Description
François POMPON (1855 - 1933)
Polar Bear, 1927-1933

Bronze Proof, #1
Lost wax casting by Claude Valsuani
Slate-black patina
Signed in capital letters under the back right paw: POMPON
H. 24.8, W. 44.8, D. 11.4 cm
H. 9.76, W. 17.64, D. 4.49 in

Provenance:

Acquired directly from the artist’s studio in 1931
Kept in the same French collection through inheritance

Literature:

- Courières, Edouard de, François Pompon, New Sculptors, n°4, Gallimard, 1926, repr. p.49 http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k6572252c.
- Rey, Robert, François Pompon, collection: “Painters and Sculptors,” Crès, 1928.
- Demeurisse, René, Illustrated Catalogue of the Works of François Pompon, Edition de la société des amis du Museum, Paris, 1934.
- Chevillot, Catherine; Colas, Liliane, Pingeot, Anne, Pompon 1855-1933, Gallimard/Electa-RMN, 1994, n°122, repr. p.43.

Description:

The Polar Bear, that “enormous polar phenomenon”[1]

This work is Pompon’s signature piece, and in fact it was the presentation of the large plaster model of the Polar Bear at the Salon d’automne in 1922 that brought Pompon his first broad recognition. The work was widely admired, and the critics lauded it. “The Polar Bear was shown to advantage at the Salon d’Automne; positioned in a stream of light, it struck viewers as the all-powerful lord of the Arctic ( . . .).”[2]  Pompon was 67 years old at the time, with a long career behind him, during which he had often worked for others, serving as an assistant for Rodin, René de Saint-Marceaux, Camille Claudel, and a number of other sculptors.

His focus on animals came relatively late, between 1905 and 1906, and throughout his years of working with them, he developed a deep sensitivity to them. “Animals pose well, much better than men and women . . .”[3] Thanks to his great technical ability, developed over time, and his sincere interest in his subjects, he achieved a synthetic style of full forms, eventually becoming one of the greatest animal sculptors of the 20th century.

Stradling two centuries, Pompon renewed the language of his discipline. He came to Paris as a young artist in 1875, the year that Barye and Carpeaux both died. He learned his art from Rodin, and then, during the 1910s, he became close to members of the “Bande à Schnegg,” who were interested in returning to an earlier calm. Neither Barye’s romanticism nor Rodin’s ardor truly spoke to Pompon’s sensibility. His vision, balanced and introspective, was closer to Charles Despiau’s or Jane Poupelet’s.

Pompon began working on animals, using domesticated species as models, on visits to the country.[4] He then began frequenting the Jardin de Plantes in Paris, eventually going every day, bringing a portable studio slung across his back. He drew the animals and modeled them on site in plaster and clay. In the afternoon, he would go back to his studio and continue working on them. His regular and relaxed presence made the animals, in turn, relaxed around him. In a handwritten letter in the collections of the musée d’Orsay, Jean Bernard[5] mentions the atmosphere of affection that developed between the artist and the bear, who posed for him, kind of “hamming it up.” This particular polar bear had been captured on Spitsbergen[6] by Philippe, the Duc d’Orléans, during his expedition on the Belgica in 1905. In his treatment of this wild and, frankly, dangerous animal, Pompon achieves a peaceful, almost tender image.

“Dynamic stasis and the synthesis of form”[7]

The Polar Bear “ . . . moves deftly, in a dynamic rhythmic that runs the length of his body, revealing a powerful structure and solid, supple muscle masses just beneath his sumptuous fur.”[8] “It’s the movement alone that creates the masses and makes them eloquent,” Pompon said, and then added, “In order to capture the animal’s life in motion, I followed him with a small drawing board held in front of me by a string around my neck. I worked as I walked along, looking at nothing but the animal, tracing its sharp, sinuous lines. Have you noticed that the attention of an animal in motion is always on its center of gravity? In locating that center of gravity, you allow the animal to express itself . . .”[9] In this case, the center of gravity is the point at which the right paws connect and touch the ground.

As opposed to Barye’s animal figures, which are often caught in the throes of a decisive moment or in a particularly expressive gesture, Pompon’s animals, and Polar Bear in particular, display a “dynamic stasis.”

At the time, the representation of movement—which had been a central question for the avant-garde since the Futurists’ works and Duchamp’s famous Nude Descending a Staircase, which breaks movement down by showing a figure in various juxtaposed positions—was still a subject for debate and experiment. But Pompon was working from a very different concept, one inherited from Rodin, in which he brought different phases of a movement together to suggest the ongoing nature of motion. “My sculpture is exactly the same size as its model, except right here, in the neck, where I’ve added 2 cm. Do you know what those two centimeters are? They’re motion!”[10] The illusion of motion is created by this slight deformation.

In short, accuracy has nothing to do with whether or not a sculpture has life. In his 1964 article, Kunstler remarks that Pompon discovered the evocative force of simplification while once watching a goose from a distance in a halo of light. The Polar Bear’s accute sense of presence and its apparently simple architecture are the fruits of extensive observation that allowed him to develop an “intense consciousness of the nature of the animal.”[11] This observation was followed by a process of simplifying the forms in progressive stages. Pompon sought the essence of the animal and expressed it in an economy of planes and masses. “I create the animal in all its detail. Otherwise, I would be lost. And then, little by little, I take away until all I have left is that which is truly indespensible.”[12]

The Polar Bear model was gradually transformed through a series of multiple modifications. Before the large plaster of 1922, Pompon had, around 1920, made two other plasters based on two different studies of the animal. The first plaster reveals Pompon’s working method, in which he built up patches of plaster on a metal base.[13] Around 1921, he made a third model, with the right paws not touching,[14] known as “the Bonniard model.”[15] This model then went through further modifications to arrive at the version presented at the Salon d’Automne. Later, between 1924 and 1927-28, Pompon returned to the plaster of the Bear at least three times before achieving its definitive version, which is the one that he executed life-sized in stone for the Musée du Luxembourg in 1929. Today it is held in the collections of the Musée d’Orsay.[16] Our version, which dates from 1927, corresponds to the final version of the model. Simplified as much as possible, the contours of its volumes are firmly expressed, while the perfectly smooth modeling gives it a superlative elegance.

The Master of the Smooth

“All animals should be white,” Pompon once said, or, in other words, “I like sculptures that have neither depressions nor shadows.” Pompon eliminated all the surface details of a model so that the light would glide fluidly across it and the lines would be put to flight.

Our proof has an exceptional particularity in this sense: the signature and inscriptions are on a metal label hidden under the animal’s paws, so there is no disruption to the sculpture’s smooth surface.

This labeling method, which does so much to respect the integrity of the work, is one that Pompon rarely used, though he does mention it in his records, and there is one other proof (#2) that also uses it. A few subtle striations, strategically positioned, animate the surface and contribute to the sense that we’re in the presence of a beautifully synthesized, living form rather than in of an inert, stylized decorative object.

Pompon’s working method always began in an intense observation of his model in motion, en plein-air and at a distance, through which he sought, above all, the precise silhouette. His preparatory sketches—and there is one for the Polar Bear[17]—support this; they are silhouettes drawn as a single line. Pompon then reworked his plasters in the studio by the light of a candle or a petrol lamp, which allowed him to clarify the lines and contours of his original model. Last, he smoothed the surface, giving the animal the finished air necessary to bring the planes together in a play of light.

Pompon’s animals recall some decorative Japanese animal sculptures or, even more strongly, animal sculptures from ancient Egypt: “Like the Egyptians, he’s careful never to let a shadow be cast anywhere on the work  . . . but unlike the Egyptians, he never works from a preconceived or decorative given; he knows nothing of stylization.”[18]

There’s an irony in the fact that this “white” sculpture of a polar bear with neither “depressions nor shadows” is presented here with a magnificent, deep black patina. Valsuani’s black patinas, created through a specific heat-based technique,[19] were widely known and admired. However, it seems most likely that in this case it was Pompon himself who did the patina—“deep and nuanced, this slate-black tone is difficult to imitate, and it alone bears witness to Pompon’s contribution to this unique proof . . .” the expert Liliane Colas has affirmed.

Editioning

This proof comes from Pompon’s studio. According to Liliane Colas, the fact that it is marked as #1 assures that this model is the one that the artist reserved for himself, while the #2 was reserved for the foundry. The presence of the numbering is important because Pompon did not always number his proofs. In addition, very few of the Bear in this particular version were sold in this size after 1929.

More generally, the Polar Bear “with the right paws joined”—a category that includes at least three models that otherwise have significant differences—was editioned in three sizes: life-sized, around 25 cm high, and 12.5 cm high, as well as in various media, including stone, marble, and bronze. However, it is very difficult to establish a definitive list of the works based on any given model because Pompon had them cast at various times from different plasters of the Polar Bear. There is a 25 cm bronze Polar Bear “with the right paws joined” in the musée d’Orsay.

 

Conclusion

This work is not only emblematic of sculpture by Pompon, who, for that matter, had the head of the Polar Bear mounted on his studio door, but it also symbolically opens the door to an entire current of 20th century sculpture that focused on smooth and abstracted organic forms. This movement, which included Brancusi, Arp, and Hepworth among its illustrious members, pushed the purity of form into complete abstraction whereas Pompon remained faithful to the integrity of natural forms, unmasking their secrets for us. The writer Colette expressed it, saying “ . . . The artist’s penetrating attention created a deep connection with the animal and, through this connection, the sculptor was able to capture the peculiarity of the polar bear’s small head and the pisciform extension of the muzzle, developed to pierce ice-covered waters . . . we owe so many revelations to Pompon.”[20]



[1] Rey, 1928, p.37, 45.

[2] Kunstler, Charles, “Un grand animalier François Pompon,” Jardin des Arts, June, 1964, p.50.

[3] Pompon cited in: Terrasse, Charles, Art d’Aujourd’hui, Spring, 1927.

[4] At Cuy-Saint-Fiacre (in Haute Normandie), the property of René de Saint Marceaux (1845-1915).

[5] Son of the sculptor Joseph Bernard (1866 – 1931).

[6] A Norwegian island that is part of the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.

[7] Chevillot, Colas, Pingeot, 1994, p.77.

[8] Kunstler, 1964, p.50.

[9] Pompon cited in: Courières, 1926, p.8.

[10] Jardillier, Robert, “François Pompon, statuaire bourguignon,” paper given in Dijon on April 9, 1935 at the Faculty of Letters, under the auspices of l’Art à l’école and l’Essor, Dijon, edited by the Revue de la société de l’Essor, 1936, p.16.

[11] Herbert Read cited in: Chevillot, Colas, Pingeot, 1994, p.9.

[12] Pompon cited it: Chevillot, Colas, Pingeot, 1994, p.34.

[13] Musée d’Orsay. Inv.RF3790.

[14] This model was editioned in bronze by Hébrard and, after modifications, in ceramic by the Manufacture de Sèvres.

[15] Pompon gave the definitive plaster of this model to his friend the architect Bonniard in 1931.

[16] Polar Bear, Lens stone, 163 x 251 x 90 cm. Inv. RF 3269.

[17] In Pompon’s notebook n°4; there is photograph of it in the documentation of the musée d’Orsay.

[18] Robert Rey cited in: Courières, 1926, p.13.

[19] The technique, known as “potée à la bouse de vache” or “cow dung soup,” creates a truly remarkable finish. See Lebon, Elizabeth, Dictionnaire des fondeurs de bronze d’art, Marjon éditions, 2003, p.259.

[20] Colette, “Visite à l’atelier de François Pompon,” (“A Visit to François Pompon’s Studio”) Art et médecine, November, 1933, p.15.