Four hours ago, if you quizzed me on Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (the famous 19th century French sculptor and artiste) I would draw a veritable blank. I’m pleased to inform you that the situation has hence changed. Earlier on this cold Sunday afternoon in New York City, I decided to visit the special Carpeaux exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to me Carpeaux was, in one word, brilliant.
Then again, this assessment is a gross understatement given my seemingly uneducated level of artistic appreciation. I fell in love with the sculpture of Ugolino of Pisa, poster-boy for the Met’s Carpeaux installation this year. The subject of this sculpture deserves some backstory. Dante immortalized the Italian nobleman in his Inferno. As history tells us, Count Ugolino was accused of treachery and imprisoned with his sons and grandsons in a tower. His oppressor, the Archbishop, gave orders for Ugolino and his sons to be starved until death. Dante describes the madness of Ugolino, even as his dying sons offered their future corpses to him.
‘Father our pain’, they said,
‘Will lessen if you eat us you are the one
Who clothed us with this wretched flesh: we plead
For you to be the one who strips it away’.
(Canto XXXIII, ln. 56–59)
… And I,
Already going blind, groped over my brood
Calling to them, though I had watched them die,
For two long days. And then the hunger had more
Power than even sorrow over me
(Canto XXXIII, ln. 70-73)
Hunger, grief and insanity probably forced Ugolino to devour his own kin. Carpeaux was deeply moved by Dante’s words. Another great master, Michelangelo, had also imprinted the imagination of the sculptor. The sculpture at the current exhibition, Ugolino and his sons, is Carpeaux’s collective homage to these two gurus of art.
The sculpture itself is tense and crackling with life. Forged from the depths of milky Carrara marble, it is dynamic and dramatic. You walk into the small, square, dimly lit room and stare at the towering piece suffused with creamy radiance. Listen carefully and you can hear the anxious whispers of Ugolino’s sons echoing in the silent ripples of marble (although two of the children should denote his grandsons, they are all referred to as ‘sons’ herein). Ugolino nibbles his fingers between his chattering teeth; his emaciated progeny intertwine his limbs. The quiet despair and nervousness of Ugolino are sonorous salutes to the master that was Carpeaux.
Ugolino’s indolent, solicitous sons are reminders of our own inevitable perishability. They plead him, even as they know that their fate looms within the marbled jaws of their tortured father. Ugolino himself is cast as the apogee of angst, agony, anxiety and affection. Carpeaux manages to mould into static form the intangible dread in the doomed man’s expression. The success of the sculptor is apparent the moment you walk into the room. The sculpture exhorts from you feelings of inexplicable sympathy and sorrow, without ever having known the subject himself (or even his unfortunate tale). Ugolino’s life is withering away slowly in front of your eye – though he moves not. Carpeaux chiseled motion into the unmovable stone, he breathed fluidity into the solid form, and emotion sweeps its undulating musculature. The longer I remained in the company of those timeless figures, the louder the clock of their imminent destruction ticked in my ears. My heart thumped in synchrony with their encroaching end; death is unrepresented yet omnipresent in this piece.
Carpeaux delivers more than the curator ordered. He composes music in white marble setting fleeting notes of anguish into tenuous crevices of his masterpiece. But the prima donna of Le Danse is not his celebrated sculptures (exemplary as they may be). For me, the highlights of the exhibition were the self-portraits of this plebian artist. His vicissitudes glare at you through the framed canvases. Carpeaux rose from being the son of a mason to patronage of the Imperial couple of France’s Second Empire. Emperor Napoleon III, and the empress Eugenie, commissioned Carpeaux to make busts of their royal visages. It is no surprise that his self-portraits are coated with a thick veneer of pride and self-esteem. Carpeaux appears with anatomy of a hypothetical lovechild of Dickens, Tolstoy and Poe : a Victorian-style creative with sharp features and bristly facial hair. The man in the portraits doesn’t deign to meet the pedestrian onlooker’s glance. His haunting eyes look askance, stalking you piercingly as you move from one painting to another. Carpeaux brushes himself with painted aristocracy and achievement. It is the face of a man who won the Prix de Rome, who is in favour of the reigning sovereigns and has amongst his many friends, Alexandre Dumas, fils (son of the author of The Three Musketeers). Carpeaux had literally carved success for himself.
The last self-portrait ends the exhibition on a devastatingly poignant realization. Life is short – and Carpeaux depicts this with stunning honesty. Carpeaux died of cancer at the early age of 48. His last image shows a once-handsome face wasted and clawed away by disease. Even so, his eyes stare unflinchingly; his expression remains fearless albeit resigned. When I managed to forcibly extract myself from the hypnotic gaze of the magician, I was left feeling inspired and dejected all at once. This genius was lost to the world too early. Like Ugolino though, his doom is suspended in eternity, for his legacy keeps him alive and adored.
PS: The above panorama and picture on the left were taken in the Met Museum’s Hellenic gallery. The Carpeaux exhibit does not permit photography.