Germaine Richier is born in 1902, in Grans near Arles. In 1922 she takes up her studies of sculpting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Montpellier with Louis Jacques Guigues – who had worked with Rodin. She then studies with Émile-Antoine Bourdelle at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. Still relying on the work of her master teachers, Richier creates nudes and busts of a classical appearance (Loretto I, 1934). Only few of these early works are still existent. From 1939 until 1941 Richier lives in Zurich and in southern France and works primarily within the genre of animal representations.
With Le Crapaud (1940) Richier focuses for the first time – albeit in the restrained form-language of a female nude squatting like an animal – on a motif privileged by surrealism: the metamorphosis from animal to human, and its sexualized levels of interpretation. In 1944 the artist creates her first hybrid, a belligerent female figure of a locust (La Sauterelle). Similar processes of physical transformation emerge through the use of vegetative objects for nudes (L’Homme forêt, 1945/46). With La Mante (1946) Richier again stages a transgressive, surrealist notion of gender whose transitions from animal to human invest the body with defamiliarizing interpretations.
Similar to the principles of cabinets of curiosities, grotesque natural objects: pebbles, animal skeletons, insects, and forked branches are used by the artist as models of her fantasy creatures. Schooled in relating to the authentic object, Richier comments this process of inspiration as follows: »All my sculptures, even the entirely imagined ones, assume the existence of something that is true, an organic truth. Imagination needs a starting point« (Ausst.-Kat. Berlin 1997).
Yet Richier’s works do not exhaust themselves in new forms and motifs relating to the grotesque. They also develop a specific access to the dramaturgic staging of expressive interventions of figure and space. The fashioning of the so-called »fertile« moment and the fixation of narrative spaces, too, are at the center of her work in its attempts to capture human ways of expression on the boundaries of artistic abstraction (L’Araignée I, 1946). Moreover, the fissured and crannied surfaces of her bronze sculptures contribute to the impression of a corporeal conception that articulates itself in the processes of transition, of change, and perishability.
With Christ d’Assy (1951), a work created for the church in Assy, Richier makes (highly contested) use of the motif of crucifixion. She also creates several sculptures in lead whose background panels are done by artist friends, representatives of Art Informel – among them Viera da Silva and Hans Hartung. Soon mobile groups of sculptures, for example a chess set (L’Equichier petit, 1955) are also included in her work. In 1956 her work is presented in a large single exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and, belatedly, becomes known to a larger public.
Germaine Richier dies in Montpellier, in 1959.
Spieß Claudia: Germaine Richier (1902 — 1959), die lebendig gewordene Skulptur. Formanalyse, Werkprozess und Deutungsversuch. Hildesheim 1998
Germaine Richier: Ausst.-Kat. Akademie der Künste Berlin, Köln 1997
Germaine Richier, Rétrospective: Ausst.-Kat. Fondation Maeght, hg. v. Jean-Louis Prat, Saint-Paul 1996