Chiparus: Master of Art Deco

Chiparus: Master of Art Deco

by Alberto Shayo


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781851498222
Publisher: Antique Collectors Club Dist
Publication date: 05/29/2016
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 11.20(w) x 13.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

As one of the top consultants in the Art Deco field, Alberto Shayo has dedicated his life to travel, discovering new figures and determining the worthiness of private and public collections. Mr Shayo is the author of Camille Fauré: Limoges Art Deco Enamels - The Geometry of Joy, published by Antique Collectors' Club.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter Four: Chiparus and the Art Deco Aesthetic

Chiparus's works are clearly products of their time, perfect embodiments of the spirit of the 1920s and 1930s. Growing out of the long-standing Parisian tradition of high-quality decorative arts, prized solely for their grace and eclat, his works capture the essence of Parisian wit and elegance.

The figures Chiparus sculpted are portraits of the many-faceted New Woman: independent, energetic, mysterious, solemn, seductive, and imperious. Vamps, femmes fatales, high priestesses of the Orient, or demure heroines, they glorify femininity in all its charm and mystery. Chiparus's women possess the poise and glamour of the era's great screen stars. Their poses are the idealized attitudes of the dance and the erotic posturings of the music hall; their beaded and bejeweled costumes and headdresses owe much to the elegant fashions of the day. Their bodies are lithe and active, glorying in freedom, knowing no constraints.

The Salon

The Salon des Artistes Français was an annual exhibition in which works by both known and unknown artists were shown. The fashion in sculpture was then for monumental pieces suitable for outdoor display. Most sculptors depended on municipal or state commissions for their livelihood. Showing at the Salon was a way of attracting those commissions, and young sculptors devoted months of work to preparing large pieces for the Salons. Chiparus's career did not follow this pattern, and it is probably for this reason that he exhibited only sporadically at the Salon des Artistes Français; he did not need commissions.

In 1923 Chiparus showed Javelin Thrower in bronze and Study of a Nude inplaster. In 1928, exhibiting in the applied arts rather than the sculpture section as previously, Chiparus's contribution was titled Danseuse Ta-Keo. This was very likely a music hall dancer--the name resembles those taken by dancers of the period. There followed a hiatus of fourteen years before Chiparus exhibited again; in 1942 he showed two plaster statuettes, Polar Bear and American Bison. To the 1943 salon, which was to be his last, he brought another polar bear, this time in marble, and a plaster statuette of a pelican.

Models and Inspiration

Neighborhood children often came to Chiparus's atelier in the rue Barrault, and Chiparus cajoled them into posing for him. Julienne recalls, "Those were the least expensive models of all. They were content with a few sweets." Those afternoon sessions resulted in a number of sentimental and amusing pieces, known as the children series. This was Chiparus's first series, preceding his sculptures of dazzling, sophisticated young women.

Models for those later pieces obviously could not be had for a pocketful of sweets. Fortunately, they appeared nightly on the stages of Paris's celebrated music halls. Magazines such as Paris Music Hall, Paris plaisirs, Jazz, and Revue des Folies Bergère gave details of the current music hall revues. Most importantly, they were lavishly illustrated with photographs of the dancers. Chiparus fed his imagination with these magazines, gleaning ideas for new poses and costumes.


After Chiparus had established a solid working relationship with the founders who produced his works in small editions and marketed them to a public avid for these new objets d'art, his popularity grew steadily and his works became very much in demand. Once he had found his style, practically everything he did was immediately snapped up by the editeurs (the owners or managers of the foundries that produced the bronze sculptures), and so long as their business thrived, he was a wealthy man.

In 1928, at the height of his career, Chiparus and Julienne moved from the tiny studio in the rue Barrault to a beautiful three-story house in Neuilly-sur-Seine, an exclusive suburb of Paris that offered elegance, tranquility, and yet proximity to the city. The sculptor embarked on an ambitious renovation and redecoration of the house, located at 56 boulevard d'Argenson, near the Ile de la Grande Jatte, a favorite park for Parisians. He added many touches in the art deco manner, including wrought iron doors in the entryway and a pergola in the garden. The house was lavishly decorated and furnished by Soubrier, a firm then very much in vogue and still in existence today. In the back garden an artist's studio was built and decorated in grand style as well, with large, luminous vases; a long sofa; and comfortable, oversized armchairs.

Chiparus displayed refined, though perhaps somewhat extravagant, taste. When they were planning the renovation of their new house, Julienne questioned the necessity of certain changes. He had, for example, decreed that a number of structurally sound windows should be ripped out and replaced with smaller-paned glass. When she expressed doubts about the practicality of this he shrugged off her concern, saying, "I like it this way." The daughter of one of his editeurs also remembers Chiparus's penchant for luxury. She and her father called on him one day to find Chiparus lounging about in red silk pajamas "in the middle of the afternoon!"

Difficulties and Decline

Chiparus was not destined to enjoy these material comforts for long. The expensive house on the boulevard d'Argenson had been bought on credit. The renovation, the construction of the large artist's studio in the garden, and the lavish decoration had strained his finances. In addition, he had become accustomed to spending freely, trusting that money would continue to flow in. But with the onset of World War II, things were to change drastically.

Most of the founders in Paris were Jewish, and as the Nazis and anti-Semitism swept devastatingly through Europe, they were forced out of business, one by one. Chiparus, with almost no one left to produce his pieces and with very few clients interested in buying them, found himself in great difficulties. As a result, in 1936 he was forced to sell the house in Neuilly. He and Julienne moved to an apartment at 7 rue Decamps, in the chic Trocadero quarter of Paris.

Although Chiparus had reveled in the refinement and comforts wealth can bring, he was capable of a detachment equal to his extravagance. He showed surprising equanimity at the loss of his elegant house, saying flippantly, "It's good to be rid of it." When Julienne complained about having to sell all their beautiful furniture to pay their debts, his philosophical reply was, "If you don't sell it, the creditors will sell it for you." They could not have been completely impoverished, for the new apartment was quite lavish, and it too was entirely remodeled and decorated by an interior designer. Julienne recalls that it had a "Gothic" living room with stained-glass panels and a lush winter garden.

In the spring of 1939 the feelings of heightened insecurity brought about by the war prompted Chiparus and Julienne finally to marry, though they had lived together for fourteen years. The ceremony was performed on April 22 at their arrondissement's city hall. It was rather perfunctory--as is common for French weddings. Two witnesses were chosen at random from among the people who just happened to be there. After the ceremony the couple went straight home, for the bride had a bad case of the flu.

The war dragged on, business continued to be almost nonexistent, and soon the Chiparuses had to move again. They found a small studio in the fourteenth arrondissement, on a cobblestone cul-de-sac reminiscent of the countryside. Here they lived for the rest of the sculptor's life. This was a tremendous change from their previous living quarters. From a palatial three-story house, then an elegant apartment, they suddenly found themselves confined to one room, a corner of which was closed off to form the kitchen, and with the bed perched in a tiny mezzanine alcove.

While Chiparus accepted his reversal of fortune with equanimity, almost cheerfully, Julienne admits to becoming depressed. "The only thing that saved me from a nervous breakdown were the animals," she has said. The couple had begun to raise chickens and rabbits in the tiny grass lot behind them, and taking care of them occupied her thoughts and energies. Often she would walk for miles off into the countryside to get food for the animals. Though the narrowing of the art market led Chiparus to have financial difficulties, he seems never to have lost his inner equilibrium. He continued to sculpt for his own satisfaction and fulfillment, even without the prospect of sales.

It was during this time that Chiparus began to go regularly to the Vincennes zoo. He had obtained permission to work at the zoo, where a special room next to the lions' quarters was set aside for him. One day the sculptor glanced up from his work to find himself face to face with a lion--the keeper had forgotten to lock the door. Chiparus instinctively froze, which was exactly the right thing to do. The lion eventually became bored and strolled out, leaving both the sculptor and his work intact.

The resulting sculptures of these visits, of bears, a bison, and other animals, are extraordinary pieces, strong and eloquent. The force with which Chiparus embraced this entirely new manner and subject matter suggests great reserves of talent and a surprising versatility. The animal sculptures, very much in the art deco tradition, were Chiparus's last subjects.

One winter day Chiparus returned home after having spent the morning working at the zoo, and sat down to lunch with his wife. He suddenly dropped his fork, and as Julienne bent down to get it, she noticed he was mashing rice between his fingers, trying to speak but unable to. Julienne called the doctor, who confirmed that he had had a stroke. Nothing could be done. The doctor and a neighbor carried him to bed and tried to make him comfortable; Julienne stayed by his side. Chiparus remained paralyzed and died on the third day, January 22, 1947. A death mask was made of the sculptor's face, and he was buried in the cemetery at Bagneux, just outside Paris to the south.

Ironically, just before he died Chiparus had received a substantial sum from the sale of a sculpture. He was planning to use the money for a trip combining work and pleasure, a return to the Italy of his student days.

Chiparus's sculptures fell out of fashion in the period immediately following his death; they were considered frivolous and even vulgar by the earnest postwar generation. It was not until the early 1970s that connoisseurs began to seek them out for their decorative qualities and superb craftsmanship. Today, the chryselephantine sculptures of Chiparus have found their true niche, consecrated as embodiments of the spirit, wit, and grace of art deco.

Table of Contents

Contents: The Early Years; Development of the Art Deco Style; The New Woman; Chiparus and the Art Deco Aesthetic; Chryselephantine Sculpture; Notes; Plates; Paintings by Chiparus; Care of Chryselephantine Sculpture; Fakes and Reproductions; Bibliography.

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