The late Dina Vierny confirmed the authenticity of this sculpture.
‘The difficulty doesn’t lie in copying nature but, when one has learnt to copy it, to extract the elements necessary to make a statue: there are no rules for this, it is a personal matter, and a question of feeling.’
(Maillol, quoted in exh. cat., Maillol and America, New York, 2004, p. 92)
In 1930 Aristide Maillol received a commission from the town of Saint Germain-en-Laye to create a monument to the esteemed French composer Claude Debussy, a project which he undertook with great enthusiasm. It seems fitting that Maillol was chosen to create this work. Debussy was a composer highly regarded for his original approach to harmony and musical structure, who shunned the techniques of his forebears when constructing his compositions. Maillol’s own search for a new sense of clarity and harmony in his sculpture paralleled Debussy’s experiments in music, and became a defining feature of his art. Conceived as an homage to the memory of Debussy, Maillol’s Monument à Claude Debussy was originally carved in stone, with a series of musical staves featured around the bottom of its base. During its realisation the artist took it upon himself to create a plaster version which was then used to cast an edition of six bronzes with two artist’s proofs. After its creation, the present sculpture entered the artist’s own private collection where it remained until his death in 1944. It subsequently passed through the artist’s family to Dina Vierny, Maillol’s model and muse in the final years of his life. The work was then acquired directly from Vierny, and has never before been seen at auction.
Studying the body’s élan, Monument à Claude Debussy is a figure of extraordinary perfection. For this work Maillol imagined a kneeling muse, a figure built on a counterpoint of silence and breath, space and solid volumes, and the flowing rhythms of her contours. Combining harmonious forms with an almost mathematically rigorous composition, Maillol sought a more abstract, idealised vision that focused purely on the architecture of the female body. Indeed, the sculpture’s beauty lies in its simplicity, the elegant balance of its volumes and masses, the clarity of its profile. Eschewing the expressive emotion and straining muscles of his contemporary Rodin, Maillol chose to focus on the purity of the female form, attempting to capture the pure essence of their beauty through the line of a shoulder, the curve of their back, or the gentle swell of the abdomen. The serenity and self-contained air of Maillol’s figures lends them an inherent sense of stillness, and yet their bodies seem to quiver with a sense of energy, as if they may spring to life at any moment. In the present work, the nude female balances on one leg, her entire attention focused on her right foot, as she reaches out to touch it. The base of the sculpture curves gently upwards in an undulating wave, allowing the foot to lift towards her body, enhancing the dynamism of her pose. Her lightly flexed left arm, meanwhile, creates a gently curving arc that appears to run from her fingertips, through her body to the tip of her toes in a sinuous wave, emphasising the elegant balance of her triangular composition.
Expressing the beauty of the female form in such a distilled, almost abstract, manner reflected Maillol’s ongoing efforts to fuse the iconographic traditions of antiquity with the radical formal purity of his unique modernist style. The artist had been fascinated by the art of Ancient Greece for many years, studying numerous examples at the Louvre, but he reached a new appreciation during his transformative journey through the Greek islands with his patron Count Harry Kessler in 1908. Maillol drew particular inspiration from the stylisations and simplifications of the statuary of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, explaining: ‘I prefer the primitive art of Olympus to that of the Parthenon… It is an art of synthesis, a higher art than ours today, which seeks to represent the human flesh’ (Maillol, quoted in J. Rewald, Maillol, London, 1939, p. 17). By absorbing the essential forms of these ancient monuments and incorporating a similar approach in his own work, Maillol sought to reach a deeper and therefore more elemental form of representation, one which allowed him to create a timeless expression of beauty – something classic, rather than classical.
Monument à Claude Debussy perfectly embodies this artistic vision. Here, Maillol achieves a synthesis of carefully observed naturalism with an abstract, idealised quality of form, transforming the figure into an archetypal expression of beauty and harmony. This impression is further enhanced by her introspective nature, her silence and inwardness, which lends her a deeply meditative character. It was this investigation into the architecture of the female form, combined with his focus on the clarity in the representation of the body, that made Maillol such an inspirational figure amongst the younger generation of artists working in Paris at this time. As Jacques Lassaigne wrote in 1937: ‘To them, Maillol is a great deal more than a teacher, he is a fact of life… The role of great creators is above all to free their followers from error and ignorance… Everything he has created constitutes a heritage of certainties that is liberating our young sculpture from exhausting researches and smoothly ushering it in to the province of clarity’ (J. Lassaigne, quoted in B. Lorquin, Aristide Maillol, London, 1995, p. 137).