Stroking

Nicholas Penny

  • Victorian Sculpture by Benedict Read
    Yale, 414 pp, £30.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 300 02506 8

The paths which wander so bewilderingly through the densely-planted hills of the old section of the Père Lachaise cemetery eventually give way to the monotony of straight and level streets tightly packed with the ornate stone homes of the dead bourgeoisie of the Belle Epoque. It is there that you will eventually come, with a shock, across Victor Noir. He is flat on his back on a slab and we look down at him, as at someone who has fallen dead on the pavement. His top hat has rolled beside him. His shirt has been opened. There is a bullet hole in his chest.

Dalou, the sculptor, was not averse to rhetoric and the prosaic presentation has a special explanation. Victor Noir was a handsome young journalist shot after a quarrel by Prince Pierre Bonaparte. The Prince was acquitted of murder, but the Republicans ensured that the plain facts were recorded in bronze. The work has been taken as an extreme example of a tendency in 19th-century sculpture akin to the so-called ‘photographic’ salon painting of the same period. It enjoys a certain reputation, and not only among art-historians.

When you look down at Victor Noir you are unlikely to have any company save that of the ubiquitous and silent cats. But others have been there before. The boots are shiny, as is the rim of the hat. So too – and I doubt if this has ever been recorded in print – is his crotch. No wonder the tomb is not marked on the official map. These signs of continuous popular attention are unlikely to commend the work to the serious lover of serious art. To stroke, or to desire to stroke, the curvaceous surface of a sculpture by Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth is of course an entirely proper response to stone or bronze. But to feel, furtively, because we half-believe, and wish to tease ourselves that we do believe, that the bronze hat, or boot, or whatever, is real, or the marble nude yielding and warm, although a reaction which Pliny or Vasari would have respected, is not one which is now regarded as respectable.

Shudders and giggles remain the sophisticated reactions to the facsimiles of expensive haberdashery in Northern Italian cemeteries and to the marble hands of deceased royal children at Osborne House, but there may also be a growing fascination with the mixed feelings which such art stirs in us and some curiosity as to the consolations which it once provided. For the artists who created these things – unlike the modern sculptors who appear to have a similar interest in reproducing the ‘real’ – did not mean them to disturb. Sculpture now has very few of its old commemorative functions. The tombs of the great compete in modesty and have no effigies. Few of us who have political heroes would seriously propose erecting bronze statues of them.

To discover how, when and why these functions fell into disrepute must be one of the ambitions of the serious student of 19th-century sculpture. There exists no general introduction in English to what was produced in Germany or Italy. France is a different matter. Much of what was made between Houdon and Rodin has actually been admired for many years now: for instance, La Dance, Carpeaux’s festive group of girls with darting eyes and flashing teeth and flying hair and dimpled flesh on the front of the Paris Opera, has, at least since Kenneth Clark’s The Nude, been exempt from the usual brisk damnations of Second Empire entertainment art; and Rude’s earlier Departure of the Volunteers on the Arc de Triomphe must be almost as famous an image as Delacroix’s Liberty.

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