Even a great number of local art lovers, not to speak of foreign visitors, did not known much about the collection of works by Antoine Bourdelle that were displayed only a few minutes’ walk away from the Montparnasse Tower — one of the rare modern skyscrapers allowed to be built in the heart of Paris.
But first, some words about the artist himself.
Born in the southern town of Montauban in 1861, in a family of furniture-makers, and himself trained as one, the young Bourdelle decided to transfer the techniques he learnt from his father to the practice of creating wooden sculptures. His obsession with art quickly moved to stone and bronze statues, as he crafted figures with very noticeable expressions of happiness, sadness or astonishment on their faces.
Bourdelle’s father was disappointed as his son became increasingly distanced from the family profession. However, one of his customers, a rich banker named Hippolyte Lacaze, was so impressed by the 12-year-old boy’s talent that he paid for an expensive admission to the Fine Arts Academy in the nearby city of Toulouse for Bourdelle.
But Bourdelle’s passion for art could not keep him confined to Toulouse and, in 1884, at the age of 23, Bourdelle won a scholarship to further his studies at the prestigious National Institute of Arts in Paris. From here on, his success was astonishing and seemed endless.
A museum renovation helps bring to public attention the life and astonishing works of Antoine Bourdelle
One of his close friends and promoter of his works in the French capital was Theo van Gogh, the brother of Vincent van Gogh. Another famous figure who was impressed by the young man’s artistic qualities and encouraged him to push his creative boundaries even further was the legendary sculptor Auguste Rodin.
As he began selling his works to a growing number of admirers, Bourdelle was able to pay the rent for a small studio in the Montparnasse neighborhood, where he would restlessly work on his creations at a vertiginous speed — his rapidly growing number of statues becoming crammed in a modest, limited space.
Unlike many artistic geniuses who are ignored while alive and are only recognised posthumously, Bourdelle became a celebrity in his own lifetime and was invited to decorate the famous Champs Elysée Theatre that was being built at the height of his fame between 1910 and 1912.
Bourdelle kept himself busy until the last day of his life in 1929. Following his death, his studio was turned into a so-called ‘museum’, but remained mostly unknown to even Parisian art enthusiasts for a very long time.
Finally, fairly recently, the city authorities made a historic decision to transform the entire building into a museum, the Musée Bourdelle, with enough space available to comfortably place the forgotten genius’ creations. The whole renovation project took no less than two-and-half years to complete and, today, it is open to the public as the Musée Bourdelle in the little street also named after the artist.
The renovation work has also allowed the construction of a large hall devoted to explaining the technical details of how wood or stone sculptures are crafted, as well as a gallery, which opens on to a garden view to lay an emphasis on Bourdelle’s own enchantment with nature.
The museum helps visitors discover that the forgotten sculptor’s fascination with laying a firm emphasis on the expressions of joy, wonder, wrath or determination on the faces of his bronze or marble figures was preeminently inspired by Greek mythology.
Many of his creations have a fluid, wave-like quality to them, almost as if they are swaying in motion. The form of Bourdelle’s work showcases why he was an important figure in the modern sculpture movement begun by Rodin. Given his impressive contributions, it is a joy to discover the works of Bourdelle.
The writer is an art critic based in Paris.
He can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 2nd, 2023