Originally commissioned as a public monument for the multi-sports Jean Blouin stadium in France, Le Coureur recalls more the slim body type of a long-distance runner or marathoner than the one of a vigorous and triumphant athlete. For this sculpture, Richier chose one of her favourite models, Lyrot – who also posed for her Griffu, Guerrier and Christ d’Assy – with the intention that his extraordinarily slender composition would convey a sense of physical and strenuous effort much better than a muscular sportsman would. Seen from behind, he seems almost vacillating, staggeringly exhausted but still edging forward.
No one can know for sure if Germaine Richier read Etienne-Jules Marey’s studies on the restitution of movement in sculpture, first published in Le Mouvement from 1894, but it seems like Le Coureur embodies the main precept brought forward by the illustrious physiologist and author on how to successfully capture the activity of running, which is that “the essential characteristic of running; and, for that matter, of walking, is a perpetual instability.” (Translated from Etienne-Jules Marey, Le Mouvement, Paris 1984) However, rather than attempting to represent ‘real’, anatomically-accurate motion like antique Greek sculptors did, Richier encapsulates the impression of exertion-fuelled movement which is more in line with the Italian futurists or her contemporary and friend, Alberto Giacometti.
“I like the tensioned, the lean, the nervous” she said, and the exaggeration of Lyrot’s thinness in Le Coureur is purposefully brought forward as a way to not only mirror but also come to terms with the trauma and heightened feel of decay and angst omnipresent in Europe at that time, still pervasive after the end of World War II. As Simone de Beauvoir put it, "No serenity was possible. The war was over, it remained on our hands like a great, unwanted corpse, and there was no place on earth to bury it." However, Richier’s Coureur, with his iron determination in spite of his vulnerable physique, seems to represent the hope for renaissance of the post-war years. This is not only true of the general mood of European people in the 1950s, but is also specific to Richier’s personal situation at the time: the year she conceived Le Coureur was the year she divorced her husband, Swiss sculptor Otto Bänninger and remarried with French writer and poet René de Solier whom she had known and loved for the best part of a decade.
Looking at the monumental solitary figure of Le Coureur, Grand, towering at more than two meters high, one can almost hear the regular thump of his steps against the ground, see the movement in his glistening, tensing muscles, feel his focus and willpower as he runs alone to clear his mind. As such, this masterpiece is a remarkable manifestation of humankind’s capacities and instincts for survival, resilience, and redemption.
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