Single-idea art isn’t art. Such things can’t transcend time and place.
Yet there those in the art world who stand on their intended meanings - Picasso, for one. Though famous for saying "paintings are instruments for war for attack and defense against the enemy," he insisted that the bull in his "Still Life With a Bull," painted in 1938, was not political. Imagine all those who suffered under fascism who might have seen the bull's brutality as an appropriate symbol of bullies and taken comfort from that, if Picasso hadn't dissuaded them.
The poster child for more than one meaning in art was Aristide Maillol, now on view at the Historial de le Vendee museum in Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne to March 2. He felt so strongly about it that he even faulted grand old master Michelangelo for getting “carried away by single ideas.
Obviously, Maillol was carried away by his zeal for multiple meanings when he picked on Michelangelo. Certainly “David” is about more than the human form, that the image of the Biblical hero who stood up to the menacing Goliath, also conveys a state of mind. At the same time that he stands fast in combat, a furrow carved into the boy’s brow speaks of his anxiety in battle, which has the effect of making his brave stance all the more brave.
Maillol way of achieving multiple meaning was to give his work general meaning versus the specific, and he used the timelessness of the female nude to make his point.
“La Mediterranee,” while a vision of youth and beauty, is not limited to that idea. Neither is L’Action enchainee (Action in Chains) bound by what it looks like: a standing woman with hands tied behind her. There’s a suggestion of more than imprisonment. The figure steps forward in a purposeful way, signaling resistance to the chains that bind her.
To look at this statue of a woman, you wouldn’t necessarily know that it commemorated the bravery of a man. It’s commonly known that the figure represents Louis-Auguste Blanqui, who fought for 50 years against the monarchy of Napoleon III. Blanqui was imprisoned for 35 years, but went on to inspirit his countrymen to a republic.
Another strong opinion from Maillol about what art should and shouldn’t look like involved suggestion of movement. Overt suggestion a no-no to him: no outward gestures, no grimaces, nothing obvious. Not that immobility of the body should mean immobility in the sculpture. Extolling Egyptian statuary, he said that while it shows little movement, it also looks as if it could move. “One expects to see the Sphinx get up,” he said.
Interesting fellow, Maillol, don’t you think?