Gaston Lachaise

Ore., Portland

at Portland Art Museum


There is a dark, psychosexual underside to the work of sculptor Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935), familiar for his many outsize female nudes scattered in museums across the U.S. While reiterating the artist’s devotion to an outmoded, idolizing vision of “woman,” this exhibition of about 50 works also revealed a lesser-known Lachaise, more Bellmer than Maillol and ripe for reconsideration. Except for a few male busts and one imposing male nude, female figures dominated the installation. Standing Woman (Elevation), 1912-15, cast 1927, loomed among them, the figure poised tiptoe on tiny feet but with gigantic broad breasts, hips and thighs. Her eyes closed and arms gracefully lifted, this fulsome icon of womanhood seems mesmerized and intimidating, towering 70 inches tall. Such was Lachaise’s awestruck approach to the female body that even his foot-high figurines of women dancing or disrobing also possess a monumental quality.

A selection in this show of carefully individualized heads—Alfred Stieglitz, critic Henry McBride—indicated how Lachaise established himself among the luminaries of American modernism in the 1920s. These portraits of men contrast sharply with Lachaise’s more abstract conception of woman; the sensitive Small Head of Isabel Dutaud Nagle (1903) is an exception that proves the rule. It depicts the love of Lachaise’s life, whose importance to him as model and muse was overwhelming. He followed her from his native Paris, where they met in 1903, to Boston, where she lived with her husband and son. At length, she divorced to become Isabel Lachaise in 1917. The oedipal character of the artist’s obsession with this older woman/wife/mother inflects figures like the enormous, majestically reclining La Montagne (The Mountain, 1934-35). One senses in this 9-foot Brobdingnagian a memory of the massive mother-body experienced in infancy. The yearning desire expressed in Lachaise’s sculpture then seems truly archaic—and so too does the dread.

Most astonishing in this exhibition was a gallery of monsters, late works in which the sleepwalking serenity of Standing Woman gives way to a nightmare of part-objects and frightful distortions. The headless, over-life-size bronze Torso with Arms Raised (1935) may make you cower: mammoth breasts hang down; arms sprout from the shoulders like menacing antlers. Disturbingly reductive, Abstract Figure (1930-32) consists of a vulva flanked by two hard, globular breasts with bulletlike nipples. In Extremis (ca. 1934) portrays a kneeling hag, her giant flabby breasts flopping like sandbags on either side of a bony rib cage. In his final years, we see here, Lachaise produced sculptures of such confrontational power and psychological complexity that the anodyne language of romantic love falters and fails, the pedestal morphs from a site of woman’s putative glorification to one of horror and punishment.

Clearly, fear and loathing as much as erotic passion informed Lachaise’s fantasy of the female figure, his ambivalence hardly covered over by claims about woman as goddess or universal icon. Feminism has taught us to resist such totalizing discourse, but we marvel instead at how Lachaise—struggling to come to terms with his own mortal beginning and end—dreams, worships and avenges himself upon that psychically privileged form, the maternal body. His repeated return to it, in artworks beautiful or hideous, reminds us of Freud’s maxim that love is a familiar form of sickness—homesickness.