I came across the frog rabbit in the basement of the Petit Palais in Paris. A medium-sized plaster sculpture, the frog rabbit is a hairless beast with a pointy reptilian nose, rabbit ears, long talon-like toes, and a stubby rabbit tail with no fur. He is a monster, though it is unclear whether he bodes something evil or merely something strange.
Jean Carriès sculpted “The Frog with Rabbit Ears” in 1891, a couple of years before he met an early death at the hands of an obscure lung ailment the likes of which regularly robbed the world of starving young artists in those days. It was, after all, the fashion: a little art and then a terrible death. It is particularly unfortunate that Carriès wasn’t given a few more years. He was hard at work on his unfinished masterpiece, “Monumental Door.” When finished, it would have been a giant door sculpted with endless grotesque faces and misshapen figures. Looking at the fragments Carriès completed before his death, we can be sure that the door would have been magnificent, a testament to Jean Carriès’ dark vision and extraordinary craftsmanship.
Instead, Jean Carriès died and his art was largely forgotten. Looking back at the art of Carriès today is a reminder that the movement we now call Art Nouveau (Jugendstil in the German world) was diverse. Art Nouveau is often described, and not unjustly, as a movement that tried to bring organic form back to the plastic arts. This was most obvious and startling, perhaps, in architecture and design, where the hard lines and sharp angles of building materials such as iron and concrete were made to bend and flow like plants. Think, for instance, of the buildings constructed by Gaudí in Barcelona. Gaudí’s Casa Milà is made of metal and stone, but its undulating planes and curvy interiors make it seem as if it grew straight out of the ground.
In his historical study of 19th-century Paris — the Arcades Project — Walter Benjamin said, “Jugendstil is the second attempt on the part of art to come to terms with technology. The first attempt was realism.” Benjamin considered this second attempt largely to be a failure. To him, Art Nouveau was the clumsy process of trying to “dress up” the inorganic forms of modern construction in the false clothing of the natural world. Basically, it was a lie.
If Benjamin was right about Art Nouveau in general, then Jean Carriès was a dissenter from the movement who refused to play along with the lie. Carriès did not carry the prettifying gene. He had an eye for the monstrous, for the contortions of nature and its abnormalities. If Carriès accepted the idea that the modern city is an extension of the natural world, he did so with the proviso that the extension was a malignant tumor.
In a roundabout way, however, Jean Carriès’ monstrous art ends up contributing something vital to the Art Nouveau movement from which he could otherwise be described as dissenting. It is the unrelenting prettiness of Art Nouveau that is its weakest point. Nature itself constantly produces monsters, deformities, mutations, an overabundance that transforms into discord and decay. Carriès offered up this side of the natural process to the plastic procedure of art. An Art Nouveau that includes Jean Carriès is thus a more honest movement, a more complete picture of how the manufactured world of the city is, in the end, continuous with the given world of nature. Carriès reminds us that nature, too, is a maker of monsters and that our own ungainly creations are but another chapter in her infinite book. • 20 August 2010