César (César Baldaccini) was born in Marseilles, in 1921. Next to his education at the École des Beaux Arts in Marseilles (1935 — 39) and at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris (1943 — 1947), close contacts with fellow artists were of special significance, already for his early work. César’s main interest was modern sculpture, and at the time, Paris was the place where the most renowned representatives of modern sculpture lived and worked. In the French capital, César got to know Alberto Giacometti, his next-door neighbor, and later Pablo Picasso and Germaine Richier. Like his fellow artists, César was fascinated by plaster and iron as materials to work with. Towards the end of the 1940s, however, he started to focus on the defamiliarizing techniques of montage, for example welding and bolting. Using pieces of scrap metal he had found, he assembled often grotesque, mythical creatures, and later added lead plates and wire to create figural, sometimes archaic sculptures (Le coq, 1947, Le scorpion, 1954; Nu assis Pompei, 1954). César drew on the works of Julio Gonzáles, who had died in 1942, but also on the metal objects of Picasso. Welding prefabricated metal elements and iron plates into the shape of stele-like monuments or hybrid figures, was an artistic technique that still characterized his late work. Examples are the sculpture Hommage à Eiffel (1984), measuring 18 meters, the Plaque Eiffel (1989), and Rambaud(1990).
César’s interest in the grotesque intertwining of left-overs from an everyday culture with artistic forms of expression generated considerable recognition already for his early sculptures. In 1956, César’s works were shown at the Venice Biennale and, in 1957, at the biannual exhibitions in São Paolo and Carrara. In 1958, his works were part of the World Exhibition in Brussels, and in 1959, 1964, and 1968, he participated in the Documenta 2, 3, and 4, in Kassel.
César’s artistic self-conception and specific formal approaches coincide to a high degree with the »Nouveau Réalisme« whose manifesto Pierre Restany published in 1960. Yet only with Compressions – consisting of pieces of metal and wrecked cars compressed into cubic shapes with a hydraulic hammer – did César’s work demonstrate his fascination with forceful acts of defamiliarization and deformation. The crumpled, now dysfunctional material still retained traces of its familiar origins and transported them into the rooms of the galleries and museums. César further developed this emerging concept – it counters the rational utilitarianism of modernism – also with other materials. Wood, paper, burlap and other textiles were compressed and shaped in similar ways (Compression de cartons, 1976; Sac de jute, 1976; Affiches / Murale, 1976). He continued with his Compressions into the 1990s (Renault 977 VL 06, 1989; Lits, 1990).
A new group of works emerged with the sculptural enlargements César became involved with in the mid-1960s. First, the human body was brought into focus through a fastidious casting of its single parts, removed from their functional context and exposed to excessive growth. César had the identical reproduction of a phallic thumb, of a breast or hand enlarged and cast in iron or polyester of various colors (Le Pouce, 1965; Le Sein, 1966; La Main, 1968). And he kept engaging in the principle of deformation. As to the materials used, it was especially polyurethane that inspired him to create the Expansions. In this group of works, he fashioned objects of everyday use that, out of control, seemed to lose their shape and spread into the surrounding space (Expansion Œuf no 2, 1967; Expansion théière rouge, 1968). As commodity fetishes gone wild, they remind of perceptions of the object in Pop Art. Much more abstract are the floor sculptures that show inert masses of polyurethane foam and seem to evoke sweet deserts and amorphous bodies (Expansion no 3 La Lunaire, 1969, Expansion no 16, 1970).
César’s works were shown in numerous group and solo exhibitions, for example, at the Centre de la Vielle Charité in Marseilles (1993), at the French Pavilion of the Venice Biennale (1995), at a large retrospective in the Galerie National du Jeu de Paume, in Paris (1997), and at the Palazzo Reale in Milan (1998).
César died in 1998, in Paris.
Nouveau Réalisme, Revolution des Alltäglichen: Ausst.-Kat. Sprengel Museum, Ostfildern-Ruit 2007
César, Rétrospective: Ausst.-Kat. Musée du Jeu de Paume, Paris 1997
Durand-Ruel, D.: César, Catalogue raisonnée Bd. I, 1947 — 64, Paris 1994
César, Œuvres de 1947 à 1993: Ausst.-Kat., Centre de la Vieille Charité, Marseille 1993
Restany, Pierre: César, Paris u.a. 1988
César: Ausst.-Kat. Fondation Cartier, Jouyan-Josas 1985