At the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA, there are many bronze sculptures depicting women. These sculptures aren’t representative of a specific woman such as Mary Magdalene or Mother Teresa. Instead, the Norton Simon female sculptures offer specific viewpoints about the female form as a concept. When we investigate the concept of the female form, questions arise such as, What is femininity? What defines the female form? What is “woman”?
Graciously, the bronze female statues at the Norton Simon Museum offer various viewpoints to these questions.
The garden Café and Sculpture Garden has several female sculptures created by French artist, Aristide Maillol. These massive sculptures, created in the late 1930’s are naked women caught in a myriad of intimate moments. The sculptural forms are purely feminine and accurate in proportion and shape. One woman is lying down next to the pond washing her hair. She is on her side, her head points away from the viewer and her most intimate female parts are facing the pathway. In this position she is highly exposed and unaware of the on-lookers. She is caught in an innocent and honest moment of washing her hair. Although the perspective and intimacy of this vantage point is typically a self-conscious or aroused moment for some viewers, the size of these sculptures repels the inhibited or perverted interest of the gaze. One cannot mistake these sculptures as female, but the women are gigantic, and no matter how perfect and innocent they look, they are unsuitable sexual partners due to their size. Perhaps a separation between the viewer and an object of lust emerges and allows the viewer more freedom for visual exploration of the female form.
On inside of the museum there are additional bronze sculptures depicting the female form. These sculptures each represent the female form in varying ways. German Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s, Standing Woman, (1910), Swiss Alberto Giacometti’s, Tall Figure IV, (1960) and Hans (Jean) Arp’s Classical Sculpture (1960) are three female sculptures that are very different from one another. Their differences, as well as their strong similarity in subject matter, offer an effective contrast to each other. The dialogue between each of these sculptures is further heightened because all of them can be viewed in the same room and considered as a whole. The variations in these sculptures further the dialogue about the female form and offer three distinct points of view.
For starters, Giacometti’s Tall Figure IV, (1960) is a decrepit female form reduced to a thin single line that divides the room. Tall Figure IV appears as a single line drawn vertically in space. This line in time and space ends up being more of a drawing than a sculpture. The first counterpoint to Giacometti’s female form is offered by Lehmbruck’s, Standing Woman, which is a round object taking up space rather than dividing it. In fact, Standing Woman looks like she is ready to provide new life and take up even more space in the world. She’s innocent and accepting compared to Tall Figure IV who looks used, worn and tired. Hans (Jean) Arp’s Classical Sculpture is also taking up space, but not as the maternal provider of life, or the discarded life-bearer, rather as the epitome of the classic youthful female form. Classical Sculpture reads like a commodity of the ideal female form and represents the timeless female brand identity.
Other notable distinctions among these three sculptures include the feet, the breasts, the hips and the surface. The feet of Tall Figure IV are molded into the ground as if they were beginning the process of decomposing into the earth. Standing Woman’s feet are firmly planted on the ground as a healthy, strong and stable foundation. The feet of Classical Sculpture do not exist. Her entire form is a graceful line that melts around the hips into smooth feet-less legs supported by a round pedestal. The pedestal of Classical Sculpture makes the form appear more like a trophy than an actual woman.
Tall Figure IV’s breasts are drooping and saggy. It’s insinuated that she has already bore children and breast fed each of them. Conversely, Standing Woman’s breasts supple and perky, ready to feed new life. The breasts of Classical Sculpture are smooth and reduced to the contours of a perfect silhouette. Tall Figure IV’s hips are flat and formless, Standing Woman’s hips are curvaceous with ample volume, and Classical Sculpture’s hips are sleek, elegant, modern and machined.
Lastly, there are the varying surfaces or “skin” of these sculptures. The finish on Giacometti’s sculpture is dull, textured and rough. The irregularities in Giacometti’s sculpture differ from the smooth and perfect veneer of Standing Woman which seems natural and youthful. The finish on Arp’s Classical Sculpture is distinctly polished and resembles the buffed surface of a shiny new sports car much more than the human skin of the female form.
Tall Figure IV and Classical Sculpture were made in the same year (1960) and interestingly enough, neither artist mentions the female form by name. Contrary to the amorphous naming convention of Tall Figure IV and Classical Sculpture, Lehmbruck’s Standing Woman is very literal. Whether the female form is directly referenced in the name or not, each of these sculptures as well as Aristide Maillol’s garden sculptures, are immediately read as women. Giacometti, Lehmbruck, Arp, and Maillol all give the viewer a different perspective on femininity and a chance to consider the diverse aspects of the concept “woman.”