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A Passion for Cement, Danièle Giraudy, 1988

Claude de Soria retrospective, Picasso Museum, Antibes, March 26th – May 2nd, 1988. Extract from catalogue essay.

Crossing the widescreen Technicolor of Paris’ boulevard Raspail to enter Claude de Soria’s studio is like walking into a different movie. The entire place is grey. But what a lot of greys there are! Rare, vintage movie greys. Marcel Duchamp’s Breeding Dust has set up home and a light dusting of eternity covers the petrified natural world that greets us: grey spheres, grey discs, grey cylinders, grey blades, flat folds pressed by the touch of her hands. On the wall, in the fragile pecking order of memory, indispensable talismans pile up, flower-presses that preserve specific moments of her artistic journey, souvenirs that speak of Leger, Giacometti, Pisano, photographs, dried leaves that seem to stand guard over the mysterious doings of a dedicated nun, metamorphosed by a long white apron into a pillar of human flesh.

Her gestures are those of a pastry-cook, expertly familiar with the elasticity of the dough she moulds into pancakes, blinis, using wooden implements to draw the dough out. She is a sculptor. One after another, with the flick of a caress, she brings her tall stelae to life. The greys are alive, ordered into a rich palette of pearl-grey, yellow-grey, white-grey, mouse-grey, blue-grey, charcoal-grey, brownish grey and elephant-skin. The forms are those of Cezanne. They come grouped into sequences, speak of their own existence. They elaborate difference. They beg a gentle touch. The sensuousness of their skin is soft as silk, polished as jade, bringing the sparest of means to express a mystical geometry. They are born, really, of refusal. They will have none of craft, none of luxury, anecdote, message, image, cultural references or skill. To Claude de Soria, all such would be as hateful as intimate revelation. Her work is not there to seduce us. It stands waiting for a careful eye to discover the subtlety of its values.

“What I care about is that a made object should come alive, should exist in its own terms, that it should not feel manufactured… that my hand and the hand of nature should come together and prove indistinguishable, because cement, even more than clay previously, has taught me the pleasure of working with material and feeling the material work alongside me.”

Claude de Soria should take every visitor round her show, so that he or she can hear the enamoured discourse and bedazzled terms with which she describes the sternness of her material, which “runs” and “solidifies” and compels a fierce, ever-alertness in the artist, in readiness for chance occurrence. In a manner of speaking, she and this stuff are tamers of each other. They experience joint passion. A plastic intimacy.

“What this material affords has brought insane happiness,” she says. “I am in love with it. It’s alive. I cannot even throw my leftovers away. I press them into little packets, I’ve got hundreds of them.”

“The material shouts out that it will not fold, it wants to grow… it’s spreading… the pleasure is enormous and uncontrollable… The bubble in the middle is an opening, I can hang it on the wall. No more pedestals!”

Chance is there from the word go. Always. And often, life just bursts out by accident and she is there to see it. She lets its happen, on the lookout, impatiently “vigilant and alert, available, my attention floating, determined not to miss any slight chance occurrence.” The material is impetuous and irredeemably so. It seizes the freedom she offers. Stelae, four meters tall, set in one go and there they are, unchangeable. Not a blister, not a flaw, no sign of weakness. A perfect upright, as though guided by an invisible plumb-line. A half-bag of blueish cement abandoned by a workman in the courtyard of her studio in 1973 changed her life – as a painter and sculptor – forever.

“The first time, there was mud all over the place, wire, dirty planks. I had one sheet of glass. I thought, the cement will like that. When I unmoulded it, the back was so smooth and it showed this intensity of life. Like a sky full of stars or the sea. It was like Life itself…”

“I had had this nostalgia for Rodin, Matisse, Giacometti…” Then the mundane gestures of a builder swept away the past, like a discipline, putting her “in direct contact with the heart of reality.”

Spilling her bowl onto a sheet of celluloid-based, Rhodoid plastic, she produced first Plaques, then Balls. Out of twists of cloth came Fruit. Out of plastic tubes (too runny, it won’t set and too solid, it blocks) come Stalks.

“After Plaques and Balls, Stalks and Folds were born of my ever-lively amazement at the transformation the material undergoes… My aim is to make as many of these privileged moments as possible… So that what occur are collections, or series on a similar theme.”

Sometimes, she cheats the setting process by laying the material first horizontally, in the direction of its flow, then, “it warms up as it sets, I touch it, I become cement. I turn it upright at the right moment so it hardens and settles.” Whence Folds, which were “born of the same desire to show nature free to work unhindered and to bring the material to show as much as possible of itself in the transformation, every fresh activation of the material generating a different surface texture. The new sculptures are simpler, stretched into great rectangular planes that seem smooth and tranquil.

Claude de Soria’s “naturally elemental” sculpture is part of a tradition of sculpture that stretches from precious discs of Chinese jade to thin Egyptian basalt wings. They are timeless. They speak of distant civilizations.

But are they not even closer to Picasso? Two of whose rigorous, Cubist statements – a 1909 Still Life and a 1908 Torso – the artist dedicatedly translated into bas-reliefs, interpreting the half-shadows as sensitive shifts from one plane to the next, each surface attentive to its own, exactly transcribed tension…

Those reliefs heralded her future “float-volume” plaques, whose obverse and reverse and thickness are touchable.” Like the panels Picasso used for his paintings in 1946… Had Picasso not wanted, precisely in the same spirit, with those big grey nudes painted on fibrous cement, to flatten sculpture into a few basic signs – circle, triangle, spiral – the sparseness of which served as punctuation to the joyous Bacchanalia of the Antipolis Suite? And the two monumental heads born at Boisgeloup, donated to the city of Antibes by Picasso in 1950, swollen with life, like sensuous and giant fetishes, are in their own way, a glorification of the same poor material whose discreet, matt-quality captures an intoxicating grey, almost miraculous light.

Amongst these, Claude de Soria’s creations have found their rightful place, far from the light of their hometown of Paris, to enjoy new adventures in under a Mediterranean sky.
Danièle Giraudy
Curator-General of National Museums,
From 1981 to 1991, Picasso Museum, Antibes, Director