Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) was a big beast in his lifetime, one of a triumvirate of famed French sculptors, alongside Auguste Rodin and Aristide Maillol. After he died in 1929, his reputation faded, but he’s been rediscovered in recent years, and the city of Paris has injected €5 million into restoring and modernizing the Musée Bourdelle in Montparnasse.
The museum, which reopened this month, now boasts an enlarged collection spread through the museum’s courtyard gardens and its redesigned exhibition rooms. Visitors can also enjoy a gourmet café with a Spanish-Latino twist, presided over by Jean-René Chassignol, the chef behind the trendy Isana restaurant group.
Bourdelle was an experimenter who forged an evolutionary link between 19th-century classicism and 20th–century modernists over a period of 40 years. As a young man, he was employed by Rodin as an assistant stone carver, a relationship that developed into a lifelong friendship. As his career took off, he became a friend, then a rival, of Maillol, developing a similar style based on a purified distillation of form and structure. As a teacher, he formed a younger generation of artists, including Alberto Giacometti, Germaine Richier and Jean Arp.
The first thing that’s likely to strike you when you visit the museum, housed in his former studio and home, with a modern extension by architect Christian de Portzamparc, is the gargantuan scale of much of his work. He memorialized the French dead of the Franco-Prussian War and World War I in giant allegorical statues of soldiers with massive spears or broadswords in hand, which could have been models for the great gates of Argonath in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
There’s a stony obduracy in some of this work, which may be one reason why it fell out of favor. “It can sometimes seem a bit cold, a bit totalitarian,” concedes Ophélie Ferlier-Bouat, the museum’s director.
Still, that’s only one part of the story. His popular (many copies were made and sold) mythological sculpture, “Hercules the Archer,” is a masterpiece of tensile energy; his heads of Beethoven and of Jane Avril express the anguished intensity of the composer and the feline insouciance of the can-can dancer. His decorative friezes for the Theâtre des Champs-Elysées are an early blueprint for the style that came to be known as Art Deco. “Bourdelle was very architectural,” Ferlier-Bouat says. “It takes time to appreciate the complexity of his structures.”
In its original form, the museum, donated to the City of Paris by Bourdelle’s heirs in 1949, was very much a shrine to his memory, but the latest makeover has widened the focus of the collection. “The philosophy of the museum used to be monographic; it was all about Bourdelle,” says Ferlier-Bouat. “Now the idea is to reinscribe him into a context, which is the history of sculpture.”
To support this wider-angle view, the permanent display has been expanded with loans from other collections, among them the Giacometti Foundation and the Paris Museum of Modern Art.
To celebrate its reopening, the museum is also hosting a show by the contemporary artist Philippe Cognée (through July 16), including his monumental “Catalogue de Bale” consisting of more than 1,000 photographs from Art Basel fair catalogs overpainted in encaustic with reinterpretations of their subjects: object, photograph and reinterpretation, three iterations of artistic constructs.
More shows are in the pipeline, including one next year focused on Bourdelle’s relationship with Rodin, and another in 2025 drawing a link between the worlds of sculpture and fashion.
See our list of Current & Upcoming Exhibitions to find out what else is happening in the Paris art world.Favorite
I will visit this enlarged museum next time in Paris…later this year. I originally visited the museum years ago.