David d’Angers: Making the Modern Monument

david d'Angers
Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (1788–1856), La Douleur, 1811. Plaster, 21 1⁄4 x 12 5/8 x 10 1⁄4 in. Collection Roberta J. M. Olson and Alexander B. V. Johnson.

What makes a monument, or any artwork, monumental? It has nothing to do with scale, as you might assume, but rather the perception of scale. If we start with its purpose—personal, public, social, corporate, religious,  memorial—we start and end with story. The nature of a monument suggests something concrete has occurred, an important event, like a war. Or it commemorates something ethereal, spiritual, supernatural, or abstract. The power of the expansion and contraction of form makes monumental presentation different than just making something. Often the story has subject matter rich with possibilities to stretch and explore. A work, regardless of its scale, must contain something greater than ourselves, as it would for anything regarded as art. It must speak to the story in a majestic way. The Egyptian pyramids are large, in human scale; with gold once covering their  surfaces, they could be seen for miles, that scale and glow arousing awe in viewers. But from the outside, they are just big triangles. Fabergé eggs are small in scale but monumental in presentation, and their mystery makes us think, “What’s inside? What’s it worth?” All of this tickles our senses, provoking more questions.

david d'Angers
Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (1788–1856), Ambroise Paré, 1840. Bronze, 18 3⁄4 x 8 1/8 x 6 3⁄4 in. Collection Carol and Herbert Diamond.

In the end, regardless of its scale, a monumental work of art transports us to a place of unknown origins that lies within our ancient being, that speaks to us in a grand way. It takes us from what we know to a realm where we are not sure, just awed. It needs to convince a viewer of something greater than herself. That makes a work monumental.

The actual physical working of shape, form, color, architecture, and engineering is a subject with its own set of requirements. Just because you blow something up in scale does not necessarily make a monument. There are many examples of bad enlargements that do not work in a larger format. Big does not always work in monumental presentation. Sight-lines, weep holes, setting, viewing and public access, undercuts, material procedures, material transformation, and other important criterion guide the maker to the appropriate conclusions when developing monumental conceptions. All need to be considered.

But in the end, it is story, for it is the story that has its foothold in history.

david d'Angers
Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (1788–1856), Head of a Woman in Profile, ca. 1830s Graphite on paper, 8 1/16 x 6 1⁄4 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art; Gift of the Painting and Drawing Society of The Cleveland Museum of Art.

David d’Angers (1788–1856) was a committed sculptor, writer, and political icon during a transitional period in France. An artist of and for his time, he created mostly portraits of what comprises a grand list of influential and historical figures. Though his interest in politics and the social elite limited much of his work to monuments in Paris, d’Angers sought other commissions as well.

He filled an important gap in a historical moment when French art was in transition. To that point, art had served, with rare exceptions, the dominant theology and politics of the day. This was not challenged until Rodin (1840–1917) and his modernism with its humanistic underpinnings.

David d’Angers: Making the Modern Monument, organized by Emerson Bowyers and beautifully installed at the Frick Collection from September 17, 2013 to December 8, 2013, reveals that d’Angers, an artist who emerged at the end of the Neoclassical period, enabled, even if indirectly, the development of Romanticism. In a way, he was an artist stuck in the malaise of his time, but by choice.

david d'Angers
Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (1788–1856), Pierre-René Choudieu, 1832. Wax on slate, 5 1⁄2 x 4 7/8 in. Collection Dr. Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher.

D’Angers created some masterful work that transcended his time to become art. Alfred de Musset and The Massacres de Galicia, both bronzes of 1831 and 1846, respectively, are two examples. All else falls within what could be considered zeitgeist: well-executed pieces, with some poetic passages, sculpturally and literally.

Whenever looking at cast sculpture—whether plaster, bronze, or of other materials—we must realize that many hands have touched the work, beginning to end. And oftentimes, the artist never touches the piece after it leaves his studio. In this show, we do get to see some of d’Angers’ original waxes, which carry the hand of the maker on their surfaces. More explanation of this intricate process in the show would have been helpful. A careful observer can see where the process either makes the work better or, in some cases, worse. “Fit and finish” sometimes can make the work more presentable but less free. Surface nuance can be sacrificed for “clean,” and so-called “refined,” which can destroy lovingly and gesturally-distorted passages that the artist intended. It can be removed by even the best of artisans for the presentation finish. Even if the artist is involved throughout, the piece can be transformed to something quite different by the end of the process.

david d'Angers
Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (1788–1856), Alexandre Dumas, 1829. Bronze, 4 3⁄4 in. Private collection.

What sets D’Angers apart from contemporaries is his medallions. The way he captured the immediacy and essence of his sitters with an esprit d’un moment is truly special. David d’Angers: Making the Modern Monument, though thin in its discussion of monument-making as a physical process, is worthwhile for its exploration of how the distinctive form and scale of medallions embodied art and commerce.

Monuments are not built without financial and political backing. D’Angers’ politics often got in the way of more grandiose projects. If you’re on the wrong side, you don’t get the work. But he did cultivate enough relationships with those who had both the want and the will to establish himself as the sculptor of his day.  ◆

G.L. Sussman is director of the Art Students League’s Vytlacil Campus. Read more about his sculpture and art-related activities on his website.

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