César: The Retrospective

Not Just Child's Play

January 10, 2018By Heidi EllisonArchive, Exhibitions
"César, "Sturgeon" or "The Fish" (1954), Centre Pompidou
“Sturgeon” or “The Fish”(1954). © SBJ/Adagp, Paris 2017. Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI G. Meguerditchian / Dist. RMN-GP

It seems to me that artists have far too much fun in their work compared with the rest of us. I thought about that while visiting the César retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, especially as I watched a film of him guiding the carcass of a Citoën ZX into a crushing machine to create one of his “compression” sculptures and slopping great quantities of colored polyurethane foam onto the floor for one of his “expansions.” Aren’t smashing things and making a big mess the ultimate in child’s play? 

This is not to belittle his talents. The seemingly accidental works of this beloved French artist, who designed the award trophy for the Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars, were actually carefully directed by him to achieve the desired effects. 

At the beginning of his career, in the early 1950s, César (1921-98), whose last name was Baldaccini, started making sculptures by arc-welding pieces of scrap metal together because he couldn’t afford other materials.

These early sculptures of animals and humans are totally delightful. The show opens with a large group of them, including the wonderful “The Fish” (1955; pictured above); “Walking Man” (1954), which takes up a theme originated by Rodin and shows the influence of Giacometti with its slender forms; and the more zaftig female figure, “Victoire de Villetaneuse” (1965), with its echoes of prehistoric fertility figurines.

Everything César did was imbued with humor. After a phase of making “compressions,” entire automobiles crushed into neat packages, he decided to take the opposite tack and make “expansions” from the aforementioned polyurethane foam, which expanded as it dried, creating bulbous sculptures with a cartoon-like effect.

"César, "Kettle Expansion" (1967), Centre Pompidou
“Kettle Expansion” (1967). © SBJ/Adagp, Paris 2017. Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI. Philippe Migeat/Dist. RMN-GP

More interesting to me were the variations on the expansion theme, when everyday objects were incorporated: a tea kettle, for example, or a shoe by high-fashion designer Roger Vivier.

Another of his famous themes is the monumental blow-up of a mold of his own thumb, produced to scale in various sizes and materials (a gigantic one is on show in front of the Centre Pompidou). He performed the same feat with the breast of a dancer from the Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris.

Toward the end of the show, the works begin to seem repetitive as the artist revisited his earlier sculptures in a more sophisticated fashion, using new Fiat cars instead of old ones for his compressions in the installation “Suite Milanese,” for example, and painting them in bright, shiny factory colors. The “expansions” were likewise taken up again in more polished versions.

This reminded me of Lucio Fontana’s glitzy late-in-life versions of his earlier works. There is something a bit sad about the way many artists seem to run out of ideas after a while and take to repeating themselves.

In any case, the show is fun and kid-friendly and worth seeing, especially for the early sculptures. 



  • I always read the art articles first. Since I go to Paris spring and fall, those articles are particularly helpful.
    I do research ahead of time to see what’s on in all the major art and photo venues, so anything along future art shows is a big help.

  • A great sculptor – there were many good sculptors in the 1950s [probably the best decade for sculpture], but Cesar’s welded iron sculptures surpass them all [even Giacometti, Richier and Moore]. They look good in books and catalogues, but when you actually stand in front of them they are amazing – what a genius.
    Only a quarter of the space was devoted to his best work [1950s and early 1960s] which is a shame – the later work has its moments, but the curators should have concentrated on the best sculpture [he was very prolific, so there is no shortage of great pieces].

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