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Art review: 'Cast in Bronze' at the J. Paul Getty Museum

July 12, 2009 |  3:00 pm

Getty bronze If you want an art that can perpetuate an official, authoritative point of view, you could do worse than marshal the services of bronze sculpture. The copper and tin alloy has longevity. Refined production is exclusive, because it's hugely complex and expensive. Multiples can be made, spreading the official word.

But bronze casting is probably not the best way to go if you want an independent art that can challenge, experiment, invigorate or reconfigure your deepest assumptions. Important artists have certainly worked in bronze since the Renaissance, including some contemporary ones; but for every thrilling historical bronze sculpture by Donatello, Adriaen de Vries or Alberto Giacometti, there are countless quotidian examples by sculptors whose names are known only to specialists.

Most of the French ones are included in a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution” is a case study in art’s usefulness as a tool for consolidating officially expressed doctrine. However thorough, informative and often interesting, though, the array of more than 120 bronze sculptures, reliefs and medallions rarely inspires.

Jointly organized by the Getty, Paris’ Louvre Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it has already been seen, the show opens at its final venue by recording a stylish transfer of power.

The 16th century French monarch, Francis I, brought Italian artists to Fontainebleau, the sprawling chateau outside Paris, in order to invest the decoration of the project with High Mannerist style. Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio and Benvenuto Cellini were among the visiting Italians who created an elegantly exaggerated decorative program. Its influence quickly spread throughout the courts of Europe.

Prieur Mark Ralston AFP Getty Images An arresting pair of tomb figures by Barthélemy Prieur in the first room shows the new awareness of Italian Mannerism among French artists, as well as the extraordinary technical skill that is encountered throughout the exhibition. Derived from Michelangelo’s stone carvings for a Florentine Medici tomb, the reclining male nudes are gracefully elongated, limbs akimbo, their bodies gently twisted into complex corkscrews. The sculptures are a tour de force of design and execution — and emotionally cold as ice.

In other words, they seem meant to impress. And they do, but that’s about all. So it goes, as the show unfolds with a daunting array of works spanning nearly three centuries.

The first section alone holds three dozen bronze sculptures. They range from life-size figures to tabletop statuettes, as well as reliefs large and small. There is also a pair of 18th-century painted views of Paris by Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, useful as period documents of what France looked like with big sculptures in public places. The paintings are the first of several such instances in the show.

They’re needed because, in the tumult of the French Revolution, many bronzes were toppled as symbols of the repressive monarchy. Bronze sculptures were often melted down to make cannons — a seeming barbarism that, on another level, is simply the transfer of soft power into hard force. Among the show’s most telling objects is an enormous, sandal-clad left foot — all that remains from a colossal 1699 equestrian statue of Louis XIV by François Girardon, erected in Paris’ Place Vendôme. Broken off just above the ankle, Big Foot is nearly 2½ feet long.

Foot Mark Ralston AFP Getty Images The fragment is included in a fascinating gallery that demonstrates how the colossal version was made, as well as how smaller copies were, if not exactly mass-produced, at least replicated in an excruciatingly refined manner. The copies could spread the eye-popping image of royal authority far and wide.

The gallery follows one devoted to Louis XIV’s patronage, which includes a lovely bust of the budding Sun King at the ripe old age of 5. Crafted by Jacques Sarazin in 1643, the bust shows the chubby-cheeked boy-king dressed in a tunic with a laurel wreath crowning his head. Sarazin’s idealized child is part Apollo, part Caesar — literally a preordained god on Earth. Suddenly, Louis’ colossal equestrian incarnation a half-century later seems perversely logical.

The exhibition is organized in six coherent sections. Each is a well-considered, somewhat dutiful articulation of its theme — bronze statuettes as a burgeoning business aimed at private collectors, for example, or Girardon as an acquisitive artist-collector, partly so he could borrow themes and styles to refresh his own work as a sculptor.

Sometimes it’s useful to focus on art that functions as mis-en-scene, the background hum to major talents and big artistic events. The first show of its kind, its hefty catalog will doubtless become a long-lasting standard reference for the subject.

Parnassus Still, there’s no getting around how turgid French bronzes can be. Eye-popping evidence is in the last room, where one of the weirdest sculptures in post-Renaissance art stands in the center of the room.

“The French Parnassus” represents that mythical mountain where poets and musicians gather for enduring fame beneath the protective gaze of their muses. Meant to celebrate an exciting cultural supremacy, the sculpture instead looks like a winning entry from the Food Network reality show, “Ace of Cakes,” bronzed for eternity like a baby shoe.

Conceived and executed over several decades by Louis Garnier, Simon Curé and Augustin Pajou, the monumental 8-foot pile of cluttered bronze is populated by scores of plants, animals and figures, with winged Pegasus as the cherry on top. Far from being an inspired powerhouse, it’s an ad hoc assembly of carefully chosen heroes stranded on a rugged pinnacle — sculpture as an officially approved, imaginatively stultifying list, imprisoned by its own grandiosity.

Somehow, it makes a perfect grand finale for “Cast in Bronze.”

-- Christopher Knight

“Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution,” J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Drive, Brentwood. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays. Parking: $15

Photo: Installation view, Francois Girardon, "Louis XIV," bronze; credit: J. Paul Getty Museum

Photo: Installation view, Barthelemy Prieur, "Funerary Geniuses," bronze; credit: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Photo: Installation view, Francois Girardon, "Louis XIV (foot fragment)," bronze; credit: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Photo: Louis Garnier, Simon Curé and Augustin Pajou, "The French Parnassus," bronze; credit: J. Paul Getty Museum