The World of Georges Lacombe, Musée Maurice Denis, St. Germain-en-Laye and Musee Lambinet, Versailles, 13 November – 17 February 2013


Les Univers de Georges Lacombe: 1868-1916, Ed. Gilles Genty, Silvana Editoriale, 240pp, £28


The catalogue of the exhibition mounted at the Musée Maurice Denis in St. Germain-en-Laye is as fine as the show it surveys and extends. Of course, nothing compares to the experience of the works of art at first hand but the book not only contains a number of Lacombe’s greatest works not shown at the exhibition it provides photographs of his polychrome sculptures before the paint was applied. For a lover of Lacombe, it is a moving experience to see live shots of him carving his Isis, to view the completed work in all its wooden nudity, without its blood-red milk and sanguine flowers.

The exhibition is nonetheless successful because it gives the less well-known masterpieces all the limelight. Had they been present, such works as Isis, La Naissance and L’Existence might have stolen most of the thunder. Usually housed at the Beaux-Arts Museum of Brest, Lacombe’s Christ is often overshadowed in summary accounts of the artist by its rivals at the Musée d’Orsay. The exhibition at St. Germain reveals the exceptional presence of this piece: seeing it leaves you in no doubt that it can be ranked as one of the world’s most memorable three-dimensional depictions of Christ.

Les Univers de Georges Lacombe offers some interesting parallels between this life-size crucifix and Egyptian art at the Louvre. Lacombe was a fervent admirer of the Louvre, despite the fact that he rarely ventured to Paris from his hometown of nearby Versailles. The authors of the book provide interesting biographical analysis of Lacombe’s recently uncovered correspondence, drawings and photographs.


Emmanuelle Héran points out that the sculptor had some misgivings about having depicted Christ in Pharaonic glory without including nails or any sign of pain. His letter to his friend and mentor, Maurice Denis, indicates that he was later tormented by the idea that suffering was essential to the whole meaning of Christ’s redemptive Passion. Unfortunately, the book does not include any commentary on Denis’s answer but it can be assumed that the response was favourable to Lacombe’s Christ as his own depictions of Christ and other saints often tend to edit out any indication of pain or torment. The Nabi brotherhood to which both belonged had a marked propensity to emphasise sensual religious radiation and was far from ascetic.

Lacombe’s syncretic Christ is conceived the way D. H. Lawrence might have liked him: his Egyptian pagne is knotted at the front, a ploy which underscores its concealment of the phallus more than it effaces it. If you take the trouble to look at the sculpture’s profile, you discover a most un- Christlike prominence of the buttock region. This full-blooded, callipygian Christ is made more sensual still by Lacombe’s major hallmark: his powerful rendering of hair. The catalogue points out that the weighty pilosity of Lacombe sculptures was inspired by Medieval sculpture, but Lacombe foregrounds hair and beard in a manner that is lavishly fetishistic and hauntingly beautiful. One feels nestled and nurtured by the dense, wooden waves of hair sculpt-combed by Lacombe.

The catalogue gives cause for regret with its reproductions of unrealised designs for bed frame panels. There is a fantastic preliminary drawing, Maternity, that never reached the carving board. Fortunately, those that were chosen for production are equally outstanding. His La Naissance is arguably the Western world’s first artistic depiction of obstetrics and is a wonder to behold. Although the panels are probably easier to view on a wall, it is a pity they are never assembled in bed form, even at Orsay. Perhaps curators realise that their beauty would make visitors want to lie down forever in the bed of Art.

Lacombe’s sculpture alone would suffice to ensure his position as one of the great French artists; yet he was also a fine painter. While some of his lesser works detract from the achievement of the more successful ones, at least one of his canvases can be classed among the most outstanding Post-Impressionist paintings, and is included in most books on Symbolist painting.


Georges Lacombe, Christ, 1898-1899, Carved wood (mahogany), 274 x 216cm, Brest, musée des Beaux-Arts
(©2013 musée des beaux arts de Brest métropole océane)
Georges Lacombe, Bed Panels, Ages of Life (Spring),[Les Âges de la vie (Le Printemps)], 1893-1894,
Oil on canvas, 151 x 240 cm
Switzerland, Geneva, Association of Friends of Petit Palais. ©2013 Studio Monique Bernaz, Geneva 

Georges Lacombe, Bed Panels, Love and Death
(Lit, panneaux de L’Amour et de La Mort), 1894-1896,
Paris, Musée d’Orsay © 2013 RMN- Grand Palais (Musee d’ Orsay) / Gerard Blot/ Christian Jean

Les Ages de la Vie (Printemps) is possessed of a dreamy, sensual delicacy. As Gilles Genty points out, the dead branch held by the child on the left acts as a discreet memento mori that adds a subtle echo to the more obvious symbolism of the Three Fates crossing in the background. The richly soothing orange-red dresses, another of Lacombe’s iconic effects, recur in the paintings depicting his daughters. While the painting was initially intended as the representation of spring as one in a series of seasonal paintings, it contains rather strong reminders of decline. The lower part of the little girl’s dress has the same hue as the cloaks of the three death- dealing crones behind her, and this darkness is projected onto the canopy of trellised trees in the background.

Lacombe had a healthy interest in death and disease which manifested itself in the drawings he executed of his own diseased tongue in early 1900. His doctor friends encouraged Lacombe’s interest in biology, prompting him to draw anatomical studies of muscle tissue and corpses on the dissecting table. Some of his studies of tree trunks resemble cancerous outgrowths. A number of recently found photographs show Lacombe holding a death’s head in his hand or dancing with a skeleton.

The exhibition catalogue also contains an interesting chapter by Frédéric Bigo on Lacombe’s marine paintings. These share the Nabi love of nineteenth-century Japanese art by Hokusai and Hiroshige. It is not hard to see the striking similarities between Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and Lacombe’s Lame Verte or his Vague Violette even if the French Post-Impressionist’s cresting waves are less claw-like and more candy-coloured.

Research for the catalogue, carried out in the family archive, brings to light the fact that Lacombe possessed several books of Japanese art. Bigo makes the claim that Lacombe’s marine pictures are ultimately inspired by the myth of the birth of Venus. This contention seems a bit far-fetched at first. Most obvious traces of humanity have been rigorously removed from Lacombe’s groundswell paintings (which is not always the case for the Japanese art which inspired them), and the presence of peacock feather motifs in the waves figure as metonymic reminders of one of Aphrodite’s attributes. Although Lacombe started out in the cloisonniste-synthétiste style favoured by the members of the Nabi movement, Lacombe (like Maurice Denis) experimented with pointillism in his later work. His friendship with the Belgian pointillist painter, Théo van Rysselberghe, encouraged him in this direction as they painted side by side by the Mediterranean, with mixed results. Most of Lacombe’s paintings in this style are pleasing to the eye but some of them lack a sense of drama and compare somewhat unfavourably with the sizzling luminous precision of Henri Cross or the iconic quality of Rysselberghe at his best.

Les Univers de Georges Lacombe is a valuable addition to the paucity of Lacombe studies available on the market or even in libraries, offering a comprehensive account of the various paths taken by an artistic polymath whose talents extended beyond sculpture and painting to poetry, caricature and etching.

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