In preparation for Tony Cragg’s appearance in the Face à Face series at the Louvre, I went last night to see his 8 sculptural works now on exhibition scattered among the monumental 17th and 18thcentury French statutory in the Cour Marly, and the Cour Puget. And, of course, Cragg is the first artist to have his work realize I.M. Pei’s conception of the volume under the Pyramid as an exhibition space. On a column under the magnificent glass pyramid proudly sits Versus (2010), a piece made specifically for this pedestal at the Louvre.
(Image: Tony Cragg, Versus, 2010. Courtesy the artist)
The sculptures in the “courtyards” were selected by Cragg at the invitation of the Louvre, following the successful juxtaposition of his works with the sculptures of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt in 2008 at the Belvedere in Vienna. Concurrent with the installation of Cragg’s weird, yet ethereal and beautiful pieces, the Louvre is staging a retrospective of Messerschmidt’s bizarre “character heads,” in the Richelieu Wing. Messerschmidt’s extraordinary sculptures, extraordinary because they are so radical for the 18th century, strip the face to the expression of sheer, unadulterated emotion. And it is at the level of the intensity of emotion, as well as the formal expression of that depth, that Cragg’s work is already in dialogue with Messerschmidt’s grimacing heads, even before we see them side by side in the Louvre. And this is the irony: they are not physically juxtaposed. Rather, while the Craggs dialogue imaginatively with the Messerschmit sculptures, they engage physically with the commissions of Louis XIV and Napoleon.
Cragg’s Elbow from 2008, made of blond wood, is a perfect echo of the marble floor of the Cour Marly. It extends, like a mutation from the marble staues with which it holds the space, the anguish and pain, love, fear, pride, drama and self-importance that exudes from these works. They may tower above the already large Elbow, but its power equals them in every other way. Elbow is so replete with energy, rhythm and power that it consumes the air that surrounds it. People’s responses to Elbow were fascinating. They either stood a long way off, as if thrown back against the walls of the cour by a storm, or they were drawn to it, wanting to secretly touch it, be one with it. There was no one in between these two uncomfortable distances. The immense energy of the organic, dynamic wooden form, was so overpowering that we dare not go near it. And yet, typical of the contradictions in Cragg’s forms, we need to touch it, feel it, caress it, imbibe its purity. Caught between an immense energy flow and a stillness and poise, this impossible distortion is as majestic as the monastic claims on French culture that surround it. And yet, unlike them, it is free of their pomposity, filled instead with its serene perfection.
(Image: Tony Cragg, Elbow, 2008. Courtesy of the artist)
I do an exercise with my students where I ask them to describe an abstract image to a blind man. I wonder how I would do this with Cragg’s sculptures? They remind me of forms I have seen elsewhere: the mutations and mutating beings I know so well from science fiction films, the aberration of my own body in the fun mirrors at the fairground, the apparitions I know from a nightmare. A piece such as Elbow, or Red Figure, 2008 captures these intense psychological and emotional states in the grains of their wood, in the essence of their being. Also, their emotional extremes are both accentuated and dissipated by the fact that so many of these immaterial, ethereal and yet stoically material, mutant forms exist in pairs, or threes, or fours. Despite its title, Red Figure is in fact, red figures made one. Within a single piece, interwoven layers suggest symbiosis, like lovers melting into each other, or one a distorted growth parasitic on the other. Or we might experience them turning outwards like sounds ricocheting through the great halls of the Louvre. Always beautiful, and yet, simultaneously, frightening matter, form and substance given to what cannot be articulated.
(Image: Tony Cragg, Manipulation, 2008 (installation view at the Louvre). Courtesy the artist)
And because as Cragg would have it, “reality means nothing until we have given it words, thought, language and structure” a piece such as Manipulation (2008) is a symbol of all that sculpture is – a medium for articulating the inarticulable, our feeble human attempts to explain what cannot be explained. Sculpture is the inarticulable in real material, in real space, in color and with dimension. Manipulation is more than this: it is also a harsh critique of that same medium that pretends it can replicate the material world. Manipulation is a series of arms reaching around each other, with nowhere to go, cast from bronze, filled with helplessness. And on the surface of these tentacle-like arms of a monster in motion, type face letters and numbers are adhered, attempting to give order, rationality, to explain and to delimit the infinite uinimageinable that is made possible, given form in cast bronze. At least this is how I saw Manipulation: caught between the possibility of unimaginable freedom and the desire to control and to stymie that possibility. In an interview Cragg explains it differently: the arms are hands, the letters are emerging from the interior of the hands, as though they were in the very material of the bronze itself.
As I mentioned, Cragg's sculptures seemed to always be in dialogue with the world about them, and the objects that move in that world. Walking through the Louvre, I began to see the imposing bronzes and marble figures housed there in a whole different light: they too became weird, excessive, too perfect in their dramatic displays of a whole range of extreme and — next to Cragg’s creations — unnecessary emotions. In the same way that Cragg’s sculptures are always a merging of two, maybe three or more inseparable organic bleeding forms, so the contemporary deformations compromise the identities of the otherwise perfectly whole and complete 17th century sculptures. Cragg’s pieces force us to question the solidity and the boundedness of what surrounds them. Only at the Louvre, would such risks be taken to create an inventive constellation of connections that dare to bring its treasures alive.
--Frances Guerin, film historian and writer living in Paris
(Top right image: Tony Cragg, Red Figure, wood,© Charles Duprat, ADAGP, 2010)