How Celebrated French Sculptor César Turned Crushed Cars and Scrap Metal Into Works of Art
In the heart of Paris’s La Défense business district stands a 40-foot-tall bronze thumb. Modelled on his own anatomy, it was crafted by César Baldaccini, known simply as César, a sculptor active from the 1950s until his untimely death in 1998 and considered to be among France’s foremost contemporary sculptors. This maker of body parts, as well as human, animal, and insect figures, and roughly geometrical forms, characterized himself as a purely physical artist, who privileged the hand and gut over the intellect and emotions. French critics aligned him with the Nouveau Réalisme movement, for his use of and references to everyday consumer materials. His interest in physicality, coupled initially with financial limitations, drove him to experiment boldly with a range of materials throughout his career, including plaster, iron, lead, wire, ceramics, bronze, scrap metals, and most controversially and famously, crushed and compacted cars.
Though it took a while for critics and the public to concede to his radical vision, César was ultimately invited to represent France at the 1995 Venice Biennale, where he presented a monument composed of crushed cars. On a smaller scale, he left behind whimsical works like Poule clef à Pipe (1997), a bronze chicken on a stick formed from an amalgamation of individual parts, including an oversized pipe that reads as the bird’s head and neck, and fragmented pieces that look like roller skates strapped to its splayed feet. There is also his homage to Picasso, Le centaure hommage à Picasso (1983), a poignant bronze sculpture of a centaur, the mythological man-horse that appeared in the elder artist’s work. Like his chicken, César’s centaur is composed of an array of distinct parts. A shell sits delicately on the side of its head, while a selection of hardware and the neck of a violin are impaled in its rump to form a tail, exemplifying the mixture of tenderness, humor, and violence that characterized his art.