Newsletter Archives

September 2003 - Le Centaure

Travelers to Paris who venture into the carrefour de la Croix-Rouge, located in the posh Saint-Germain quarter, will surely feel consternation at the sight of the imposing sculpture Le Centaure by César Baldiccini (1921-1998; known simply as César). The statue stands 15 feet high and is constructed of soldered bronze. It is one of the many works of provocative art in Paris that visitors can view by simply strolling down the sidewalk.

Since the time of ancient Greece, the centaur has been associated with drunkenness, disorder and aggressivity. The story of the Lapith wedding, at which the inebriated centaurs tried to run off with the women at the feast, is an example their unsociable conduct.

Greek images of centaurs consisted of a male human body mounted on a horse's body with either human or equine forelegs. Le Centaure at Croix-Rouge is bearded, totally naked, with two sets of genitalia - human in front, equine at the rear - and has human forelegs and hind legs. The creature looks frightfully aggressive and the dove that it holds in the palm of its left hand belies peaceful intent.

Commissioned by the Ministry of Culture in 1983 and installed in the square in 1985, the sculpture was designated an "Homage to Picasso". Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Spanish sculptor and painter, lived for much of his life in Paris, and was named "citizen of honor" by the city in 1971. César and Picasso were personal friends, and César was greatly inspired by Picasso's art.

César Baldiccini, like Picasso, was one of France's most admired artists. Born in Marseille, he was admitted to the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1943. After receiving classical training, he turned to sculpting human and animal figures from steel scrap. Many of the rough, skeletal figures he created express disorder and derangement, but some of them are droll, such as his sculpture entitled Fanny Fanny (soldered bronze, 1991), a representation of a chicken on roller skates.

César experimented with other media, including expanded polyurethane, to create glossy, vaguely erotic globs of plastic. He set fire to some of these globs with a torch, calling the scorched products "combustions". He was also inspired to encase ordinary objects, such as a typewriter or a pair of shoes, in molded Plexiglas. During his "compression period", he crushed metal, including automobiles and motorized bicycles, to create compact blocs of distorted steel. He also compacted discarded objects such as cardboard, wooden baskets, jute sacs, catalogs and blue jeans into works of art. He made castings of thumbs and breasts, then enlarged them, using a pantograph, to form giant sculptures in polyester or bronze, calling these "augmentations".

In 1993, at a ceremony at the Elysée Palace, Present François Mitterrand awarded the artist the Croix d'Officier of the Legion of Honor.

Apart from Le Centaure, other sculptures by César can be viewed in and around Paris. The compression Ricard (directed compression of an automobile, 1962) can be viewed at the Centre Pompidou (level 5, room 37). His Bas-Relief (painted steel and oxidized iron, 1961) stands against the wall in the same room. César's giant thumb is on display at La Defense. And in the sculpture garden next to the Finance Ministry offices on boulevard de Bercy stands his Hommage à Léon (bronze, 1964).

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2003