Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 23, 2000
Jean-Loup Champion, ed. Mille Sculptures des Musées de France Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1998. 469 pp. Cloth $720.00 (2070115119)

This survey of sculptures in French museums, well-chosen and profusely illustrated, covers the history of European sculpture. Written by an array of scholars—most of whom are curators, all recognized as preeminent in the field—the texts define the seventeen periods, from Paleolithic to contemporary sculpture, presented in this comprehensive tome. Their concise introductions are followed by a selection of photographs of works drawing upon the principal public collections of France, which, it goes without saying, have an impressive range of sculptures from which to choose. The ensemble gives a wide range of works, many by lesser known artists, offering a more coherent view of the history of sculpture than one usually finds in such volumes. Nonetheless, the emphasis is predominantly French. The occasional German Gothic and Italian Renaissance pieces make an appearance, or later a Canova or a Gemito, but it is inevitable that, confined to French collections, the demographics of the objects would be correspondingly Gallic. Not surprisingly, little British or American statuary finds a place in these museums.

The tone is informative rather than analytical. The sections are relatively balanced, though the later essays cover increasingly finite periods of time. Thus, Viviane Huchard has to fit the entire Roman era into the same number of pages that Dominique Viéville has for the second half of the twentieth century. This corresponds to the comparative amounts of information extant and the proportion of the national collections that the works occupy.

The superb introduction to “la Renaissance en France,” by Geneviève Bresc-Bautier, provides one of the clearest explanations of the flowering of this style across the diverse geographical areas that constitute France. Emerging from the energy of the Gothic movement and the fascination with the Italian pursuit of antiquity, the French Renaissance spread out from the royal castles of the Loire, merging, Resisting, and competing with the indigenous traditions across the land. Discussing Germain Pilon, she tightly weaves the system of ateliers and patronage into a description of his influence.

This begins a new golden age for French sculpture. The seventeenth century, discussed by Françoise de la Moureyre, and the eighteenth century, by Guilhem Scherf, evidence the rich heritage of the Old Regime. They demonstrate how the climate for sculpture under the monarchy nourished a preeminent national school. Both chapters consider examples from Italy and elsewhere in Europe, sometimes with an almost self-conscious air. But, in truth, the French never enthusiastically embraced even a Bernini; they were inclined to patronize their own—especially given the nature of their commissions, their politics and their taste. The authors of the nineteenth-century sections—Philippe Durey, Jean-Loup Champion, Catherine Chevillot, and Anne Pingeot—discuss sculpture from the age of neoclassicism through symbolism. They have collaborated on diverse exhibitions over the last decade. Consequently, their respective parts fit together as an insightful overview of the triumph of French sculpture in the artistic hegemony of Europe after the Revolution. While the nineteenth century saw Paris become the capital of the art world, it also meant that a number of foreign artists flocked to France, making the collections themselves more cosmopolitan.

This international trend emerges even more forcefully in the four final chapters, covering the twentieth century. Serge Lemoine, Bruno Gaudichon and Dominique Viéville have been among the earliest proponents of a reconsideration of the sculpture of the last hundred years, and they have been positive forces in shaping the very collections that they summarize here. With Françoise Ducros, they offer an abridged introduction to the global creative surges that are giving sculpture new transcultural vitality.

Because the collective force of the art itself, the book makes a powerful statement about the dramatic presence of plastic volumes. The layout enhances the vitality of the objects chosen. The photographs are of an exceptional quality; while most are in black-and-white, some are in color. The whole is at once elegant and useful.

June Hargrove
University of Maryland, College Park