Friday, April 16, 2010

Dina Vierny, Model And Muse For Art's Masters

Dina Verny was born in 1919 in Chisinau, Moldova. She was the inspiration of many great artworks and an art lover and collector. In 1963, she gave France a collection of monumental Maillol sculptures that now stand in the Tuileries Garden. In 1995, she created a foundation to house the works of Maillol and others at the Musee Maillol, a cozy house-like museum on Paris' Left Bank. Vierny opened a gallery in Paris Saint-Germain-des-Pres district in 1947. Article by Michael McNay http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98694253
When an artist refers to his model as his muse, it is usually his way of dignifying their joint extramural activities. But in the case of Aristide Maillol's model Dina Vierny, who has died aged 89, she genuinely was his muse, not his mistress. She met him in 1934, when she was 15 and he was 73, and inspired a fresh direction in his sculpture - most evident in The River, one cast of which is on display in the Tuileries gardens in Paris, while another sprawls on the ledge of a pond in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Her death breaks the living link through Maillol with the Nabis, a short-lived group of 19th-century artists inspired by Gauguin's Tahiti paintings that included Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard as well as Maillol.
She was, besides, a remarkable woman in her own right. Her attributes were perhaps best caught by Françoise Gilot, not yet Picasso's partner, who met Vierny at Picasso's Paris studio in 1945. Maillol had died the previous year in a car accident, and yet Vierny had blossomed. "Her bearing was regal," said Gilot. "More than a muse, she was a priestess of art." As for Picasso, Gilot wrotes in amusement: "He was deferential and attentive... as if beguiled by her charm and mastery. If he had not been afraid of being pursued by Maillol's ghost [Picasso was notably superstitious], he might have expressed his admiration more openly." And Gilot said of herself: "I would have loved to befriend Dina, but her triumphant femininity made me shy."
All of this goes some way to explaining how this young, untutored immigrant model for a sculptor of nothing but female nudes was able to tackle the legendary André Malraux, by 1965 De Gaulle's minister of culture, and persuade him to take a gift of 18 of Maillol's sculptures and put them on permanent display in the Tuileries - thus fulfilling, in her role as an executor of Maillol's will, the sculptor's dying wish. Vierny was born in Chisinau, the capital of Bassarabia (now Moldova). Her father knew Trotsky, but made no attempt to hide his own social-democratic inclinations, and by 1925 it became apparent that the new Russian hegemony was not good for their health. They fled from Odessa in Ukraine and fetched up in Paris without a rouble in their pockets. However, they survived, and Dina, a dutiful student, seemed destined for a conventional career until Jean-Claude Dondel - later one of the four architects of the Palais de Tokyo - met her and wrote to his friend Maillol, saying that she was a walking Maillol sculpture. He persuaded her to visit Maillol's Paris studio. There was a double irony. Firstly, Maillol's ideal was not a Jew from the Soviet Union, but the typical peasant girl of Banyuls, his Catalan home town close to the border with Spain. Secondly, the sculptor felt no need to acquire a model. In a journal entry, Gide reported Maillol saying: "A model! A model! What the hell would I do with a model? When I need to verify something, I go and find my wife in the kitchen, I lift up her chemise, and I have the marble." But Vierny's figure was a revelation; broad hips, big thighs, high breasts. By 1934, when they met, Maillol's career was running out of steam. All his work, whether war memorials, monuments to heroes, allegorical figures for city centres, consisted almost without exception of female nudes. The massive dignity of the calm, Mediterranean classicism that came easily to Maillol, a reaction against the vivid movement of Rodin's work, was beginning to bore the public. Vierny's dynamic personality changed all this and inspired the approach that produced The River, a figure with the usual Maillol characteristics - the fully rounded and hollowed-out forms - but in vivid action, sprawling full length, Vierny's wavy hair a metaphor for the running water. During the second world war, Vierny helped European intellectuals, including a son of Thomas Mann, to avoid the Nazis by escaping to Spain along a rocky, tortuous path through the Pyrenees shown to her by Maillol. She was arrested on suspicion and then sprung by a lawyer paid by Maillol, whereupon she departed for Nice with letters of introduction to Matisse and Bonnard, suggesting they should "borrow" her. She was only one of a bevy of Matisse models, but the admiration between the artist and Vierny was mutual, and although she had to remain still when she modelled for his drawings, he allowed her to talk. By contrast, Bonnard, living at nearby Le Cannet, instructed her to strip off but not to pose, and to forget that he was there. "He didn't want me to keep still," said Vierny. "What he needed was movement. He asked me to 'live' in front of him. He wanted both presence and absence." Bonnard's 1941 painting Le Grand Nu Sombre was the fruit of this association. With Maillol, Bonnard and Matisse all dead within a few years of the war's end, Vierny set up her own well-regarded art gallery where, as well as her collection of modern, western art and temporary shows, she exhibited the work of dissident Soviet artists. But she continued to carry a torch for Maillol and established the Dina Vierny Foundation, which led to the creation in 1995 of the Fondation Dina Vierny-Musée Maillol in the left-bank rue de Grenelle. Maillol's former home in the family vineyard above Banyuls is now another Maillol museum. The two sons who survive her, Olivier and Bertrand Lorquin, run the Paris museum, but Maillol's great monument, the Tuileries gardens display, immortalises her as well.
Interview with Dina Vierny Henri Matisse made drawings of her, with spare, pure lines. Aristide Maillol sculpted her in bronze. And these days, in France, the muse of those 20th-century artists — Dina Vierny — speaks of them with affection and clarity. Vierny was Maillol's last model, and has opened a museum named for him in Paris. Where, it turns out, she lives over the store — up an old spiral staircase, past doors and locks with secret codes to her apartment at the Musee Maillol. She's 89 years old, small, still beautiful, and sharp as a tack. "Is this you," I ask, showing her a Maillol drawing of a nude — much like hundreds of others he drew. Somehow Vierny knows it's not her. More: She knows exactly when it was made. And why it was made. "Je suis un ordinateur," Vierny shrugs — "I'm a computer. I have an enormous memory. Everything is stored in my brain. Et je me trompe pas — I am never wrong." And she laughs. Vierny's fingers sparkle with gold and turquoise rings. A red cardigan sets off her dark hair and her terrific smile. She sits in a small armchair, surrounded by sculpted images of herself — nude. A friend of Dina's father spotted her at a party in 1934. The man also knew Maillol, whose career was on pause then. He told the sculptor, "I have met a girl who is a living Maillol. You must meet her." Dina wasn't at all interested. "Non — j'avais d'autres idees," she says. "I had other ideas." She was in high school, after all. But her father's friend insisted. So she went to meet Maillol. And a new, defining phase of Vierny's life began. The 15-year-old girl agreed to pose for the 73-year-old artist. 'Un Homme Tres, Tres Pure,' And An Adventurous Model Maillol worshipped the female naked body in his art. But Vierny says he was "a very, very pure man" — sensitive, an artist who treated his models with respect. He was also shy. He never asked her to undress. "So I posed fully clothed," Vierny recalls. "I recently bought a drawing that he did. … It is a little girl sitting on a seat, with two long braids." The girl in the sketch was fully dressed. "Since he never asked, I figured he would never have the courage," she says. But in the 1930s, Vierny and her high-school friends were part of a back-to-nature group. "We got naked easily," she says. "Parce que le nude est plus pure que tout — the nude is more pure than anything." She was never embarrassed or uncomfortable. And "I thought it was silly that he didn't ask me." So she offered. She points over her shoulder, at an early sculpture Maillol did of her. "Do you know why I'm looking down there?" she asks. "I'm looking down because I was in school — I had homework to do. So he built a little stand for me, on which I could put my books, and I would study while he worked." Maillol paid her to pose — "Of course, otherwise I wouldn't have done it" — of 10 francs an hour, more than a blue-collar worker was getting in those days. She posed for three hours at a stretch; more would have been too tiring. A Career Revived For Maillol, A New Mentor For His Muse Over the 10 years they worked together, Vierny reinvigorated the elderly artist. She felt she became indispensable to Maillol and the smooth, serene sculptures he created. They were never lovers, she says. Only close, close friends and working companions. In Maillol's last years — he died in 1944 — World War II brought the German occupation of France. Vierny helped several artists and intellectuals escape the Nazis. She was arrested; Maillol hired a lawyer. When she was released, in the summer of 1940, to keep her out of more trouble, he sent her off, to shelter with and pose for his good friend, Henri Matisse. Vierny carried with her a letter Maillol had written to Matisse. "I am sending you the object of my work," it said, "and you will reduce her to a simple line." Matisse was recovering from an operation when Dina arrived. He welcomed the company. "Matisse was very talkative," Vierny remembers. "He would sit in his bed, and he would present the world to me. He knew a lot of things, and he loved to talk." Vierny liked him from the beginning. "Matisse was strict. You had to pose and not move, but you could talk. ... This was the first time [he] had a model who had done studies, and so we could talk about everything — we could talk about art, we could talk about books." Vierny and Matisse became good friends. And after Maillol's death, Matisse encouraged her to begin collecting art, and later, to open a gallery. His encouragement eventually led to the opening of the Musee Maillol — where she lives above the various exhibitions, in an apartment filled with sculptures she inspired. As the Paris afternoon darkens, Vierny raises her arms, indicating my translator and I should help lift her from her chair. Slowly, she walks us to the door. And bidding us goodbye, this vibrant and beautiful old woman has a few parting words. "You must search for happiness in your life," she counsels. "Don't get discouraged. Look ahead with hope."

2 comments:

American in Zurich said...

Thank you for this inspiring post about Dina. The River is a favorite sculpture of mine.

http://impulseandvision.blogspot.com/2010/09/inspiration-of-day-moving-masterpiece.html

Waverly said...

Hi Magda,

I'm forwarding this onto my blog. Great article! I have it linked back to you, by the way.

Take care.

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