The name Bugatti conjures up images of the Riviera in the 1920s – all speed, fizz and sparkling elegance. But the family who made the cars had another, somewhat bleaker story. Rembrandt Bugatti was the gaunt, coal-eyed younger brother of the engineering genius, Ettore, who designed the vehicles. For many years Rembrandt was dubbed simply “the other Bugatti”, but in fact he was a fine sculptor – among whose creations was the dancing silver elephant on the bonnet of the Bugatti Royale.
His work was shown at the Venice Biennale when he was just 19 and he was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur for art at 27. He won the admiration of Apollinaire, the great promoter of Picasso, and Hébrard, the foundry that acted as Bugatti’s gallery, also cast works by Degas and Rodin. But in 1916, at the age of 31, he committed suicide; his career cut short by illness, poverty, disappointment in love and the first world war. Now, almost a century after his death, his reputation is being restored by two exhibitions of his work; one at London’s Sladmore Gallery, the other at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
The Bugattis were as much a family of artists and artisans as mechanics and engineers. Carlo, Rembrandt’s father, designed furniture, interiors and objets d’art and was such an aesthetic polymath he was dubbed “Leonardo” by his friends. It was perhaps his own sobriquet that inspired him to name his third child equally audaciously.
Born in Milan in 1884, Rembrandt’s talent first emerged in a string of cows he moulded aged 15 out of a lump of clay he found lying around his father’s workshop. Human relationships were difficult for the shy adolescent, but when in 1903 he moved from Milan to Paris he would spend hours observing the baboons, giraffes and panthers in the zoo of the Jardin des Plantes.
Making sculptures of animals offered him a refuge from human interaction but still allowed him to depict inwardness, affection, irritation and the other states of mind that animals share with people. He captured the rhythm and movement of animals as well as their awkwardness with an empathy that seemed sometimes mutual.
“Bugatti did not make sculptures of animals so much as portraits,” says Edward Horswell, director of the Sladmore Gallery. “He saw each animal as an individual. Many sculptors have succeeded in capturing a range of emotions in models with whom they can converse. Bugatti’s uniqueness lay in extending it to his mute subjects.”
Nowhere is this more evident than a portrait of a family of deer in which a fawn nudges the head of its mother while the father rests his head gently on its rump, and animals of different species – donkeys and emus, even dogs and panthers – are often presented in pairs entwined in silent communion.
Although Bugatti had smart family connections (his father was friends with the composer Giacomo Puccini and the painter Giovanni Segantini), he was divorced from the Parisian avant-garde. The critic André Salmon described him crossing the road to avoid the in-crowd at cafés: “More out of fear from people than out of pride, Rembrandt made his way through the noisy groups of young artists as quickly as possible and without shaking any hands ... A melancholy young man ... his shock of hair covered a brow which was both luminous and sharply modelled. He had the sunken eyes of a solitary man given to meditation.”
Yet despite his isolation, Bugatti’s works were not entirely untouched by those around him. A bronze panther has a gestural, impressionistic surface; a lion, a touch of the studied primitivism of Rousseau’s paintings. French animaliers of the 19th century such as Antoine-Louis Barye were the pioneers of their day but they sculpted animals from photographs and drawings or by dissecting carcases. Bugatti, by contrast, observed them for days, sometimes weeks, before capturing the subtlety of their expressions in clay.
In 1906, in order to expand his sculptural menagerie, Bugatti started making extended visits to the Royal Zoological Gardens in Antwerp – at that time the largest zoo in Europe. While there, he cast what is arguably his most revolutionary work, a giant anteater whose whorled, circular bulk seems inflected with futurist and expressionist traits. There are also glimmers, in its serpentine lines, of Ettore’s car designs for such beasts of the road as the Bugatti Atlantique.
Around this time he also started experimenting with human subjects. Peeved by one critic’s description about the “drawing room scale” of his sculptures, he embarked on a monumental piece, nine feet high, of a man almost Rubenesque in his virility. But most of Bugatti’s human figures were distant and dreary compared to his animals, their faces vague and inaccessible. It is in his often slightly woebegone animals that you sense his true feelings. A sculpture Bugatti made of a young girl in the nude holding a cat outstretched in her arms is believed to be a portrait of Kathleen Bruce (later the wife of the Antarctic explorer Robert Scott), his greatest passion, cruelly toying with his affections.
Although poised on the brink of stardom in 1914, hailed by critics as a “truly exceptional talent”’ with “marvellous sensibility” and earning the equivalent in today’s money of around €10,000 a month from Hébrard, the first world war blew away not only Bugatti’s income, but his subject matter and, most importantly, his hope.
All the animals in the Antwerp zoo, that he had so lovingly sculpted, were killed in 1915 when food became scarce. Bugatti volunteered as a stretcher-bearer at an Antwerp hospital where he contracted tuberculosis – an incurable disease in those days. On January 8 1916, Bugatti went to mass at the Madeleine in Paris. After the service, he bought himself a bunch of flowers and then went home and killed himself with gas.
The 300 or so works he left behind have been slow to take their place in the critical pantheon. The market has always recognised their value and, at upwards of £2m, his bigger animal bronzes are some of the most expensive on the market. The 17 sculptures in the exhibition at Sladmore Gallery – some of which are on loan – range in price from £175,000 to £3m. They include one of Bugatti’s earliest known sculptures, made when he was just 16, of a horse and donkey yoked together and drawn from the fields where he lived at that time, in a village outside Milan. Also featured are two tender portraits of adolescent antelope comforting their sick mothers and two tapirs, nuzzling each other in piggy affection. A sculpture made shortly before his death shows the odd juxtaposition of animals Bugatti liked toying with: a stand-off between a rooster and a frog.
Perhaps with the fanfare of two substantial exhibitions, Rembrandt Bugatti will enter the art history books, too.
‘Rembrandt Bugatti: Emotions in Bronze’, Sladmore Gallery, London, to November 8, www.sladmore.com; ‘Rembrant Bugatti’, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, March 28-July 27 2014, www.smb.museum