelangelo’s portrait of Lorenzo de Medici, Il Penseroso. Writer and critic Gabriel Mourey wrote of the work in 1906: "he is no longer the poet suspended over the pit of sin and expiation; he is our brother in suffering, curiosity, contemplation, joy, the bitter joy of searching and knowing. He is no longer a superhuman, a predestined human being; he is simply a man for all ages, for all latitudes" (Gabriel Mourey, "Le Penseur de Rodin offert par souscription publique au peuple de Paris" in Les Arts de la vie, vol. 1, no. 5, May 1904, p. 268). 

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ÉMILE-ANTOINE BOURDELLE, PÉNÉLOPE, SANS FUSEAU ET SANS PIED, MODÈLE INTERMÉDIAIRE, BRONZE, CONCEIVED IN 1907; THIS INTERMEDIATE SIZE CAST IN AN EDITION OF 8 PLUS 2 ARTIST'S PROOFS, IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART DAY SALE NOVEMBER 15TH, 2017. ESTIMATE $40,000-60,000.

Émile-Antoine Bourdelle shared Rodin’s interest in imbuing literary and mythical figures with a transcendental, individualistic expressionism, such as in his 1907 sculpture Pénélope, sans fuseau et sans pied, modèle intermédiaire. Rodin was a great admirer of Bourdelle’s innovative monumental sculpture, and by September 1893 Bourdelle was assisting Rodin in his studio and then later was a teacher there. In his earlier castings of Penelope Bourdelle included a spindle to identify his figure as the steadfast wife of Odysseus who in Homer’s The Odyssey endures the long absence of her husband and concurrently dissuades admirers with a spindle. In later castings, however, Bourdelle eliminated the prop and instead relied upon her ancient Greek costume, the pleats of her skirt akin to a Doric column, and the meditative pose – with arms drawn close to her body to indicate an aversion to suitors – to signify her identity and emotional complexity.

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GERMAINE RICHIER, LE GRAIN, BRONZE, 1955, IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART EVENING SALE NOVEMBER 14TH, 2017. ESTIMATE $700,000-1,000,000.

Shortly after leaving Rodin’s studio, Bourdelle became a private instructor, teaching a young Germaine Richier and Alberto Giacometti until the elder sculptor’s death in 1929. Under Bourdelle’s tutelage Richier’s figurative sculptures were fantastical, combining classical forms with animals. As her career progressed Richier’s works became more heavily focused on bodily deformations to accentuate the anguish of the post-World War II era. Conceived in 1955, Le Grain epitomizes Richier’s Existentialist sculpture from the post-war era. Le Grain is a remarkable manifestation of humankind’s capacities and instincts for survival, resilience and redemption. As discussed in the exhibition catalogue for her retrospective at the Kunst Museum Bern, “the existential nature of her artworks is apparent in the torn and fissured figures, whose blatant insecurity is inscribed with a wired tension into their very beings” (quoted in Germaine Richier – Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Kunst Museum, Bern, 2014, p. 15). 

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ALBERTO GIACOMETTI, FIGURINE, BRONZE, CONCEIVED CIRCA 1956; THIS EXAMPLE CAST IN 1981 IN AN EDITION OF 10, IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART DAY SALE NOVEMBER 15TH, 2017. ESTIMATE $600,000-800,000.

For Giacometti, the distillation of the human form to its bare essentials reached its pinnacle during the 1950s. Figurine personifies one of the most iconic images of the artist's oeuvre, the standing female nude. Conceived circa 1956, it served as a precursor to the Femme de Venise series, and was a starting point for Giacometti's most distinctive line of experimentation with the female form. Throughout the 1940s and up until his death in 1966, Giacometti created several variations of a solitary nude woman, her long, lean body firmly anchored to a base. Giacometti's wiry figures reached their apex during this period. No longer interested in recreating physical likeness in his sculptures, the artist began working from memory, seeking to capture his figures beyond the physical reality of the human form. With its multiple and conflicting thematic connotations of stoicism, resilience, passivity, solitude, strength and vulnerability, Figurine embodies the Existentialist concerns and reflects the lonely and vulnerable human condition. The timeless quality and rough treatment of the bronze surface in the present work are reminiscent of artefacts of ancient civilizations, such as Egyptian statues or Cycladic fertility goddesses, which were an important source of inspiration for Giacometti.

As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about Giacometti’s women, “these fine and slender natures rise up to heaven, we seem to have come across a group of Ascensions, of Assumptions; they dance, they are dances, they are made of the same rarified matter as the glorious bodies that were promised us. And when we have come to contemplate this mystic thrust, these emaciated bodies expand, what we see before us belongs to earth. This martyr was only a woman. But a woman complete [...], a complete woman, in danger on this earth, and yet not utterly of this earth, and who lives and tells us of the astonishing adventure of the flesh, our adventure. For she, like us, was born” (Jean-Paul Sartre, Alberto Giacometti, exhibition catalogue, Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1948).
 

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