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enjoy picks: Germaine Richier

mumok collects

Germaine Richier

Le Griffu, 1952

Edition 4/6

In the nineteen-sixties, as art was confronting socio-critical issues in the form of Nouveau Realism, Pop Art, and Minimal Art and devoting itself to consumer society and the questioning of everyday reality, the work of the artist Germaine Richter (d. 1959) suddenly became part of a bygone era. Moreover, the existential questioning of the conditio humana after the horrors of the war was taken over—broadly and exemplarily so—in the main by Alberto Giacometti. Whereas in—ultimately male—art historical writings Richier soon disappeared from public focus after her death, in the American art world Giacometti's work meanwhile advanced to that of a French Existentialism artist par excellence after a 1948 exhibition in New York and the accompanying text "La Recherche de l'absolu" (The Search for the Absolute), written by Jean-Paul Sartre for the occasion. Subsumed under this prepotency, it was easy—or obvious—to long ascribe Richier an intention of expression that could easily be subordinated artistically to Giacometti's dominance.

From today's perspective, it is hard to comprehend how difficult it was for a woman in the nineteen-twenties to establish herself as a sculptor, in a medium that was traditionally a masculine domain. Like Giacometti, Richier attended courses held by the sculptor Émile-Antoine Bourdelle in Paris. At first glance it is the similarity above all to the spindly figures of Giacometti and a comparably coarsely worked surface that can be traced back to her teacher, and ultimately to Rodin, the great modernizer of French sculpture. Through her husband, the lyricist and art critic René de Solier, Richier had contact to intellectual circles in Paris with existentialist sympathies. Although no evidence from the artist on this has been handed down, her work was approached in the fifties with a dramatic language that demanded the experience of war be read in the portrayal of man. What distinguished the work of the artist, as Werner Hofmann wrote in 1958, was "the courage to [show] the ugly, the resolve to define man as a survivor, a maltreated person, whose body had become decayed and addled. […] Germaine Richier devised a series of fragile, agonized figures, strays in which the physiognomy of horror is paired with a dull vitality, harrowing relicts of a damaged humanity."#1

Le Griffu—"das Krallenwesen" (the clawed being) or "der Krallige" (the taloned one) from 1952, as this sculpture is called in the German translation—is an unusual portrayal of a body: asexual, a cross between a human and an animal with thin extremities, featuring the head of an animal and talons at the elbows, hands, and feet. Le Griffu is in motion: buckled over and with arms wide apart, there is a tension conveyed in the body, its (ominous) dissolution only curbed by the network of metal rods. From the nineteen-forties, Richier repeatedly augmented her figures with welded metal bars that, as here, connect hands and feet. They contrast with the figure's emotionally charged movement and at the same time appear to obstruct it.

The surface area is unique. A much-quoted line from Richier goes: "A charred tree speaks more to me than a blossoming apple tree."#2 Behind this disinterest in what is ostensibly beautiful and attractive is an interest in the processes of decomposition in nature and its metamorphoses. If one observes the surface of the Griffu, it seems less forcibly worked, torn apart, or destroyed and rather a transformation into wood. The skin is furrowed like bark, the fingers/talons branch out like roots; the transition between man, animal, and plant seems to be in full flow here. Many of Richier's sculptures are caught up in such metamorphoses. Here, the extensions of the talons at the elbows are reminiscent of a bat; the whole figure is like a bat whose wings have been removed. There is even a bat drawing (1948) by Richier with outstretched wings, in which she has drawn in connecting lines—precisely as if it were an anatomical study for Le Griffu. Nature is Richier's object of investigation: in her studio she collects and explores dead birds, cicadas, spiders, praying mantises, and bats. It is often the traditionally "apocalyptical" creatures of the Christian cultural sphere, which have a close connection to human fears yet at the same time offer alternative narratives in vernacular myths and legends, that interest Richier in particular.

The artist originally came from Provence. While working on Le Griffu, she sent for a photo of a sculpture from her homeland, which hung on the ceiling of the museum in Arles.#3 And in this selfsame way, she had Le Griffu—the plaster version, without metal bars—hung from the ceiling, first in her studio and then in 1954 in the Kunstmuseum Basel, in an exhibition conceived jointly with the painter Maria Vieira da Silva. Le Griffu is said to have also hung in a tree once.#4 The Arles figure concerns the mythical Tarasque, a human-devouring dragon that, according to legend, Saint Martha was able to tame with holy water. According to the official version of the Legenda Aurea, the dragon was beaten to death by the villagers—the way every other dragon has had to die in Christianity.#5 But according to one local legend (quoted without source), Martha protected the dragon and hid him in a cave. He gave the town Tarascon its name and even today is led through the town in an annual procession at Whitsun. The colorful legend sees the dragon, like so many Christian narratives, as the embodiment of the devil and imparted with the irrational savagery of evil that demands to be restricted and tamed—in medieval portrayals Saint Martha even handles him on a leash.

Richier's sculpture was created in plaster. Apparently, it was only to the bronze cast of Le Griffu that she added the rod connections, thus successfully achieving a standing figure on a pedestal. The linear exactitude of the rods contrasts with the painterly surface of the body and opens up a narrative with which the figure transcends itself: through geometry, through the cross of the rods, the artist subdued Le Griffu, just as Saint Martha did the dragon, or as Richier herself put it: "The sculpture clings to geometric volumes. Geometry serves to connect and contain things—to offset the excesses."#6 For a long time, the ready perplexity with which Richier's work was encountered refused to see the expressivity, the surreal transformations of man and animal, and the rootedness in local myths and magic in nature, attributes that present less a generally valid image of humanity of the post-war era than they do a deeply personal art liberated from standardization.

Jörg Wolfert

1 Werner Hofmann, Die Plastik des 20. Jahrhunderts, Frankfurt am Main, 1958, p. 76.
2 Richier quoted after Angela Lammert, "Germaine Richier—Der Raum der Plastik," in Germaine Richier, ed. Angela Lammert and Jörn Merkert, exh. cat. Akademie der Künste Berlin, Cologne, 1997, p. 44.
3 Ibid., p. 16.
4 Ibid., pp. 41–42.
5 Jakobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, German edition, Zurich, 1990, p. 263.
6 Richier quoted after Lammert, 1997, p. 37.