New York: The Dahesh Museum of Art is the only US venue to present Facing the Other, the first major exhibition devoted to Charles Cordier (1827-1905), the leading ethnographic sculptor of 19th-century France. This exhibition, which opens October 12, 2004 and remains on view until January 9, 2005, was organized by Laure de Margerie, Archivist, and Edouard Papet, Curator of Sculpture of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, with the collaboration of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec and the Dahesh Museum of Art. Facing the Other features 58 sculptures – many never exhibited before – as well as paintings, prints, and photographs documenting Cordier’s career.
Trained under François Rude – creator of the massive stone relief La Marseillaise on the Arc de Triomphe – Cordier adapted his master’s blend of academic training and romantic naturalism to create exotic works closely associated with Orientalism. In 1848 Cordier made a bust of Seïd Enkess, a former slave from Nubia (modern Sudan). Exhibited at the 1848 Salon as Saïd Abdallah of the Mayac Tribe, Kingdom of Darfur, this work became celebrated when the French government declared the abolition of slavery in its colonies. Cordier’s own sympathies were not only with the abolitionist cause, but much more radically, with the equality of all races.
In 1851 copies of the Saïd Abdallah bust and its pendant, African Venus, were the first two of fifteen busts acquired by the French state for the opening of the Anthropological Gallery at Paris’s Museum of Natural History. As the new fields of ethnography and anthropology developed rapidly, Cordier became an active member of the French Anthropological Society. Such interests coincided with the growing taste for polychrome (multi-colored) sculpture; in 1853 Cordier exhibited his first such works – the enameled, gilded, and silvered bronze busts of a Chinese man and woman.
New archaeological finds were undermining the academic convention of carving in white marble by proving that the ancient Greeks and Romans painted their sculpture. Some artists adopted this practice, but many more availed themselves of recent technological breakthroughs; Cordier combined such techniques with the use of a wide range of colored marbles, and indeed his government-sponsored trips to northern Africa and Greece served not only to find new subjects, but also to discover new mines, many not opened since antiquity. The artist’s sublime technical inventions have been examined for this exhibition with the help of x-rays and deconstructed sculptures.
Cordier’s style was closely associated with the opulence of the Second Empire (1852-1870) and his patrons included Napoléon III and Baron James de Rothschild. Cordier created for such patrons both official portrait busts and decorative schemes including those for the Paris Opéra, the Louvre, and the Rothschilds’ Château de Ferrières that remain monuments to this extravagant period.
While greatly admired by artists and critics, including Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Cordier always had to defend both his subjects and his materials. His work fell into obscurity in the 20th century, and it is only now that we can admire him anew.
The exhibit will run until January 9, 2005. The Dahesh Museum is located at 580 Madison Avenue New York. For more information click here.