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ANIMAL / In the eyes of the Grand Masters: POMPON - BASSOMPIERRE

In 1922, François Pompon came to public attention after exhibiting his White Bear at the Salon d'Automne. To celebrate this centenary, the town of Saulieu, where he was born, and the Musée Pompon have decided to honour the work of Michel BASSOMPIERRE.

From May to the end of September, monumental sculptures will be on display in the town, at the Relais Bernard Loiseau and at the Musée Pompon. The latter will also be hosting an exhibition of some twenty marbles and bronzes, as well as drawings and sketches.

While the two sculptors are best known for their bears, they share many other similarities, such as their fascination with animals and the elimination of detail. But from this common base, they each developed very different styles, with their own unique approach to sculpture...

During the "Ours Brun" exhibition at the Musée François Pompon in Saulieu in 2015

The same sense of observation and a shared fascination for animals

Although they produced a few human figures, POMPON and BASSOMPIERRE devoted most of their work to animals.

They learned to represent these animals during their studies. After attending the Beaux-Arts in Dijon, Pompon continued his studies at the Petite École (formerly the École Nationale des Arts Décoratifs). One of his teachers, Pierre ROUILLARD, one of the great animal painters of the time, whose Le Cheval à la Herse (The Horse in the Portcullis) can be seen in front of the Musée d'Orsay, encouraged him to go and practise at the Menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Equipped with a small portable workbench that he had created for himself, Pompon modelled clay directly.

Sketching session at the Boissière du Doré Zoological Park

The Jardin des Plantes is a place that BASSOMPIERRE knows well. As a child, while his geologist father went to visit a palaeoanthropologist friend at the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, he would go and look at the skeletons in the Grande Galerie de l'Évolution and then run off to visit the live animals in the Menagerie. His head full of everything he had just discovered, the little boy would then spend hours drawing and sculpting "his toys". Years later, at the Beaux-Arts in Rouen, he also trained at the Cirque d'hiver menagerie. The aim was to capture the essence of the animal in a very short space of time, because unlike the human model, it doesn't pose!

No details and peaceful animals

What sets the two sculptors apart is their systematic elimination of details and accessories. Hair and claws, for example, are never represented. "I make the animal with almost all its falbalas," explains Pompon, "and then, little by little, I eliminate so that only what is essential remains.

Observation of works by Pompon at the Musée des Arts de Nantes

This technique enabled the two great masters to convey volume and movement more effectively. They were able to capture the essence of the animal, its personality, to render both its power and gentleness.

As Alain Jaubert points out in his documentary "Animal Beauty", "The face of the Orang Outang sculpted by François Pompon in black marble in 1930 is a true portrait. That of an individual with a look and a personality". The animal was no longer a decorative object, but a subject in its own right.

Unlike most of their contemporaries, they sculpted serene animals. In Pompon's time, animals were depicted in situations that were often violent or dramatic, such as hunting parties, animals caught in traps or threatening humans, as in the sculpture Gorilla kidnapping a woman by Fremiet (1859). The release of King Kong in 1933 extended this fascination/repulsion for the gorilla, which is still often depicted today in a situation of attack and omnipotence, a far cry from the image portrayed by BASSOMPIERRE. His dominants and silverbacks exude power and majesty, but never aggression. "I represent another self, my animal brother," he explains.

Their animals seem to be "captured" in their everyday lives, caught in the act. Here, man is no longer an actor but a spectator of intimacy, as in POMPON's "Panthère dressée" or BASSOMPIERRE's Miel series, where a bear licks its paw in complete tranquillity.

Different approaches to animal sculpture

Although their approach is similar, the two sculptors have developed very different styles.

"It's movement that determines form, and what I've tried to capture is the sense of movement," explains Pompon. "You have to observe an animal from a distance; up close you only see the useless detail. At a distance, the subject takes on its true meaning. The major relationships then become apparent. But you still have to simplify, make the necessary artifices and distort to make it expressive".

While POMPON sometimes synthesised the animals he represented, BASSOMPIERRE played on roundness. For him, the perfect shape was the egg. In his works, he made sure that no shadow ever came into contact with the light. But for this roundness not to become "soft", he felt that the anatomy had to be perfectly mastered. So, unlike Pompon, he observes his subjects closely. "I want to understand how the animal is articulated," he says. To achieve this, he observed the skeletons and studied the internal mechanics, both bone and muscle.

There is another difference between the two men. Whereas POMPON produced multiple versions of his Polar Bear, constantly seeking to improve it, BASSOMPIERRE produced the same animal dozens of times, but in different attitudes.

"Reworking his works to the point of obsession, POMPON stands out for the countless versions he delivers of the same model, tirelessly modifying it to make subtle changes in order to simplify the form in space (...). For the 45 cm version [of his White Bear] alone, there are thirteen marble replicas, twelve in stone and around forty in bronze, almost all of them different from one another," reveals Liliane Colas, a specialist in the sculptor, in François Pompon 1855-1933, published by Faton.

BASSOMPIERRE, for his part, had his favourite animals, always round-shaped, such as bears, gorillas, Asian elephants and draught horses. From these few subjects, he has produced hundreds of works, all in different positions or attitudes, in order to "capture all that the animal can be". The titles of his works bear witness to this, as in the series "Les Saumons", with its bears ready to catch the fish as they swim up the rivers, or "Le Campagnol", another ursid in a ball watching the rodent slip through its paws.

A common trait: humility

In addition to their incredible talent, the two men share a virtue: humility.

Both discreet, they never sought to shine in society, preferring the calm of their studio and finding refuge in their work.

"It's at the end of a life that we can consider, given the scope of the work, that an individual was perhaps an artist, that he will leave a work. It is the work that advertises the artist, and not the other way round", emphasises BASSOMPIERRE.

The latter did not seek inspiration from his illustrious predecessor. Not wishing to be accused of plagiarism, he refrained from making polar bears until he was 70. "I waited until I had mastered the shape of the brown bear before trying my hand at the polar bear," he says...

Thanks to the distinctive style of the two men, a discerning eye can now say without hesitation: this bear is by POMPON, this one by BASSOMPIERRE. In the coming weeks, visitors to Saulieu will have the chance to appreciate them together.

BASSOMPIERRE and Saulieu, a love affair

BASSOMPIERRE has been a familiar face in the town of POMPON since 2015. That year, from September to December, he exhibited his brown bears alongside Julianne Salmon.

The following year, his gorillas were in the limelight, with the "I have a dream" exhibition on the great apes, with Laurence SAUNOIS.

A word from Martine MAZILLY, Mayor of Saulieu and Marie-Claude OVERNEY, Deputy Mayor for Culture

Inviting Michel BASSOMPIERRE to celebrate the centenary of François POMPON's Ours blanc was an obvious choice... The presence of works by this contemporary sculptor in the museum and in the open air in the town of Saulieu reveals the common ground shared by these two animal artists, even if they have each developed different styles. Crossing their gaze on animal beauty shows that by concentrating on the essentials of form, they underline the beauty of the animal.

by concentrating on the essential forms, they elegantly highlight the very essence of a fawn, the softness of its curves and postures, the light that glides over its powerful muscles.

POMPON - BASSOMPIERRE, everything unites them: the technique and expertise of the modellers and stonemasons, as well as the humility and benevolence of the great men, which you can sense in the depths of their eyes. This artistic and human fusion makes this exhibition, without a doubt, the sacred union of the Grand Masters.

A word from Laurence JOIGNEREZ, Director of the François POMPON Museum

This year, the town of Saulieu is commemorating the centenary of the White Bear by François Pompon (1855-1933). It was in 1922 that the Saulieu artist presented this sculpture at the Salon d'Automne in Paris. The work, which became both mythical and popular, aroused a craze that opened the doors to fame and gave a new lease of life to his career. The artist was now considered one of the best animal artists of his time, bringing a new, modern vision to twentieth-century sculpture that paved the way for many other artists.

many artists.

To celebrate this centenary, the town of Saulieu and the Musée François POMPON are presenting several sculptures by Michel BASSOMPIERRE from May to September: six monumental bears installed outdoors will complement the museum exhibition. This is a unique opportunity to see how these two artists, driven by the same fascination for the animal world and pure forms, develop their own style, even if they both look tenderly at their models.

You can't talk about the artist without talking about man... man and his relationship to respect for life and animals.

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