Universalization versus Idealization – Archetypes and Inspirations

Posted: June 16, 2013 in On Beauty
Tags: , , , , , ,

I was at the Portland Art Museum this past weekend to spend some time with the sculpture of Gaston Lachaise. I realize this might make me a bit uncool, but I did not really know his work aside from the super well-known pieces like “Standing Woman (Elevation)” and some of the derivative pieces.

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I always thought of Lachaise as the sort of sculptor who strove to create a type of idealized femininity. I was wrong. In my mind I was equating the concept of the “ideal” with that of the “universal”. It is easy to see from the following photos that Lachaise’s exaggerated proportions have very little to do with the “ideal”. As for  universality, that is another matter entirely. When I look at these sculptures, I may not see the “perfect” body but I do see powerful representations of “the feminine”.

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It took me a while to come to terms with what I like and don’t like about these pieces. Compositionally, I love many of them. And I think they communicate layer upon layer of messages. For example, I love the “lightness” and almost goddess-like power of Standing Woman. What I have problems with is what I perceive as a lack of “the heroic”. I expected these large-scale sculptures of  goddess-like women to have a sense of heroism as one would find in a Greek statue. These pieces are often describes as being heroic and that is not what I saw. It took me a while to get used to what I was seeing. But, when I did, I was able to come to terms with it.

I eventually realized that I was wrong in my fundamental knowledge of Lachaise. As I said, he is not trying to IDEALIZE femininity; he is trying to UNIVERSALIZE it. For example, my western image of a perfect body, an Indian image of a perfect body, and an African one are all different. Lachaise is not trying to represent MY ideal; he is representing a universal archetype. Lachaise is not representing the “perfect” figure. He is representing one that describes essences. Breasts that are far out of proportion, exaggerated thighs, intertwined body-parts; all represent something almost Jungian. Much to my pleasant surprise there is a fair chunk of emotional power in that.

There are a few pieces that I particularly enjoyed. First is this sensual message of tenderness. It is not like the bulbous breasts and butts of the female forms. It is subtle and quite moving.


Second are 2 much more abstract forms. The first is called “Dynamo Mother” and is an exciting merger of many feminine concept. The other is pretty self-explanatory. I have some issues with it because, even as an archetype filtered to its most base language, the notion of “feminine” is orders of magnitude more complex than a couple of breasts and a vagina. Then again, perhaps a subset of archetypal femininity is archetypal female sexuality and, in that case, you can’t fault the guy for being blatant! Still, I hardly think 2 breasts with the female organ between them is a tribute. I’d call it degrading – especially in early 20th century art. Degrading as I see it, this piece has a certain male honesty to it. I don’t you… you decide.

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Are these latter 2 pieces really representative of womanhood? Are they masculine sexual drive imposed on female anatomy? Are they erotic? I’m not really sure yet.

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