« IL Y A L'ART OFFICIEL, ET IL Y A L’ART » (1935)
Bernard Blistène : La découverte de certaines de ses œuvres parmi les plus célèbres dont, bien évidemment, l'extraordinaire Guernica, mais aussi l'intérêt qu'a éveillé en moi sa biographie. Je sais qu'aujourd'hui l'idée d'engagement est galvaudée mais il me semble que le chemin d'Iché, ses rencontres, sont d'une importance capitale pour saisir la singularité de son œuvre.
De par ses dates, Iché reste assimilé à la sculpture de l'entre-deux-guerres et à une forme de classicisme qui fait d'ailleurs partie de certains aspects de son travail. Mais en même temps, son parcours est profondément différent pour qu'on éprouve le désir d'y aller voir de près.
Voyez au fil des années 1930, tant par rapport aux républicains espagnols que, bien sûr, par rapport à la Seconde Guerre mondiale et au rôle qu'il a eu dans les Forces françaises libres, combien son œuvre se métamorphose. Mais voyez aussi ce lien si fort avec les poètes : ses amitiés de jeunesse avec Joë Bousquet, sa proximité avec Guillaume Apollinaire et Pierre Reverdy ou Max Jacob, ses rencontres avec ceux qui deviendront les surréalistes dont il fera les célèbres masques. Iché est certes un homme engagé mais ses études d'histoire de l'art, ses fréquentations des esprits les plus aiguisés du temps font que son œuvre est en constante métamorphose. Et c'est dans cette perspective que j'attends de ces expositions qu'elles contribuent à ébranler une histoire de l'art par trop linéaire.
Interview with BERNARD BLISTÈNE
Rose-Hélène Iché, scientific curator and editor-in-chief of Surréalismus, discusses the work of her grandfather René Iché with Bernard Blistène, honorary director of the National Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Pompidou, who has long been drawn to the uniqueness of the artist.
Rose-Hélène Iché: Bernard Blistène, what led you to take an interest in René Iché?
Bernard Blistène: The discovery of some of his most famous works, including the extraordinary Guernica, of course, and the interest sparked in me by his biography. I know that today the idea of commitment is overused, but it seems to me that Iché's path, his encounters, are of crucial importance to grasp the singularity of his work. Due to his dates, Iché is associated with interwar sculpture and a form of classicism, which is indeed part of certain aspects of his work. But at the same time, his journey is profoundly different, making it worth taking a closer look. Iché is, in my eyes, a man of great contrasts. Look at his work, right after World War I, close in spirit to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who died on the front in 1915. See how, over the 1930s, both in relation to the Spanish Republicans and, of course, in relation to World War II and his role in the Free French Forces, his work undergoes a metamorphosis. But also notice the strong connection with poets: his youthful friendships with Joë Bousquet, his closeness to Guillaume Apollinaire and Pierre Reverdy or Max Jacob, his encounters with those who would become the surrealists, for whom he made the famous masks. Iché is certainly a committed man, but his art history studies, his associations with the sharpest minds of the time, mean that his work is in constant metamorphosis. And it is from this perspective that I expect these exhibitions to contribute to shaking up an art history that is too linear.
R.-H. I.: Louis Hautecœur's purchase for the Luxembourg museum of a study of the Nude from 1928 - during Iché's solo exhibition at Zborowski's in 1931 - muddles the waters. This first entry into French public collections does not measure up to Iché. We are far from Melpomène 36, which Jean Cassou buys in 1939!
B. B.: One cannot compare Hautecœur's thinking to Cassou's, nor their respective paths... Hautecœur became the director of Fine Arts and Secretary of State under the Occupation. He is the man of classicism and neoclassicism. Cassou, first and foremost, is the man, let's not forget, who is linked to the Spanish Republicans. He is the one who will be dismissed from his duties by the Vichy government and will, later on, organize this traveling exhibition of sculptures in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia after the war, bringing together three students of Bourdelle, namely Giacometti, Richier, and Iché, as well as Lipchitz, whose post-war work can, in many aspects, be compared to Iché's. Now, just look: between academicism and independent art, it is clear that Iché is seeking a position of his own. And if you get closer to the works, it is clear that his series of Wrestlers from 1942-1946 or the model for the Monument to the Resistance Students of 1951, among many other pieces, leave far behind the idea of academicism that one might want to associate with him. Iché is not Charles Despiau or Paul Belmondo; his work is resolutely caught between stasis and movement, between classicism and modernity; in short, a work grappling with history, in all its forms and states.
R.-H. I.: You yourself pointed out to me that Iché's relationship with the institution interested you.
B. B.: Certainly, because it also allows us to understand that Iché also saw himself as what you call "a reformer." He worked on the status of artists, the issue of public commissions, and copyright, etc. He did not give up on what the role of the state could be in relation to creation. He tried to contribute to an awareness that was all the more necessary since he had witnessed the submission of the state during the war, while some of its officials, on the contrary, tried to resist. It is also quite moving to remember that, upon Iché's death, Picasso took up the commission for a Monument to Guillaume Apollinaire that Iché had wanted but could not realize.
R.-H. I.: Does this interest in the monument come from Henri Focillon?
B. B.: What I mean, and you express it well by mentioning the major figure of Focillon, is that there is also a theoretical aspect to Iché. Focillon is a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure, and even before the 1914-1918 war, he was the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon and, let's not forget, the substitute for Émile Mâle, who would enter the French Academy, himself a great medievalist. It might be interesting to see what impact medieval sculpture had on Iché's work. We were talking about Derain... Let's remember his Portrait of Iturrino from 1914: a decisive rupture and a kind of "return" that I can think may have had a real impact on Iché.
R.-H. I.: While he was seeking himself as a writer in Montparnasse, he gave up everything for sculpture. It was at Le Dôme that he met a Yale student who took him to Bourdelle...
B. B.: Iché remained attached to Bourdelle both for his work and, no doubt, for his teaching. It is true that we are far from Gaston Baty's puppet theater, which he loved and frequented. But what is fascinating about Iché is precisely these great contrasts that place him, at the same time, in the proximity of heroic figures of sculpture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and, at the same time, lead him to respond to the request for a mask from Breton or Eluard. These steps that lead him to rub shoulders with the circles of Montparnasse and be, nevertheless, someone who, always guided by this social and political dimension, will at some point question, with Emmanuel Mounier, the construction of the Esprit magazine. This is while working on a special issue on Aesthetics with Marc Chagall, despite eventually moving away from it!
R.-H. I.: A bewildering journey, isn't it?
B. B.: His path itself is a very unique one and, in my opinion, a critical reflection on the status of the sculptor in the first half of the 20th century, which precisely makes none of the divisions around which we tend to think of a work in his case resist. And that's where, if you will, I am very interested to see how his work will now be re-read. I am convinced that there is everything in Iché's art to show that it is an adventure of the spirit that is quite unique and, as such, much more important than has recently been supposed.
Interview excerpt from the catalog of the exhibition René Iché (1897-1954): Art in Struggle at the Museum of La Piscine in Roubaix (June 24, 2023, to September 3, 2023).
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