“Facing the Other: Charles Cordier, Ethnographic Sculptor,” at the Dahesh Museum of Art this fall, was a revelation. Highly successful as an academically trained sculptor in demand for Second Empire commissions yet adventurous enough to be admired by Rodin, Cordier (1827–1905) looks especially important today for two reasons. First, he celebrated racial diversity in a stunning series of sensitive and eloquent portrait busts. “Because beauty is not the province of a priviledged race,” he wrote in 1862, “I convey to the world of art the idea of the universality of beauty.” Second, the sixty sculptures in this first American solo exhibition (organized by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and supplemented by prints, paintings and photographs) reveal an artist of breathtaking technical skill and formal mastery. Two noble bronzes, Saïd Abdallah (1848) and Vénus Africaine (1851), can be placed in the context of the contemporary anti-slavery movement in France, but they are also superb character studies in the manner of Roman portraits. An appealing Enfant Kabyle (1856–57) in white marble could be from ancient Greece. Cordier’s commitment to ethnographic observation—he traveled widely and spent the last fifteen years of this life in Algeria—is everywhere balanced by an ability to find universal beauty in different kinds of features. Building on mainstream Western techniques and European art-making tradition, he finds his way into a multicultural humanism.
Some of the most striking of these works are notable for their color. Inspired by the recent discovery that the ancient Greeks and Romans had painted their sculpture, nineteenth-century artists turned from the white purity of noeclassicism’s version of antiquity and began experimenting with polychromy. Cordier combined colored marbles, often from quarries in Algeria and Greece unused since classical times, with enamel and patinated bronze, using the emerging technology of galvanoplasty (precious metal plating). All this can be seen to spectacular effect in Cordier’s Négre du Soudan (1856). The oxidized silver-plated bronze captures the luminosity of dark skin, while the amber-striped onyx marble used for the robes and turban is carved to exploit the pattern of the stone in a way that would do Bernini proud. Note, too, the carved detail of embroidery and beads. (This marble-and-bronze version is in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay; another gorgeous example, in partially oxidized silvered bronze, belongs to the Dahesh.) Cordier could be inspired by regional qualities within Europe as well. His Napolitaine des Abruzzes (1859) is a charming portrait especially notable for the astounding lace carved from the warm-toned marbles. The artist’s feel for texture is ripely sensuous, although this virtuosity never overwhelms the personality of his subjects.
Perhaps the most colorful of his polychrome works, Juive d’Alger (1872) includes enameled detail over red marble for the clothing, warm gilt bronze for the skin and glass eye inlays. Archaeologists were just realizing how colorful antique sculpture had been, so Cordier is working with a very old tradition as well as with the latest technological advances. But there is no self-conscious primitivism here. In Capresse des colonies (1861), in oxidized silver bronze, gilt bronze and onyx marble, the vibrant young black woman with her elaborate African coiffeur wears russet-veined alabaster drapery that moves with bravura fluidity and baroque exuberance. In previous depictions of non-Europeans the approach tended towards the exotic or the allegorical; the Four Continents was a popular trope for exploring various types. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, anthropology was becoming a science. Fifteen of Cordier’s busts were included in the Anthropological Gallery of the Museum of Natural History in Paris. But in Cordier’s hands, ethnography is translated into a richly humanistic art, instantly appealing to anyone with an eye for beauty. The exhibition is accompanied by a 256-page catalogue with 600 illustrations, 200 plates in full color and text by Laure de Margerie, Édouard Papet, Christine Barthe and Maria Vigli (Harry N. Abrahms, Inc., $65 hardback). Dahesh Museum of Art, 580 Madison Avenue, NY, NY 10022. On the Web at daneshmuseum.org