Saturday, September 26, 2009

We are not amused IV

Guest post by Martin Smith

The French sculptor Germaine Richier stopped me dead in my tracks at the old Tate ten or so years ago.

Germaine Richier 1902-1959
L'Ouragane (Hurricane Woman) 1948-49

Life size, L'Ouragane and her fellow L'Orage loom like the undead from the underworld, a pair of horror movie scene - or body - stealers.

L'Orage (Storm Man) 1947-48

But in 1948 zombies hadn't really landed. Their heyday, when they would seem to be in every high street picture house, was yet to come. The pair emanate, not from on-screen schlock, but from the real horror and nightmares of the Second World War.

Brother and sister, or soul-mates, they are the robust cousins of Giacometti's more familiar figures, gnawed away by anguish.

Nude from Nature (Annette) 1954
Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966

So what are Hurricane Woman and Storm Man about?

Fleeing the scorching winds of the inferno (fire-storm man) or elemental force of nature come to purge the soiled land? Blinded by the toxic smog of war; or looking out for a new dawn?

Which is it: welded immobile to the fused earth or stepping forward with resolute determination? And are they the last spectators at the extinction event, or Adam and a maybe pregnant Eve reincarnate?

Ambiguous. And even if she had known the answers, Germaine Richier couldn't tell us now. She died, too early, of cancer fifty years ago. But as a sculptor of existentialism she moves me. She is one of my artistic heroes. With humility, I am a-mused.

And the reason she appears on this blog is that she also did a chess set - or the pieces of one at least – in her last years. There are two versions. One in polychrome plaster is at the Tate, but languishing in the bowels of its vaults at the moment, and the other, cast in plain bronze and en plein air for all to see, is in Paris, in the Jardin des Tuileries.

These are hardly things of beauty, and though not horrifying they are a touch unnerving and disquieting.

L'Échiquier (Grand) 1959

In this picture they have, one supposes, been arranged according to some aesthetic order loftier than the mundane dictate of the chess board because on the left is the Fou (bishop). Hunch-backed he/it has just hobbled over from Notre Dame; then comes our Dame herself, in gaudy finery and equine haughtiness, brandishing her regal appendages with little decorum and some menace; the Tour (rook) bears a Gaudi carapace scuttling on a tripod undercarriage; the bronze Chevalier hints at a demented ostrich mean enough to peck out your eyes; and finally behold Le Roi! Calliper-fisted (mimicking the Queen's armoury) he threatens to separate you from the rest of your tender parts.

They are not happy bunnies, and they are more, much more, than impish hobgoblins. They are part of a tradition that manipulates the simple innocence of toys and playthings as a mask for the sinister and malevolent. They come from a bestiary of the grotesque and evoke feelings of unease as with all things misshapen and malformed. Play with these pieces at your peril; you might be abused.

"Amused/abused" may be a bit off-colour but, straying off-piste for a paragraph or two, it takes us into Freudian never-never land where fantastical explanations wander about forlornly in pursuit of lost causes. Was Madame Richier aware of the psychoanalytic reading of the castrating King? Reuben Fine discourses at length on this in The Psychology of the Chess Player (1956/1967). For yes, chaps, the King represents one's father in the Oedipal struggle, and in the "profuse phallic symbolism of chess", the King is the big one (forgive me) though he might collapse under the weight of the psychodynamics that, according to Fine, he has to bear when played with: re-arousal of castration anxiety; narcissistic conflict resolution; and neutralisation of paternal dominance.

No, I'm not sure what it all means either, though to be dismissive could be counted as evidence of some psychopathology or other from the litany of afflictions that beset us unsuspecting chess players if unlucky enough to find oneself male; according, that is, to Mr Fine. Though I wouldn't admit to it on the analyst's couch, I am not amused, and nor would have been my dear old dad.

Spare the other pieces in Germaine Richier's chess menagerie a Freudian mauling. L'Ouragane, L'Orage and L'Échiquier fit into a Europe-wide strand of post-war sculpture that reflects on the human condition in those conflicted times, and which sometimes uses animal, and often avian references, for allusive affect. Our own Elizabeth Frink was a case in point, as was Bernard Meadows (currently sketchable at Tate Britain).


Sketch of
Large Flat Bird 1957 by Bernard Meadows 1915-2005

Meadows said he aimed to portray "vulnerability" in his work and perhaps that is the key to Germaine Richier as well: for all their massive presence Storm Man and Hurricane Woman are really lost souls.

[For a subsequent post - in 2016 - on Richier see here]

Notes and references:

Reuben Fine, The Psychology of the Chess Player, Dover, 1967 is an unabridged reproduction of the work originally published in Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychology, volume 3, 1956.

The picture of L'Échiquier comes from the Tate, and L'Ouragane and L'Orage separately from Tate Modern. At the time of writing (Summer 2009) there are two other works of hers on display at Tate Modern: Le Diabolo (1950) and L'Eau (1953-4).

The picture of them both together comes from PBGalerie: Photoblog/museum.

There is an interesting introduction to Germaine Richier at Germaine Richier: Tradition and transition, sacred and profane (Sarah Wilson, Courtauld Insititute of Art) which explains that the model for L'Orage was the same as for Rodin's The Kiss, unlikely though this would seem.

1 comment:

Martin S. said...

This is the last of my "guest posts" that Justin will have to sweat over to lick into shape for public consumption; and I'd like to thank him very much for his uncomplaining and conscientious labours on my behalf.
From now on I'm going to try and post unaided. You have been warned.