Kunsthaus Zurich Restores Antoine Bourdelle Sappho

Since 1957 the Kunsthaus Zurich has been in possession of a cast of the large-scale bronze sculpture ‘Sappho’ (1887/1925), a major work by the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929). The work is in urgent need of restoration. The artist and the work are described below, followed by a detailed description of the sculpture’s current condition.

Alongside Auguste Rodin and Aristide Maillol, Antoine Bourdelle (1861–1929), originally from the southwest of France, formed the triumvirate of early modern French sculptors. Bourdelle was one of Rodin’s assistants and greatly influenced by him. Rodin once said about him: ‘How enchanting it is when I have the opportunity to visit his atelier … After the Greeks it is he who brings us the final nuances of beauty’.

Bourdelle found worldwide recognition in his lifetime. His output ranged from intimate, small-scale works to large public commissions in a variety of formats. His main focus was on depicting the animated and powerful human figure down to the smallest details. His works were often devoted to the mythological and the ‘artistic’, in a narrower sense. The latter applies to the three important bronzes in the Kunsthaus Zurich, which complement each other thematically: ‘Apollon (Masque)’, from 1900, a representation of the face of Apollo, the Greek god of music and poetry; ‘Beethoven’, from 1902, a bust of the famous composer; and ‘Sappho’ from 1887/1925.

This latter work is a monumental representation of the greatest female poet of antiquity, Sappho (late 7th to early 6th century BC). She is shown with a large lyre, crouching on a small rocky elevation. The whole figure is filled with tension; from the raised big toe of the right foot, to the right hand, which is held aloft. Even the folds of her dress seem to exemplify tension. Sappho has her head bowed. Her right hand, raised above her head, mirrors the form of the musical instrument. Perhaps the poet is deep in thought, counting the metre of a poem. Sappho’s main subject is love – and her admiration for the goddess of love Aphrodite who brings that love into people’s lives: ‘Shimmering-throned immortal Aphrodite’, she writes, ‘Daughter of Zeus, Enchantress / I implore thee / Spare me, O queen, this agony and anguish, Crush not my spirit / Whenever before thou hast hearkened to me …’

Bourdelle worked on his Sappho composition several times. He completed his first version, which was just 28 cm in height, in 1887. In 1924 he finished a 70-cm bronze sculpture, followed by the seven castings of the monumental bronze work that we are presenting here. The cast that belongs to the Kunsthaus was exhibited outdoors for several decades. As a result, its patina has suffered badly and the work is in urgent need of restoration. This has been scheduled for the second half of 2013. After the restoration work and the application of a suitable protective coating, the work could initially be put on display once again within the existing precincts of the Kunsthaus.

The Kunsthaus extension will eventually provide a prominent location for the sculpture in the ‘Art Garden’, which is a major feature of the project as designed by David Chipperfield Architects. It is hoped that the work will resume its place as a significant example of French sculpture (or sculpture created in France) between 1887 and 1966, for which the Kunsthaus is rightly famous. Alongside Bourdelle, the museum’s collection includes major works by Rodin, Maillol, Matisse, Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti. Matisse and Alberto Giacometti were students of Bourdelle at the Académie de la Grande-Chaumière where they studied from 1922 to 1927.

Philippe Büttner, Collections Conservator. www.kunsthaus.ch