Barye in His Hey­day: It Was the Beast of Times

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts - By Paul Richard

BAL­TI­MORE ighty Au­guste Rodin, it’s now pretty well agreed, was the most im­por­tant French sculp­tor of his age. But he didn’t think so. “The great man of our cen­tury,” Rodin kept in­sist­ing, is “the great Barye.”

An­toine-Louis Barye (1796-1875) made classical bronze sculp­ture a bloody, snarling ac­tion art. In his el­e­gant, alarm­ing, ob­vi­ously su­pe­rior bronzes for the table­top — now on ex­hi­bi­tion at the Wal­ters Art Mu­seum — the move­ment never stops.

Tigers claw at ele­phants. Ele­phants squash tigers. Swords stab into flesh. In “Un­tamed: The Art of An­toineLouis Barye,” the en­ergy is pal­pa­ble. Growl­ing bears maul mas­tiffs. Ser­pents swal­low deer. And ev­ery time you move your head, the pol­ished metal gleams anew as if it were alive.

Once upon a time, but alas, no longer, the “Michelan­gelo of the menagerie” was re­garded as a gi­ant. Barye (pro­nounced “berry”) was pa­tron­ized by princes, and by the mid­dling classes, too. He helped dec­o­rate the Lou­vre. He won the Le­gion of Honor. And his in­flu­ence was vast.

Paul Cézanne copied Barye. So did Henri Matisse. What Rodin took from Barye — the shim­mer­ing of the sur­faces, the knot­ted mus­cu­lar­ity — isn’t hard to see. And it wasn’t only Rodin. Amer­ica’s Fred­eric Rem­ing­ton, that buck­ing-bronco spe­cial­ist, bought the French­man’s bronzes. Ro­man­tic Eugène Delacroix, the poet of the tiger hunt, also took from Barye. Walt Dis­ney did, too.

Barye’s rep­u­ta­tion might still be way up there — had taste not turned against him. Here’s where he went wrong.

He did not fore­see the car. In­stead he stuck with horses. He un­der­stood com­pletely why eques­trian stat­ues are eques­trian. He was cer­tain — and no won­der, this had been the case for cen­turies — that the el­e­vat­ing em­blem of man’s heroic spirit would al­ways be the im­age of the rear­ing, plung­ing steed.

Nor did he imag­ine how movies first, and then TV, would be­come the cru­cial me­dia for show­ing na­ture’s vi­o­lence. Stat­ues of cast metal never re­ally had a chance. Barye lived in Paris. He learned his an­i­mals from art, and from watch­ing them in zoos, and sel­dom, if at all, saw them fight­ing in the wild. He made his bat­tles up. Those now on TV — a great white shark, a fish, shoots out of the sea to gob­ble a whole seal — make Barye’s metal dra­mas look too com­pact. His bat­tles were in­vented. They weren’t re­ally sci­en­tific. To­day that’s pretty ob­vi­ous, but it wasn’t then. He was one of the last sculp­tors whose bronzes were ap­plauded be­cause they were be­lieved.

Some­thing else has worked against him. He was emo­tion­ally in­cor­rect.

MIn Vo­gel­herd in Ger­many some 30,000 years ago, some­one carved a lit­tle arch­necked horse out of mam­moth ivory. Horses would re­main — in stone Assyr­ian bas­re­lief, Chi­nese Tang ce­ram­ics, tomb paint­ings in Egypt and the friezes of the Parthenon — a sta­ple of world art. Leonardo de­picted them in­ces­santly; so did Edgar De­gas. Barye holds an hon­ored place in that long tra­di­tion. “Freely in­hal­ing the air through its nos­trils, proudly rais­ing its head as though death or en­slave­ment could ever be its fate” is how his “Turk­ish Horse, No. 2” (1844) was de­scribed by an ad­mirer when it was still new.

That great tra­di­tion’s crum­bled. It lin­gered for a while in Hol­ly­wood’s B-movies (Sil­ver, Trig­ger). And it still sur­vives, de­cayed, in Breyer An­i­mal Cre­ations (whose stamped-out lit­tle horses, 5.5 mil­lion a year, are mostly made for lit­tle girls). But it’s lost its art ca­chet. Who draws horses now?

Mus­cled long-maned li­ons, an­other high-art sta­ple, and an­other Barye fa­vorite, haven’t done much bet­ter. When the French filly Fille de l’Air de­feated an English en­try in the Grand Prix de Paris at the Longchamps race track in 1865, a sil­ver Barye lion — now strid­ing through the Wal­ters — was per­son­ally pre­sented by Napoleon III to the filly’s owner, the Count of La­grange. Such an­i­mals in those days sym­bol­ized state power and Europe’s right to rule. They’re out of fash­ion now.

One of Barye’s virtues is that his wild an­i­mals are much more than mere em­blems. They’re also sci­en­tific stud­ies of the won­ders of the wild world, and this, too, has a noble his­tory in art.

In May of 1515, a horn-headed rhi­noc­eros, the first seen in Europe since an­tiq­uity, dis­em­barked in Lis­bon. It had been brought to fight an ele­phant. “It has the color of a speck­led tur­tle,” noted Al­brecht Durer, the great Ger­man mas­ter, who made a wood­cut of that won­drous beast, though he never got to see it. Barye, as a care­ful stu­dent of the wild world, was more fas­tid­i­ous than that.

He spent end­less hours at the Paris zoo, the Jardin du Roi, study­ing the an­i­mals. And he stud­ied them care­fully, not­ing all their mus­cles, and the true shapes of their bones, once the beasts had died.

Ob­serv­ing blood and gore pre­sented as science, on the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel, for in­stance, or in Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, is still re­garded as re­spectable. At­tend­ing bes­tial bat­tles — sim­ply for the fun of it — to­day is not in vogue. But such age-hon­ored en­ter­tain­ment is key to Barye’s art. As one wan­ders through the Wal­ters, one can­not help re­mem­ber­ing that not so very long ago most peo­ple of the bet­ter sort, and lesser sorts as well, thor­oughly en­joyed watch­ing wild an­i­mals be­ing torn apart.

The vi­o­lent scenes on view sug­gest old re­gal priv­i­lege. The pharaoh Tu­tankhamen liked to show him­self in gold spear­ing hip­popota­muses. The em­per­ors of Rome built colos­sal col­i­se­ums so that they might share such plea­sures with the pub­lic. As late as 1699 English politi­cians lost a cru­cial vote in Par­lia­ment when too many mem­bers left to see “a tiger baited by dogs.” Well into Barye’s day the kings of France kept hunt­ing grounds, and watch­ing bloody slaughters — bear­bait­ing and bull-bait­ing, cock­fight­ing and the like — were com­mon pub­lic treats.

The most im­pres­sive ob­jects in the Wal­ters ex­hi­bi­tion are the sculp­tures he pro­duced in the mid-1830s as very worldly, very gory ta­ble dec­o­ra­tions for the heir to the French throne.

All of them are hunt­ing scenes. One shows an In­dian tiger hunt. One’s a Ger­man bear hunt. Oth­ers are de­pic­tions of Arabs hunt­ing li­ons, Tatars stab­bing elk, and Spa­niards spear­ing wild bulls. Barye was no snob. A thick-handed repub­li­can ac­cus­tomed to the dirt and heat of the stu­dio and the foundry, he took pride in his po­si­tion as a man of the peo­ple. But he also knew his pub­lic. His hunt­ing scenes pro­vided a keen up­mar­ket thrill. By invit­ing their ob­servers into re­gal hunt­ing grounds, they made each shiv­er­ing viewer feel as fear­less as a king.

It should not be sur­pris­ing that dis­crim­i­nat­ing, rich Amer­i­can col­lec­tors en­joyed such art enor­mously. The 19th-cen­tury men who built the Wal­ters gallery, William T. Wal­ters and his son Henry Wal­ters, both bought Barye’s art as­sid­u­ously (more than 170 sculp­tures, many paint­ings, too, and more than 300 draw­ings). Col­lec­tor Ge­orge A. Lu­cas, whose es­tate would form the core of the Bal­ti­more Mu­seum of Art, was an­other Barye cham­pion. (As was William Wil­son Corcoran, the man who gave to Wash­ing­ton its first ma­jor art mu­seum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art.) The Baryes now in Bal­ti­more ad­mirably com­pare with the best in France.

Very painful vi­o­lence — ex­pen­sive, finely wrought, and vividly imag­ined — is as pop­u­lar as ever. Now we seek its en­ter­tain­ments in fiery cin­e­matic ex­plo­sions, not in scream­ing wild beasts; it reaches out and grabs us still as it al­ways has. By evok­ing who we were, Barye’s ex­treme stat­ues re­mind us who we are. The Wal­ters Art Gallery has abol­ished its ad­mis­sion charge. Its ex­hibits are now free. As­so­ci­ate Di­rec­tor William R. John­ston con­ceived the Barye ex­hi­bi­tion. Si­mon Kelly, an Andrew W. Mellon Foun­da­tion Fel­low there, served as his co-cu­ra­tor. The two of them pro­duced the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­logue. Their Barye show is big, more than 160 ob­jects. It closes on May 6.


The circa-1844 “Turk­ish Horse, No. 2,” and “Elk Hunt,” from 1834-38, are part of “Un­tamed: The Art of An­toine-Louis Barye,” at the Wal­ters Art Mu­seum.

Un­tamed: The Art of An­toine-Louis Barye,

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.