Émile-Antoine Bourdelle is one of the greatest French sculptors of the early twentieth century. Yet, despite the existence of a Paris museum devoted to his memory alone, many facets of his work are largely underestimated or even ignored, foremost among which is his teaching activity. But teaching is not long in becoming the engine and the culmination of his flourishing as a man and an artist. Bourdelle spends twenty years of his life, from 1909 to 1929, providing practical advice and opening the spirit of several hundred young artists who flock, every week, in the premises of the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, in Montparnasse. His sessions are divided into two parts, a prioriquite distinct: the practical corrections of the works sketched out by his pupils, said courses, and the reading of his personal reflections on such or such a subject, said lessons. This ensemble is so important to the artist that at the end of his life he sees it as one of the pillars of his heritage in the world of art. This is the starting point of a study devoted to Bourdelle’s theoretical reflection, to the way he forges it and transmits it, and to the eminent place, it gives him in the Parisian artistic landscape of his time.
Most of the sources consulted for this work are kept in Paris, in the archives of the Bourdelle museum. The main collection consists of the artist’s lessons and lessons at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. This non-inventoried set includes seventy-five lessons (1909-1922), as well as twenty-six lessons (1909-1910). It was also necessary to use other archival files to enlighten both the youth of Bourdelle and his aesthetic positions: a folder entitled “Biographical Ensemble”, constituted by the artist himself, as well as his ” Writings on Art “and other” Miscellaneous Writings “. The “Students” file, as well as the active and passive correspondence of Bourdelle, were also the subject of an in-depth analysis.
Other repositories have been frequented more occasionally. The National Archives, in particular, keep all the existing documents concerning Bourdelle’s schooling at the National School of Fine Arts, as well as the career of his teacher, Alexandre Falguière. Some records also provide information on daily life in the institution at the end of the nineteenth century and were consulted (AJ 5251, 322, 461, 909-910, 944, 970-971). The archives of the Rodin Museum provided valuable information concerning the Rodin Institute, a facility opened very briefly by Rodin, Bourdelle and Jules Desbois in 1901, while the archives of Jacques Doucet, held at the National Institute of History of the art, provided details of Bourdelle’s plans for conserving the lessons of La Grande Chaumière (Jacques Doucet fonds, box 36, mf BXXI, 17838-17903). Although the School of Fine Arts in Toulouse does not keep any trace of the Bourdelle passage in its walls, it does provide information on the professors it attended and on the history of the institution in general (Dossiers Professors’ Staff Nos. 102 and 137, and file B11: History of the School of Fine Arts of Toulouse, 1800-1990). Finally, the museum Ingres de Montauban keeps, in its archives, a large number of drawings and some manuscripts of Bourdelle which relate mainly to its young years.
The birth of a self-taught sculpture teacher (1861-1909)
- Bourdelle and teaching:
the formation of a sculptor, the construction of a spirit:
Born on October 30, 1861 in Montauban, Émile-Antoine Bourdelle is a mediocre student but with an early sense of observation and drawing. Encouraged by his family, he embraces the artistic career very early and follows the ordinary paths of academic education. Thus, he entered the School of Fine Arts in Toulouse at the age of fifteen and, seven years later, at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. This traditional apprenticeship is associated, during his childhood, with a rural education and a permanent observation of the nature, which marks all his imagination of his imprint. Having never ceased to look for masters with whom to enrich his meager culture and his plastic technique, he gradually builds himself, thanks to his youth encounters, then thanks to Falguière, Dalou and especially Rodin, a vision of his own art and how it should be universally taught. As such, the Rodin Institute’s experience is crucial for its future orientations, which took shape in 1909, when it left Rodin’s studio and fully engages in personal research.
- The Académie de la Grande Chaumière:
an institution inscribed in the artistic landscape of its time:
To understand all the originality of Bourdelle’s teaching, it is necessary to put him in his time. In the nineteenth century indeed, Paris drains a large number of artists in search of recognition but, before that, a teaching at the height of their ambitions. The city offers these young people several types of education, first and foremost the prestigious School of Fine Arts. For a long time undisputed, the School of Fine Arts in Paris saw years of doubt, during which emerge other models of education. It is indeed from the second half of the nineteenth century that appear in the front of the scene so-called free schools. If some, like the Julian Academy, remain close to the academic model in their operation and their objectives, others move away to advocate greater freedom, a direct inspiration of life. This is the second category belonging to the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere, located at Montparnasse in the street of the same name. Although we still have very little information about it today, some precious testimonials nevertheless allow us to give an account of the functioning and the atmosphere of this reference establishment.
- Antoine Bourdelle’s workshop, a unique place
It was during the year 1909 that Bourdelle gave his first lessons at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. For this artist long in the shadow of Rodin, it is truly a new beginning, the opportunity to express his rich personality. The workshop that he animates rue de la Grande Chaumiere, at the request of Marthe Stettler, Alice Danenberg and Sergio Castelucho, the directors of the place, then offers a unique face in the Paris of the time: open the same year, it attracts for twenty years an ever increasing number of young artists and is distinguished by the non-conformism of the teacher and the principles that he states therein.
The lessons of La Grande Chaumière:
A bright teaching (1909-1929)
- Practical teaching or methodical learning of an art:
With his ideas on art, Bourdelle delivers to La Grande Chaumière his technical secrets and his personal ideas with unusual verve. His words are the most direct expression of his experience and of the lessons he has learned from his life of toil and plastic research. In addition to the necessary business questions, he develops in the intimacy of the workshop his position on the most diverse subjects and fits in more than one way in the nineteenth century that formed it. Straddling two centuries, between two systems of thought and teaching, the sculptor cultivates this ambivalence and makes his word a unique path, a dissonant voice that draws from several sources to offer the best learning, far from any prejudice and of all determinism. The result of a man’s experience, practical teaching is the most spontaneous facet of Bourdelle’s comments, which reacts according to the sculptures sketched by his pupils. He is all the better in demonstrating his impetuous, demanding and benevolent temperament at the same time.
- Theoretical teaching or the training of the spirits:
Reflecting his interests and other concerns, Bourdelle’s teaching is multiple. The teacher is not content with giving technical precepts and aesthetic orientations to his pupils: his practical teaching is thus combined with a theoretical teaching – the distinction between the two being often very tenuous. The latter, abounding, sometimes contradictory, is based on Bourdelle’s highly sacred vision of art and the artist, and makes life the main source of inspiration for the creator. To support his argument, the sculptor makes reference to the masters of the past, pointing out that any artist is certainly built in the admiration of the ancients, but also in the appropriation of their formulas, in the incessant search for truth. And it is only by looking at the world and at art an original and completely personal look that an individual becomes an artist.
- Concrete teaching:
The lessons that Bourdelle offers to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière constitute much more than mere theoretical teaching; they feed on the master’s life, his experiences and his plastic emotions. Bourdelle distinguishes itself by organizing for his students various group visits, in Paris or in the provinces. This real confrontation with art allows the sculptor not only to illustrate some of his remarks, but also to anchor his teaching in a historical reality, at a time when any aesthetic choice can take a political dimension. It doubles for some of a confrontation with the art of the master. Bourdelle, who considers himself an art seeker among others, does not mention much of his own works during his visits to La Grande Chaumière but opens to a few young people his personal workshops. Indeed, some students are employed by Bourdelle as assistants, even models, and more significantly illustrate the special links he could forge with the youth of his entourage.
The master of thought of a generation
- A united artistic society:
The lessons of La Grande Chaumière as they are taught by Bourdelle highlight its very nature as a man and place great emphasis on the links between the teacher and his students, the community of spirit which, as well, is formed. Far from all conventions, Bourdelle establishes with his workshop a relationship of trust and exchange, which benefits him as much as young people. It is through this highly personalized form of communication as well as the very content of his teaching that Bourdelle differs from many art teachers who are contemporary with him, often locked in an academic system that restricts temperament. Now, if the writings of Bourdelle reveal to us much of the man he is, the same is true of the human relations he has with his pupils, on which we have several testimonies, but also, and to a large extent, the correspondence of the master. It reveals that the young people who live alongside him form, alongside the Bourdelle family, a united artistic society.
- Bourdellian maieutics:
By helping the youth of his time to understand as quickly as possible the principles he himself had to learn in the solitude of his personal workshop, the sculptor refines his thought and his own self-knowledge. Considering artistic education severely, as well as the official art of his time, he has a mission to renovate artistic creation, to pose through his disciples the milestones of a new creative order. But, deeply humanist and fine psychologist, disciple in this of Socrates, he considers that the delivery of the spirits is a necessary precondition to the knowledge of oneself and, therefore, of the others. By choosing to follow this path more than a purely technical way,
- Students’ artistic debt:
spiritual heritage more than aesthetic
In his role as a teacher, Bourdelle has no equal to multiply the strength of his audience. The artist considers his role over a long period: it is not only a question of training young people in artistic creation but also of accompanying them as much as possible in their artistic life. Nevertheless, if the attendance of the sculptor is widely claimed in the first decades of the century, it is often difficult to assimilate stylistically an artist to his former master when it comes to Bourdelle. This part of the study would require detailed parallels from one work to another, but it is necessary above all to understand, given their correspondence, their possible writings and some of their work, the aesthetic influence that the artist may have had on the young people who frequented his studio and in what proportions we can speak of filiations from one to the other. In as much as Bourdelle’s teaching itself preaches independence, self-discovery, and the search for a personal aesthetic path, the debt incurred by pupils towards their teacher appears, legitimately, to be more spiritual than properly stylistic.
Bourdelle, the intellectual
- Bourdelle and the writing:
“one of the faces too ignored of his genius”
Outstanding speaker, Bourdelle lives with the words a true love story. His literary essays, his most diverse texts are for him an opportunity to deliver so many facets of his personality. In addition, knowing the writings of Bourdelle is the best way to understand both the man and the artist he is. Gradually aware himself of this compelling need to write to live, he surrounds himself with writers and thinkers whose attendance enriches his culture and refines his way of thinking. Writing becomes for him a refuge, an outlet and ultimately an end in itself. Perfectionist, demanding, Bourdelle is not content to put disordered thoughts on paper, he is always looking for the ideal form, the beauty of words and images.
- Teaching as a springboard for recognition:
The lessons of La Grande Chaumière increase Bourdelle’s influence, contribute to his reputation as a pedagogue and thus attract a little more attention to his contemporaries. However, few articles are strictly devoted to this teaching, only those close to Bourdelle seem to have immediately taken the measure of his exceptional qualities as a teacher. However, whatever their success, his works alone do not explain the esteem and respect he arouses at the end of his life, the weight of his word as sculptor. By promoting the progressive construction of his discourse, between 1909 and 1929, teaching allows him to refine his thought and find the best ways to formulate it. But it also helps, by training hundreds of young people in his principles, to spread his ideas in a circle initially restricted and then wider and wider. In this way he becomes, besides an esteemed and sought-after pedagogue, an intellectual among others.
Rich and abundant, the lessons of La Grande Chaumière are a unique testimony of Bourdelle’s way of thinking, its aesthetic and ethical orientations, but also a work in its own right, an initiatory discourse. Revealing, under the aegis of Socrates, a whole generation, Bourdelle found in this gift of his person and his ideas on art its full development. However, Bourdelle’s corrections are not without ambiguities and, while the artist refutes the academic bias, his teaching is partly inspired by it: his freedom of your choice and the academicism of models that he follows. But, by refusing to follow Rodin’s footsteps, it opens the way for a whole generation of artists who do not recognize themselves in these sensual works: Bourdelle thus embodies the will to change, not the real accomplishment of this change. The study of what is commonly called “lessons of the Great Thatched Cottage” has opened up vast prospects for research, and it is especially in that it reveals the intellectual groping of the artist that it is particularly fruitful.