The Art of Gaston Lachaise at NOMA

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The Art of Gaston Lachaise at NOMA
Gaston Lachaise.

NEW ORLEANS.- Gaston Lachaise 1882-1935 opened recently at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). This exhibition, a selection of eighty sculptures and twenty drawings organized by the Lachaise Foundation, captures the essence of Gaston Lachaise, the man and his work, and his critical role in the birth of American Modernism. The majority of the sculptures in the exhibition are non-commissioned works; they were not commercial ventures for Lachaise so they illustrate the kinds of subjects he sculpted for personal pleasure. Most of these sculptures are of his mistress, who later became his wife, Canadian-American Isabel Dutaud Nagle, or 'Belle' as he called her. His forms are, in part, classical, from his training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, with a hint of Art Nouveau, from his time working with René Lalique, cutting-edge, from his desire to push the boundaries of art, and evocative, informed by the exotic art of other cultures, including pre-Columbian, ethnographic, Indian and Southeast Asian.

In 1905 at the age of twenty-three the sculptor left Paris and set sail for Boston in pursuit of Isabel Dutaud Nagle. They had met and fallen in love in Paris changing both of their lives forever. The two were married in New York in 1917. In an autobiographical statement from 1928, Lachaise described Isabel as "the primary inspiration, which awakened my vision, and the leading influence that has directed my forces. Throughout my career as an artist, I refer to this person by the word 'Woman.'"

The sculptures that define Lachaise's reaction to the body of 'Woman,' its curves, movements and inner caverns, are famous and captivating. To the puritan Americans of his time, though, they were shocking. In fact, many of the more explicit sculptures on view in Gaston Lachaise 1882-1935 were not cast during his lifetime because they were viewed as too scandalous to be shown in public. Much of his art was not shown until the 1960's and even then the public was shocked by his radical and unsentimental expression of sexual feeling.

While Lachaise gained numerous commissions for works unrelated to Isabel, his work is dominated by her presence: ample hips, a full bust, slender legs with delicate ankles and feet. Though she measured only five foot two inches tall and weighed about 110 pounds, Isabel becomes grandiose under Lachaise's skilled hand, revealing his consuming passion for her. As later French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois writes, "Gaston Lachaise had one god. And it was a woman, his wife. He put this particular woman on a pedestal, both figuratively and literally."

Lachaise lived to see his work adorn the buildings of Rockefeller Center. In 1935, the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited his work in the first retrospective ever given to a living artist. Tragically, Lachaise died that year, at the height of his creative power at the age of fifty-two.

Gaston Lachaise 1882-1935 was organized by the Lachaise Foundation in association with Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York. The legacy of Lachaise can be seen in public institutions around the nation, including NOMA's Besthoff Sculpture Garden (Heroic Man, 1930-34). The exhibition will be on view September 8th through October 21, 2007.

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