The sight of a woman’s buttocks is entirely unsurprising in an art museum. A half-turned haunch—nacreous, white-- just belongs, experienced as part of a vista of paintings and objects perched on pedestals.
This alone could be why Sarah Lucas’s sculptures at the Legion of Honor are so startling: because, interspersed among the many bronze and marble figures, they shouldn’t be. Except, well, for the cigarette that protrudes casually from the butt crack of more than one of Lucas’s fragmentary women.
Then there’s the cluster of saggy breasts like a mound of stacked melons that substitutes for another figure’s torso (Titti Doris, 2017), or the giant phallus sprouting from a seemingly-female lap, like a Pietà gone profoundly wrong.
Sprawled on crappy chairs or home appliances, these truncated bits of bodies just stop you in your tracks, not knowing whether you’re supposed to laugh, weep, or be enraged. Or, possibly, all three. Those familiar with Lucas’s contribution to the 2015 Venice Biennale will see a strong familial resemblance between that work and the artist’s provocative pieces interpolated here and there into the Legion’s collection of historic European art, punctuating its beautiful rooms of unchallenging, enjoyable objects and images with punkish glee. The museum is known, to a certain extent, for offering a certain kind of visitor experience. Not to that many visitors, maybe, but a gentle stream of tourists and locals come ready for an engagement with the known. For now, however, the first thing encountered by anyone who comes through the doors is a plaster body from toes to waist, cigarette inserted between its cheeks, sprawled like a female Dying Gaul on a massive chest freezer.
Of course, some works in the Legion’s collection were once controversial—at times, Auguste Rodin’s sculptures were reviled and ridiculed, and the artist accused of ‘cheating’ (that is, casting a figure from life rather than modeling it). Still, it’s that very realism: the French artist’s relentless focus on the body that makes Lucas such an apposite choice for the Legion’s series of exhibitions this year commemorating the centenary of Rodin’s death in 1917. Both have an affinity for the partial figure, a fearless, unabashed sensuality/sexuality in their work-- and a knack for monumentality.
Lucas addresses bigness in Jubilee (2017), a piece made for this show (her first solo museum exhibition in this country, surprisingly). Installed in the marble-lined gallery directly across from the Legion’s entrance, it’s a six foot tall pair of concrete thigh-high platform boots on a shiny black pedestal, ‘wrinkled’ at knee and ankle as if from use. This extraordinary vision is surrounded by seven smaller Lucas works, interspersed between Rodin sculptures: toilets, cast in translucent resin of various golden hues, each standing on a mini-fridge. Some are raised up additionally on pedestals of various heights, contributing to the gallery’s faintly pious theatricality.
Everything seems to be directing our gaze towards the massive Rodin work in the alcove at the rear. Except, well, it isn’t. Instead, the boots—kinky, peculiar, funny, obstreperously bawdy-- demand attention, surrounded by the ring of spot-lit toilets. Twisted into various dramatic (dare I say, Rodinesque) poses, these gleaming ‘thrones’ seemingly allude to the relationship between nourishment and excretion, birth and death, possibly the domestic purgatory in which women have historically been confined, and-- toilets having been a recurring Lucas theme for more than twenty years—“self-destructive urges and abusive attitudes towards women’s bodies.” They are also a pointedly funny acknowledgment of the influence and importance of Duchamp’s urinal, a work which dates from 1917 as well.
Seen in the dual contexts of the physical setting of the Legion's palatial architecture and the classical good looks of its collection, Lucas’s work becomes a surprisingly effective bridge between past and present, building on nineteenth and twentieth century notions of the avant-garde even as it points towards the future. It asks the question, what can sculpture be now? Who owns the female body? And how will all of these pieces be understood, in another hundred years?
Rodin’s figures have become so familiar and ubiquitous as to be almost invisible. At the time they were first made and shown, however, these nudes were hot. After the press walkthrough, Fine Arts Museums Director Max Hollein pointed out some smaller maquettes—tucked away in a side gallery, easily overlooked.
One is of a grappling couple; others are of fragments of bodies that resemble Lucas’ truncated forms. Their startling modernity suggests how alive the galleries of the Legion actually are, even when there are no (equally) sexy contemporary works present.
And this, really, may be part of what’s behind an exhibition like this. Artist’s interventions into traditional museums, either as curators or exhibitors, have become relatively commonplace, but they do get attention. As someone who has now been to the Legion four times in 2017, first to see the Urs Fischer show and then Lucas’s, I have to admit to the effectiveness of this strategy. That’s four times more than I have gone there in the entire preceding decade, since many of the museum’s special exhibitions have been devoted to increasingly small corners of ever-popular Impressionism (“Monet: The Early Years” was followed by “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade,” for example) by which I have not been sufficiently compelled to make the lengthy trip there. After all, it’s not like I get paid to write about art.
Since Hollein’s appointment as Director of both the De Young and the Legion of Honor in 2016, a number of very interesting things have happened. There have been several significant announcements, including one of a contemporary arts directive, building exhibitions and collections in that area. There has been a major purchase of 62 works by African American artists from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, expanding and adding important diversity to the De Young’s collection of American art. Another press release signals a deepening of the Legion’s commitment to significant Old Master projects—shows devoted to the Pre-Raphaelites and their sources of inspiration (Rafael! Fra Angelico! Botticelli!) and to Peter Paul Rubens.
For now, I’m eagerly anticipating the final Rodin centenary exhibition, opening in October, which will feature the paintings of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Many of the works in this show are coming to the US for the first time. Visitors to the Legion will also be able to attend Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World, a show of reproductions of Greek and Roman sculpture that have been painted with the vivid hues with which such objects were originally decorated. (I am hoping for a version of The Dying Gaul.) First seen in Germany in 2003, Gods in Color has traveled all over the world; this will be its twenty-third venue.
As harmless as such a show sounds, Gods in Color could have its controversial moments. A classics scholar has recently received violent threats in response to her articles about the bright colors used by the ancients. Writing that white Supremacist groups have used classical statuary “as a symbol of white male superiority,” Professor Sarah Bond has suggested that polychromy more accurately represents the vast range of skin colors of the ancient world.
As Bond puts it, the equation of white marble with beauty has created a false impression of racial purity—one which needs to be unlearned. Similarly, perhaps, the presence of Lucas’s cheeky, bawdy figures at the Legion is a reminder that the naked female body does not belong to museumgoers.
Both of these situations tell us that history (and that does include art history!) is fiction, written by those in control. I am thankful that artists, curators, and historians can— and do—rewrite the narrative, one show at a time.