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François-Rupert Carabin, Art Nouveau Visionary

François-Rupert Carabin, Art Nouveau Visionary

An artist whose creations have never lost their sense of daring and disruptive power, François-Rupert Carabin (1862-1932) was an accomplished sculptor in wood and bronze, a ceramicist, a goldsmith and medalist, and a photographer. Like Lalique, Carabin’s work transgressed the boundaries between fine and decorative art.  At odds with the passive, idealized beauties of the reigning Art Nouveau sensibility, Carabin’s radical female forms confounded critics, affronted the guardians of decency and good taste, and scandalized the fascinated, art-loving public. In many ways, he anticipated the forces of iconoclasm and upheaval that characterize later modernist art.  The rare butterfly jewel offered here occupies a significant place in this original, multi-faceted artist’s oeuvre. 

Born in Saverne, Alsace, near the sophisticated city of Strasbourg, Carabin was uprooted by the chaos of the Franco-Prussian war. The family relocated to Paris, where, even as an adolescent, Carabin proved himself a talented cameo carver. Further, he trained with a cabinetmaker in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, a neighborhood east of the Bastille. While in Paris, he furnished his mind with powerful imagery to feed his obsessive preoccupation with the female body by observing surgeries at the Faculté de Médicine (University of Paris). He befriended Rodin, whose influence is evident in the charged eroticism and brute muscularity of Carabin’s figures. In addition, he associated with artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, who recorded the era’s fascination with the decadent and the erotic, and Paul Signac, a declared anarchist with whom Carabin founded the Société des Artistes Indépendents. As one of its founding principles, the Société abolished the admission jury, permitting artists to present their works to public judgment in complete freedom. Young Carabin’s sensibility was so extreme, however, that his own radical salon refused to exhibit his first submission.

 The rejected work was his first major artistic commission, a figural cabinet he created in 1890 for a wealthy banker and amateur artist. The cabinet features a number of large, seemingly allegorical female figures of striking energy, whose nude bodies are rendered with the force that unidealized portrayal conveys. Unsettling in their ambiguous poses, the women’s facial expressions include a range of honest, unpleasant emotions -covetousness, vanity, aggression, greed, caprice - none of the figures seems to represent any of the expected traditional allegorical virtues. As one commentator noted, the one virtue Carabin clearly represented was “truth to nature”, including human nature with its unapologetically vulgar, instinctive appetites. While acknowledging the cabinet as a tour-de-force of peculiar beauty, officials were shocked and disapproving, and predicted that admitting Carabin’s work would pave the way for the further subversive submissions, even chamber pots. Carabin retorted: “If it is a beautiful chamber pot, where is the evil?” This confrontation established Carabin in the radical avant-garde. For the next 30 years, Carabin demonstrated an irresistible drive to disturb, to give offense, and to spark outrage with arresting works that powerfully conveyed his disturbing artistic vision.

 Soon after, the artist created a monumental desk, “The Four Elements”, which was raised on female figural supports. The mouth of the figure of Water gushes liquid, while that representing Fire sets Wind’s wings alight, and another woman, destined to pose in a tortured squat for eternity, supports the armchair. The work is charged with implied violence and tormented submission, suffused with the artist’s challenging, grotesque sensibility. 

For Carabin, women’s bodies animated by active eroticism represented “the instinctive, unself-conscious and sensuous in nature”. His figures goaded the public and the art critical community into uncomfortable confrontation with its own attitudes toward women and sexuality. In 1896, an American art critic recoiled from one of Carabin's figural groupings as a “Gothic frenzy of lost soul(s)” and lamented what future generations might misapprehend about the art of the period. In fact, Carabin's figures continually revealed unwelcome truths about his world.

In 1900, Carabin supplemented his studio drafting sessions with photography, recruiting sex workers from the brothels of Montmartre to pose at his studio. These sessions yielded approximately 600 photographic plates and prints, later given to his friend Le Corbusier, and ultimately to the Musée d’Orsay.  With apparent ease, Carabin synthesized these two dimensional images of women of varying body types and stages of life, often posed in contorted positions and suspended in abrupt movements, into three dimensional figural groupings.  His bodies retain their distinctive carnality even when fused with vegetal and animal forms in his ceramics, bronzes and cabinetry. 

Like other artists of the period, Carabin was fascinated by Loïe Fuller, an American performance artist who had taken Paris by storm, and one of his depictions of her relates to this butterfly jewel. An early practitioner of free-form choreography, and a virtuoso of cutting-edge technologies, Fuller danced amid swirling silk wraps on an electrified stage glowing with her patented chemical salts, gels and smoke.  Rodin, Toulouse-Laturec, Cocteau and others depicted her in beautiful and original ways, evoking the towering, phantom shapes she created with her veils. In fact, few true likenesses of Fuller herself exist, since the dancer was elusive, rarely revealing her face and body. Most artists respected her image as she presented it, highlighting her original art and the pre-eminence of her veils. Carabin, with his relentlessly penetrating eye, did not. Leaving unclear where her body begins and the veils end, Carabin sculpted Fuller in partial nudity, though she never performed that way. Carabin’s depiction is at once an insight of artistic genius that conveys her complete bodily transformation during performance, while also a violation of Fuller's right to define her image and work. The Museum of Strasbourg’s collection includes a Carabin plaster of a veiled dancer, inspired by Fuller’s art, whose naked body and veils are ingeniously fused, the veil suggestively taking the shape of an enormous woman-butterfly.

Unlike Signac, who became affluent, Carabin did not get far; his insistence on challenge and confrontation limited his financial success. In his capolavoro of 1919, Carabin presented a chest, a literal cabinet of curiosities of an erotic kind, carved with the tentacles of an octopus, and bearing the inscription: “If you regard your chastity, leave me shut.” Visitors to the exhibition found that, with a little effort, they were able to prise the loosely secured lid ajar, only to be greeted by a figural group of women lovers in a “Sapphic” embrace. This act of provocation was the anarchic artist’s last assault on the prudery and hypocrisy of the art world and the intelligentsia. He left Paris to become the director of the art school of Strasbourg. 

The fact that Carabin’s work caused such furore, and continues to disturb, provoke and challenge viewers, underlines his undiminished importance as an artist taking on difficult issues, and this has inspired scholars to revisit his work. In her lecture “Seeking New Sins: The Erotic Deco-Sculptural Work of François-Rupert Carabin”, Professor Sara Sik Ph.D acknowledges the misogyny that suffused the period. However, her analysis focuses on how Carabin’s destabilizing vision acts as a “pivot of dichotomies”,  forcing confrontation of essential ethical contradictions. People reacted strongly because Carabin’s shocking exhibits exposed deep conflicts and hypocrisies: What was acceptable versus abhorrent bondage?  What was acceptable versus transgressive love? 

In addition to his talents as sculptor and cabinetmaker, Carabin was a goldsmith. A very limited but superb body of jewelry survives, its sensibility in concert with Carabin's art in other media. One remaining, fully-sculptural ring is held in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay. The ring is formed as a naked woman lying on her stomach, bust thrust forward, embracing a fat pearl, and undergoing transformation into an octopus, some of her multiple sinuous limbs lined with suckers.

François-Rupert Carabin butterfly necklace

Another recently re-discovered jewel is this rare butterfly-woman, a more liberating, less menacing creature than the Orsay’s octopus, created with precious materials and virtuoso enameling. Carabin has handled her almost tenderly. Like the plaster in the collection of the Musee du Strasbourg, the figure is undergoing transformation into a butterfly, her body sculpted in beautifully modeled gold, with naturalistic wings realized in masterful plique-à-jour enamel. Carabin shifted the pink and blue palette of the enamel into dusky, mysterious shades of the hues. Unlike many other figures whom Carabin depicted as enslaved to uncontrollable passions, the woman here expresses bold agency and intention. She raises her arms to grasp her antennae, appearing to exult in the wonder of her metamorphosis and her new gift of flight. Carabin possessed remarkable powers of insight, and was driven unsparingly to expose and unsettle. Presumably he sensed that, had they been permitted, the women of his time would have eagerly reached for the butterfly’s precarious freedom, even when fleeting and fragile. 

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