Biography of Paul Landowski

Paul Landowski was born in Paris on June 1, 1875. He completed his secondary studies at the Collège Rollin, where he acquired a broad literary background. He discovered there the authors that would later become his heroic references – Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Hugo, as well as Plutarch and Longus – the other fanciful, sensual face of antiquity. Landowski also discovered Flaubert who, in his personal pantheon, embodied the determination that made up what he considered to be the artist’s work ethic. He excelled in philosophy and his plan was to write drama in verse. In 1892, he met Henri Barbusse in his first year of prep school. The two became longterm friends and shared a militant humanism, if not the same political engagement.

Landowski also started drawing more and more as his vocation took form. In 1893, he entered the Académie Jullian where he studied under the scholarly painter Jules Lefebvre, a demanding professor to whom Landowski may partially have owed his mastery of the portrait and nude. At the same time, he attended daily dissections for the anatomical plates Professor Faraboeuf had assigned him to draw for his classes at the Medical School. Later, at the height of his fame, Landowski would sculpt a statue of him for the Medical School as a kind of homage and appreciation. This was how he acquired his highly accurate knowledge of anatomy which he considered to be the building block of a sculptor’s art; Landowski was thoroughly convinced that inspiration and creativity could only be accomplished through impeccable technical skill.

Still, Landowski’s studies didn’t take up all his energy, and a passionate interest in boxing later emerged in his bronzes, with The Pugilist or else The Knock Down. In 1895, he entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts where he studied for five years under the master Barrias. Honors came early to Landowski.In 1900, his Fighting David earned him the Prix de Rome in sculpture and four years at the Villa Medicis in Rome where his classical inclination was confirmed. In this work of a young 25-year-old artist, the traits that mark his sculpture were already visible: the image of the hero that expresses the legend of centuries, here filled with the tenderness inspired by the apparent fragility of youth, close to that of Aymeri de Narbonne from the Legend of Centuries. ‘‘David rebellious in every sense of the word,’’ wrote Jules Romains, ‘‘and who already appears the challenging youth.’’ There is also a mastery of movement that makes this David – in another register – a big brother to the famous little Orange Thief that Landowski would soon bring back from a trip to Tunisia.

The four years at the Villa Medicis were split between working, discovering ancient and renaissance Italy and a trip to Tunisia where Landowski was delighted to discover a prolongation of the ancient Orient. Besides The Orange Thief, he brought back several bronzes: The Bedouine with a Jug and The Blind Water Carriers whose slow, hunched walk to the well makes a curious echo – though in a different register – to the three ancient giants hunched towards the future that would soon insure his fame.For Landowski, the ‘grand œuvre’ had already begun and would only end with his passing. Because what Landowski wanted to create was a temple. A temple to the glory of man, with all his battles and victories. Paul Valéry, a friend of the sculptor, dubbed it the Temple of Man. His ambition was in keeping with the ideal. The project fit into the great tradition of the nobility of art, where closely entwined aesthetics and ethics justify the function of the artist, and where form is subjugated to idea in order to guarantee its accessibility.

It was already in this nascent perspective that he conceived The Rhapsody, the work which concluded his Roman period in 1905 and which, the following year, became the central figure in The Sons of Cain, exhibited in 1906 at the Salon des Artistes Français. The work met with enthusiastic critical acclaim and ensured the 31-year-old artist’s fame. It was also during his first years in Rome that Landowski came up with an idea he would pursue over the next twenty years: to intersperse his work with figures that symbolize man’s march from the ancient myths to the continents of the future, and to make up a kind of epic to the glory of humanity fueled by Lucretia, Michelet and Hugo. This vast project partially materialized in 1906. Conceived for the temple courtyard, The Sons of Cain was a huge success at the Salon and was purchased by the State (the statue is currently installed in the Jardins des Tuileries).

While Landowski continued making progress on his lifelong project, he also responded to several public commissions. Yet it was always the same spirit of greatness guiding him when he embarked on his monumental creations: Architecture in Reims, the Monument to Unknown Artists at the Pantheon in Paris and Reformation Wall in Geneva created with Henri Bouchard. Then the war broke out. When Landowski returned, he accounted for it in his own way with a long succession of monuments to the dead whose sobriety leaves no room for ornamentation. On the Butte de Chalmont in Aisne, he sculpted The Phantoms, eight giant granite figures that loom up from the former battlefield. A milestone of history as much as the Monument to the Dead, erected in Algiers and the Victory in Casablanca, the three stone allegories for the Piratini Palace in Porto Alegre, Brazil, whose success earned him, twenty years later, the commission for Christ the Redeemer of Rio de Janeiro and Artists whose Names have been Lost for the Pantheon in Paris.

Over the next eight years, Landowski worked tirelessly on private commissions of busts, statues, tomb stones, genre figures such as The Bedouin with the Jar and The Snake Dance (1914), sculptures, the Hymn to Dawn, destined for his grand project, and public commissions in France and abroad. As soon as the war was over, monuments to the dead began to appear all over the country. Landowski received several commissions and accepted quite a few of them. Although these works may be of unequal value, due in part to constraints imposed on him by the sponsors, they mainly gave him the opportunity to creatively pursue some of the fundamental themes in his work: heroism, visible in the two monuments erected in North Africa, Victory Monument in Casablanca (1921) and the Monument to the Dead of Algiers (‘‘Le Pavois’’, 1928); or else the race for glory, for example, the image of the forward march or heroic humanity in the Monument to the Dead of the Ecole Normale Superieur. But he also created something more original in a monument to the dead, the tender theme of mother and child, which culminated years later in 1956 in The Eternal Return of the Columbarium of Pere Lachaise. At the time, it appeared in the monuments of Boulogne-sur-mer and Fargniers, and in the monument of Schaffhouse (To Switzerland Comforting a Grateful France) of 1922, where the tenderness is tinged with tragic solemnity expressed in the inclination of the bodies – a minor echo to the granite group The Phantoms on the Butte de Chalmont which he began two years earlier but was only inaugurated in 1935. Down below at the edge of the plain in front of this group stands a majestically sober figure of France that evokes the austere style of Greek art. The effect is striking.

But the tragedy of war was counterbalanced by the glorification of the power of man and life. It was an era of great accomplishments, and several monuments from this time period glorified the conquest of the skies, combining eternal heroism with modernity, notably the Monument to Wilbur Wright and the Forerunners of Aviation erected in Le Mans in 1920, and the Monument to Clément Ader. Sport also had its place with the Knock Down or The Pugilist, where the depiction of a modern champion, Georges Carpentier, is blended with an implicit reference to antiquity. Similarly, for the World Ski Cup offered by the Swedish tourist office in 1922, he curiously chose to sculpt a figure of Heracles and the hind with hooves of brass, a veiled homage to Bourdelle’s Archer.

Meanwhile, the Temple of Man continued to progress alongside the commissions, and in 1925 at the Decorative Arts Exhibition, Landowski displayed plans and models: four entirely sculpted walls containing the history of humanity. Christ on the Cross responds to Prometheus Bound. The Hero’s battles and victories face off with sacred songs: the Hindu Vedas of the Hymn to Dawn or else Saint Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures. This vast iconographic program pays homage to the great ancient and medieval accomplishments. Because what Landowski wanted to do was put his social vocation work in the service of artistic creation. He revived the tradition of the monumental bas-relief which gained success in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the Temple remained a utopian dream, a setback that was sorely felt by the sculptor. But his commissions and functions kept him busy elsewhere.

In 1926, Landowski entered the Institut de France and a parade of celebrities marched through his studio during the period between the two wars, leaving behind an impressive series of portraits. During that time, one major work followed another: the city of Paris, which in 1928 had commissioned the statue of Sainte Genevieve on the Pont de la Tournelle, successively commissioned the statue of Montaigne on the Rue des Ecoles (1934), the bas reliefs of the Fountains at the Porte de Saint Cloud and the Tomb of Maréchal Foch. Landowski’s name became world-renowned. After the statue of Sun Yat-Sen for his mausoleum in the Purple Mountains near Nanjing, sculpted in 1928 at the request of the Kuomintang executive committee, Landowski was commissioned to create what is no doubt his most famous work, Christ the Redeemer, at the request of Brazil and Silva Costa, the author of the architectural structure.

He also held official posts. In 1933, he was appointed director of the Académie de France in Rome, then in 1937, director of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where he established the simultaneous teaching of three arts in response to the contemporary needs of monumental sculpture. ‘‘This work,’’ he stated, ‘‘obliges the architect to become aware of his responsibility as project manager; it shows painters and sculptors that unchecked imagination does not always bring the greatest creative joy… Everyone acquires a heightened sense of their mutual interdependence and is better prepared for the large-scale work that definitively makes up one of, if not the, most important ends in plastic arts.’’ 

In 1944, Landowski was summoned to appear before the purge commission of the Société des Artistes Français for a trip he’d made to Germany three years prior. The commission established the purpose of the trip was to obtain the freedom of Beaux-Arts students being held prisoner and his name was cleared. During the last 15 years of his life, Landowski’s time was split between major works, like a Michelangelo at the height of his power, maturity and volition: a Fall of Icarus, the Door of the New Medical School in the Rue des Saints Pères in 1954, and the four Cambodian Dancers (1947). His 3-meter-tall Michelangelo was like a testament that perfectly incarnated his dream of the struggle with matter. On March 31, 1961, Landowski passed away in his home in Boulogne-Billancourt at the age of 84.