Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916) is one of the most remarkable and artistically independent sculptors of the early 20th century. Brother of the legendary designer of motorcars, Bugatti produced an œuvre comprising more than 300 works during his short life, unparalleled in terms of intensity and diversity of form.
The exhibition in the Alte Nationalgalerie showing more than 100 bronze sculptures, drawings and documents is the first large museum retrospective of Rembrandt Bugatti's work world-wide; it thus paves the way to a brilliant rediscovery of this artist. For even though extremely successful during his lifetime and rated with the highest prices to the present day, Rembrandt Bugatti has fallen into oblivion after his untimely death. Museums in Paris, Washington and Antwerp have sent works on loan to Berlin. The majority of the works on show, however, comes from international private collections in Australia, Europe and America, some of which are displaying their treasures publicly for the first time in the Nationalgalerie.
As a young man Rembrandt Bugatti had already found the subject which was to fascinate him all his life: the animal. While at first predominantly depicting cattle he later discovered exotic animals from all over the world in the zoological gardens in Paris and in Antwerp. With Bugatti, anteaters, tapirs, marabous as well as yaks, condors and kangaroos are introduced as subjects for sculpture for the first time in European history of art. He was particularly fond of big cats whose elegance and strength he captured like no other sculptor.
Rembrandt Bugatti observed his models at length and very attentively. He then went on to produce most of his works in a single session in front of, or even within, the animal enclosure. His enormous faculty of observation and the absolute command of his sculptural means permitted him to portray the essence of the animal in crucial moments and postures. The artist was always trying to achieve an accurate record of the characteristics, the movements and sensations of the animals in front of him. Within his œuvre, the abundance of his models is just as unequalled as is his treatment of surfaces. Bugatti's use of forms keeps oscillating between Naturalism and Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism, yet he still retains the sincere curiosity and opulence characteristic of the Belle Époque. The earnestness and depth with which he captured the animal world in his works makes him a unique figure in the history of art.
English copies of the catalogue, priced at £40, may be collected from the gallery. Alternatively, if you wish them to be posted to you, please include the following postage and packing charges: UK + £5, Europe + £10, Rest of World + £15 / $25. Orders may be placed by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org / tel: +44 (0) 20 7629 1144 / fax: +44 (0) 20 7495 3668.
German copies are available from the Alte National Gallery, click here.
The Speech of Philipp Demandt, Head of the Alte Nationalgalerie and curator of the exhibition.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
When we officially open our exhibition tomorrow night, I will give a more formal address in terms of art history, but not today. Please allow me instead to share with you a few very personal thoughts – especially since the Rembrandt Bugatti exhibition is my farewell show as head of the Alte Nationalgalerie.
But don't worry – or, perhaps don’t celebrate too soon! I have no intention of leaving this marvellous house. I will stay! But I have to confess that even before taking up office here I gave thought –with all the bathos that any serious art historian suffers from – about what I would do if, one day in the distant future, I were granted the privilege of creating an exhibition that embodies my most personal appreciation of art. Even then there was only one answer to this question: Rembrandt Bugatti. When, many years ago at the art fair in Maastricht, I unexpectedly found myself standing in front of his baboon, I was smitten. I had never seen such a thing before.
When I had the pleasure and honour of being entrusted with the management of the Alte Nationalgalerie two years ago, a German newspaper felt compelled to refer to me as "Luise’s husband." This odd statement referred to a thick volume I had written about the history of the many portraits of that Prussian queen, so I had only myself to blame for that shotgun wedding.
When a married man has no choice but confess some indiscretion, what he says usually depends on his estimate of how much his wife already knows. And if Queen Luise were to step down from the marble pedestal she shares here with the “group of princesses” and cast a glance into my office, she would know a lot about me – as my colleagues do. Behind my door she would find a roaring polar bear, a big blue fish, an aggressive guinea fowl and, since recently, a Japanese Meiji serpent. All of them, of course, pieces of art of the finest quality. We are in the Nationalgalerie, after all.
But when I think back to the days of my youth, I can say that all this does not compare with the inhabitants of our family home in the southwest of Berlin: a big black dog, a cockatoo, a grey parrot, two red-eared terrapins, two striped squirrels, two crayfish, four frogs, three hamsters, a dozen fish, two garter snakes, a royal python and, finally, an imposing pet rabbit of the "German giant" breed.
As you can imagine, that private zoo was not made of bronze – and the collection was quite an achievement if you consider that my parents vowed before their wedding never to have pets.
My passion for animals began with the “bible” of my childhood, Brehm's Life of Animals. The magnificent edition my grandparents possessed was the i-pad of my childhood. I believe the type font I learned to read in was Gothic; but more importantly, I could not get enough of the pictures. The shapes, the colours! The journeys they sent my imagination on! When I finally came across the picture of an Australian budgie, I was lost – I traced the image by the dozen and placed them on every threshold in the house until, after several weeks of this propaganda war, my mother finally gave in and bought me such a bird. It was the first breach in the dyke.
But enough about me. The habit of tracing pictures was the last thing the two children Demandt and Rembrandt had in common. According to family lore, one day Carlo Bugatti discovered, hidden under a blanket in his workshop, a clay model of a group of cows. He was so surprised, he attributed them to his oldest and very talented son, Ettore. But the sculptor turned out to be Rembrandt, perhaps 14 or 15 years old at the time. Only a year later, at 16, he debuted at the spring exhibition in Milan, then went on to Turin and by 18 he was exhibiting at the Biennale in Venice.
After that, the family moves from Milan to Paris. There, father Carlo signs an exclusive contract with the best gallery-owner and bronze caster in the city – who also works for Rodin – for his underage son, who never attended an art academy, because from childhood on he had exhibited a fully developed talent for sculpture.
Paris in 1904, what a time! But where is young Rembrandt during this most exciting decade of recent art history, while Picasso and Braque are inventing Cubism and Matisse and Derain are inventing Fauvism, and the pubs on Montmartre are full of the same artists who now populate the Mount Olympus of European culture? Bugatti isn’t there. He is at the zoo. At the same place where, two years earlier, Rilke had written his famous poem "The Panther," Bugatti apparently cannot believe his eyes: What shapes, what colours, sounds, poses, movements!
The born sculptor’s reaction to this sight accumulates over the next few years: 300 sculptures, a life's work beyond comparison in intensity and diversity. A wealth of forms, surfaces and perspectives created with a sureness and freedom that effortlessly overcomes the biggest challenges, especially considering that his models were constantly on the prowl. A virtual one-to-one transfer from eye to hand; not an animal sculptor but a sculptor per se; a man who seems able to use any means available to capture life in all its form and feeling. A portraitist of man and animal, to whom the fauna of all the continents opens a world full of patterns and structures, rhythms and modes of behaviour that would have stretched most other talents to the limit.
After hours, days or weeks of keen observation he moulds his sculptures often in just one session in front of, or even within the enclosure; sometimes it’s in an informal, almost Impressionist manner, but then again he stylizes, abstracts, constantly trying out possibilities without omitting any anatomical details. Looking at them today, you would think many sculptures were created 20, 30 or 40 years later – they anticipate Giacometti or Marini. And yet, at the same time, there is always present the sincere curiosity and opulence of the Belle Époque.
He is successful with his sculptures from early on, but Rembrandt stays in Paris for only three years. He moves on alone to Antwerp, where an even larger zoo attracts him. Every day he takes his work to the animals, apparently a loner. He is also difficult to place in terms of nationality: a tall young Italian with a tendency toward indecision and loud clothes who speaks French and lives in Flanders while his brother manufactures cars in the Alsace. His companion is a German dachshund called »Wurst« (sausage).
With the outbreak of the First World War, Bugatti's world falls apart: The art market collapses, the money runs out, the zoo in Antwerp is turned into a hospital, Bugatti gets a job as a paramedic. People die – as do the animals in the zoo, which are slaughtered when they can no longer be fed. On January 8, 1916, Rembrandt takes his own life in Paris, 31 years old. "I should never have become an animal sculptor," he wrote to his sister-in-law. A meteorite in the history of art, strangely out of focus, without tail or impact passing by and soon forgotten.
I would like to thank all the members of our great team that is so fast and smart the word "Old" in front of "Nationalgalerie" doesn’t really make sense: Francisca Cruz, Alexandra Czarnecki, Eva Ditteney, Regina Freyberger, Stephan Helms, Andres Kilger, Kerstin Krainer, Volker Lang, Kristina Mösl, Sigrid Otto, Majka Schielinski, Francesca Schneider, Birgit Verwiebe and Angelika Wesenberg, as well as all the others who helped with this exhibition. Dear Katharina, dear André, dear Lutz (of the Association of Friends of the Nationalgalerie), what would we be without you?
I would also like to thank the authors of our catalogue from Germany, Austria, France, Great Britain and Italy. My very special thanks are due to my co-curator and co-author in the catalogue, Anke Daemgen, who organized the largest part of this exhibition with the greatest precision.
Please permit me to briefly switch to English and to say a few words of thanks to our lenders:
We owe a large debt of gratitude to the lenders of our exhibition: the museums in Paris, Washington, Rennes and Hanover and the zoo in Antwerp. Special thanks to all the private collectors in Europe, America and Australia who allowed their "Amazing Bugattis" travel to Berlin. This exhibition would never have been possible without you. Many warm thanks to you!
However, the throne of the guests of honour tonight, so to speak, belongs to Véronique Fromanger and Edward Horswell, who for decades have rendered outstanding services to the oeuvre of Rembrandt Bugatti and who, moreover, have opened for us every door to the works, documents and private collections. Dear Véronique, dear Edward, Rembrandt Bugatti – and all of us – are so much in your debt. This evening is especially for you!
Ladies and Gentlemen, one last word: In September, 1812, the not very well-known painter, Caspar David Friedrich, presented the painting "Morning in the Sudeten Mountains" at an exhibition of the academy in Berlin. It depicts light grey wafts of mist lying over violet-tinged valleys, making them seem so mystical, so eerie and surreal that the artists of the city were convinced the artists’ imagination had run away with him. Until, that is, Friedrich Wilhelm III, the supposedly all too practical-thinking husband of Queen Luise, visited the exhibition, stopped in front of the painting and said: This is a beautiful painting. He then recalled once staying in Bohemia, where he had woken up early and gone outside to look around. But all he could make out were the tops of the hills in the morning dew, and the whole landscape had seemed to him like the surface of the sea.
The king added a sentence I often think about when I look into the sky at night above the colonnaded courtyard here, where against a deep red backdrop the crows of the city perform a ballet around the dome of the cathedral. Or when witnessing, as recently happened, an unexpected confrontation taking place on the pavement in front of the Nationalgalerie involving a mallard drake, its head shining in colours reminiscent of a giant Indian opal. Standing before Caspar David Friedrich's painting, the king said: "Those who haven’t seen it in nature will think it not true."
Only the greatest of artists have seen enigmatic nature before and within themselves and had the ability to grasp the incomprehensible and even add a new perspective to it. You may now understand why we have hung Rembrandt Bugatti's only sacral work, which may also be his last, “Christ on the Cross,” on the very wall of the Caspar David Friedrich hall where you usually find his world-famous "Monk by the Sea." You will understand how grateful, happy and proud I am that we, as the Nationalgalerie, have been allowed to rediscover Rembrandt Bugatti, thanks to our friends.
In the end it is not the great name, not the unbelievable talent nor the famous family, not the tragic story or the Noah's Ark of his animals, but the deeply felt humanity of the art of this man that touches me in my innermost being – as I hope it touches you. Thank you.
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