Since 1957 the Kunsthaus Zurich has been in possession of a cast of the large-scale bronze sculpture ‘Sappho’ (1887/1925), a major work by the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929). Having been outside for many years, the work was in urgent need of restoration. This was carried out in 2013, thanks to the support of the Foundation BNP Paribas Schweiz.
Alongside Auguste Rodin and Aristide Maillol, Antoine Bourdelle (1861–1929), originally from the southwest of France, formed the triumvirate of early modern French sculptors.
Bourdelle found worldwide recognition in his lifetime. His output ranged from intimate, small-scale works to large public commissions in a variety of formats. His main focus was on depicting the animated and powerful human figure down to the smallest details. His works were often devoted to the mythological and the ‘artistic’, in a narrower sense.
The work ‘Sappho‘ is a monumental representation of the greatest female poet of antiquity, Sappho (late 7th to early 6th century BC). She is shown with a large lyre, crouching on a small rocky elevation. The whole figure is filled with tension; from the raised big toe of the right foot, to the right hand, which is held aloft. Even the folds of her dress seem to exemplify tension. Sappho’s main subject is love – and her admiration for the goddess of love Aphrodite who brings that love into people’s lives: ‘Shimmering-throned immortal Aphrodite’, she writes, ‘Daughter of Zeus, Enchantress / I implore thee / Spare me, O queen, this agony and anguish, Crush not my spirit / Whenever before thou hast hearkened to me …’
Bourdelle worked on his Sappho composition several times. He completed his first version, which was just 28 cm in height, in 1887. In 1924 he finished a 70-cm bronze sculpture, followed by the seven castings of the monumental bronze work that we are presenting here. The cast that belongs to the Kunsthaus was exhibited outdoors for several decades. As a result, its patina has suffered badly and the work was in urgent need of restoration. This was carried out in 2013. Now fully repaired and with its surface properly protected, the sculpture can initially be displayed once again within the existing Kunsthaus premises.
The Kunsthaus extension will eventually provide a prominent location for the sculpture in the ‘Art Garden’, which is a major feature of the project as designed by David Chipperfield Architects. It is hoped that the work will resume its place as a significant example of French sculpture (or sculpture created in France) between 1887 and 1966, for which the Kunsthaus is rightly famous.
The restoration is supported by the
Foundation BNP Paribas Schweiz