Conserving Pierre Bourdelle’s “Bird” (Part I)

This two-part blog post is by Jen Munch, former intern in The Phillips Collection’s Conservation department and current Graduate Fellow in Art Conservation at SUNY Buffalo State.

 Figure 1, "Bird,” granite, Pierre Bourdelle, 1960

Figure 1: Pierre Bourdelle, Bird, 1960, Granite

In the summer of 2017, I had the pleasure of working as a graduate intern in the conservation department at The Phillips Collection. During my 10 weeks at the Phillips, I spent most of my time indoors in the museum’s serene and air-conditioned conservation studio, working on conservation treatments for modern paintings in the museum’s collection.

Figure 3, "Bird" by Pierre Bourdelle, to the right of the museum's Goh Annex entrance.

Figure 2: Bird by Pierre Bourdelle, to the right of the museum’s Goh Annex entrance.

In addition to paintings, I had the opportunity to work on the granite outdoor sculpture Bird by Pierre Bourdelle, which serves as a symbol of The Phillips Collection. When you visit the Phillips, you’ll see this sculpture to the right of the museum’s main entrance. You can also see representations of this bird on some branding for the Phillips, including the favicon (icon on the tab) for this website and as an ornament for sale in the museum’s gift shop [fig. 3].

Figure 4, Bird ornament in the Phillips Collection gift shop.

Figure 3: Bird ornament in the Phillips gift shop.

This low relief sculpture of a dark granite bird on a speckled granite slab was commissioned in 1960 by Duncan Phillips and is based on a 1956 lithograph of a bird by Georges Braque [fig. 4] that Phillips saw reproduced in the magazine Cahier d’Art (1956-57). Phillips contacted Braque in 1959 with the goal of commissioning a sculpture of the same subject.

Figure 4, "Bird," Lithograph, Georges Braque, 1956

Figure 4: Georges Braque, Bird, 1956, Lithograph

He wrote, “I saw the reproduction of a very fine graveur of a bird by you. It struck me as so beautiful with such a great universal feeling and design that I could not forget it. Therefore I have summoned the courage to ask if it would be possible for you to repeat this on a larger scale as an overdoor panel for our new building.”

Braque declined the commission but agreed to allow Phillips to commission another artist to produce a marble sculpture based on his lithograph. Pierre Bourdelle, the son of sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, was recommended to Phillips by Cesar de Hauke, who acted as Duncan Phillips’s agent in communicating with Braque and organizing this commission. The sculpture was carved at “Pierre Bourdelle Experimental Studios,” in the town of Oyster Bay on New York’s Long Island [fig. 5]

Figure 5, "Bird” sculpture during fabrication in Pierre Bourdelle’s workshop.

Figure 5: “Bird” sculpture during fabrication in Pierre Bourdelle’s workshop.

When Phillips commissioned the sculpture, he planned for it to be installed over the original entrance to the museum. The bird was initially installed in this location and was, for a long time, the first artwork any museum visitor would see. The bird sculpture was especially resonant with the first gallery visitors saw, which was hung with, “a choice group of Braques, ranging from 1914 to 1956,” according to a 1967 note by Phillips Collection registrar John Gernand, found in the sculpture’s curatorial file. Among the Braque paintings acquired by Duncan Phillips is a 1956 oil on canvas by Braque of the same subject [fig. 6].

Figure 6,“Bird,” oil on canvas, Georges Braque, 1956

Figure 6: Georges Braque, Bird, 1956, Oil on canvas, The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1966

https://www.phillipscollection.org/collection/browse-the-collection?id=0209

Stay tuned for Part II later this week.

Rodin’s Gates of Hell

Auguste Rodin, Maquette for Gates of Hell, Bronze, On loan from the Collection of Iris Cantor

Auguste Rodin, Maquette for Gates of Hell, 1880, Bronze, On loan from the Collection of Iris Cantor, currently on view at The Phillips Collection

In 1880, the French government commissioned Auguste Rodin to sculpt a door for the entrance of a planned Museum of Decorative Arts. Rodin worked out his design in a number of preparatory drawings and three clay maquettes (small models used as studies). This bronze casting of the third maquette—now on loan to the Phillips from the Collection of Iris Cantor—is close in design to the full-scale version which stands at over 20 feet tall. Drawing inspiration from Dante’s Divine Comedy (1308)—a three-part epic that explores the author’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise—Rodin suspends hundreds of figures in an abyss that evokes Dante’s encounter with the tormented souls of the underworld.

In developing his visual language, Rodin drew upon the long tradition of gilded bronze church doors, specifically The Gates of Paradise (1425–1452) designed by Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistery in Florence. After working on The Gates of Hell for a decade, Rodin was forced to abandon the commission when the government announced new plans to build a train station on the site of the proposed museum. Rodin ultimately repurposed parts of the door as independent artworks, among them his famous sculptures The Thinker and The Kiss, both visible in this maquette—The Thinker at the top above the central pier and the enraptured lovers on the lower left side.

The Gates of Hell was never cast in bronze during Rodin’s lifetime. However, since his death and according to the artist’s wishes, several casts have been made, including one commissioned by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.

Far left: The Gates of Hell, 1880-c. 1890, cast 1981, Bronze, Cantor Arts Center, Gift of B. Gerald Cantor Collection Left top and bottom: The Thinker, modeled 1880, reduced 1903, cast later, Bronze; The Kiss, modeled c. 1881–82, cast later, Bronze; North Carolina Museum of Art, Gift of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation

Left: The Gates of Hell, 1880-c. 1890, cast 1981, Bronze, Cantor Arts Center, Gift of B. Gerald Cantor Collection; Right top and bottom: The Thinker, modeled 1880, reduced 1903, cast later, Bronze; The Kiss, modeled c. 1881–82, cast later, Bronze; North Carolina Museum of Art, Gift of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation

The Phillips Collects: Sam Gilliam

Sam Gilliam, Purple Antelope Space Squeeze, 1987

Sam Gilliam, Purple Antelope Space Squeeze, 1987, Diptych: Relief, etching, aquatint and collagraph on handmade paper with embossing, hand-painting and hand-painted collage, 41 ½ x 81 ⅝ in., The Phillips Collection, Bequest of the Estate of Marion Goldin

Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, Sam Gilliam received his BA and MA from the University of Louisville. In 1962, he moved to Washington, DC, where the Washington Color School led by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, and Thomas Downing had flourished. Following a period of figurative painting, Gilliam embraced abstraction and hard-edge geometric designs, and then experimented with expressive pourings. In 1967, The Phillips Collection purchased Gilliam’s Red Petals, and hosted his first solo show. While preparing for this exhibition, Gilliam discovered that by creasing, bunching, or crumpling paper still wet with watercolor, he could create an armature for his color combinations, a kind of drawing to structure his compositions. These experiments also shaped his approach to printmaking.

In the early 1970s, while a visiting artist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Gilliam practiced printmaking with William Weege. In 1987, Weege founded Tandem Press, and Gilliam was the first artist invited to print there. Purple Antelope Space Squeeze is the first editioned work created for Tandem. Gilliam first sent Weege a drawing of the shape he wanted the paper to be, and a mold was made according to those specifications. The initial image was a relief print using carved woodblock elements and lithography inks. Then Gilliam attached handmade paper collage pieces he had painted. A variety of printing techniques followed involving inked and un-inked metal relief plates, steel and zinc etchings, and aquatint plates. Gilliam then hand painted details on the surfaces to prepare them for their final printing while inks from previous runs were still wet. Each impression of the print bears a unique pattern because the artist placed the printing elements in different positions and inked them in a variety of colors. Purple Antelope Space Squeeze is the second print and the eighth work by the artist to enter the collection.