Germaine Richier – a monument in sculpture



Germaine Richier generated her first million-dollar auction result a year ago. A pioneer of 20th century sculpture, she has not had as much market impact as artists like Constantin Brancusi, Alberto Giacometti or Louise Bourgeois. Her prices are climbing, but her work remains affordable compared with the major sculptors of the last century.

Germaine RICHIER studied art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montpellier. The influence of Rodin was evident at an early stage after working under Louis-Jacques GUIGUES (1873-1943), a former Rodin assistant. At 20, her first sculptures were essentially academic. In 1926 she moved to Paris to receive private tuition from Émile Antoine BOURDELLE (1861-1929), also a former Rodin disciple. She studied for three years with Bourdelle and moved into her own studio in Paris where she created numerous busts, working essentially with models. During this period, she experimented and developed a more personal vocabulary in a style that nevertheless remained ‘realist’. She also met her future husband, the Swiss sculptor Otto Charles BÄNNINGER (1897-1973) who was also studying with Bourdelle. In 1939, the couple was on holiday in Zurich when WWII broke out. They remained in Switzerland and Richier opened a workshop and met lots of students and other artists including Hans Arp and Alberto Giacometti. Her seven years in German-speaking Switzerland marked a radical change in the way she worked.

The change period

Rodin’s legacy became even more apparent. The sculptures became expressive, breaking with the traditional representation of fixed models. Indeed, the expression of emotions became her primary objective. The metamorphosis began in Switzerland in 1939 when was working on a solid sculpture entitled Lucette. Gradually, the human body started to evolve towards anthropomorphic creatures, reviving an artistic approach rooted in antiquity. Human/animal hybrids… a world populated by forest-men, praying mantises and rooster-women. These enigmatic figures, made exclusively in bronze, earned the artist her first recognition in Switzerland via a series of exhibitions: Basel in 1944, the Kunsthaus in Zürich and the Kunsthalle Bern in 1945, and Geneva in 1946. On June 3 of last year (2014) a large Praying Mantis (165 cm) from this period fetched €370,000 at Sotheby’s in Paris. This giant insect with human breasts has a rough and tormented surface. The ready-to-pounce “man-eater” is very much in tune with the war-traumatized period in which it was created. The work is rare and definitely one of Germaine Richier major pieces, and its price rose 51% in 10 years. However, compared to her contemporaries, Germaine Richier remains substantially under-rated in terms of price. An equivalent work as large and as rare as The Mantis signed by Alberto Giacometti or Louise Bourgeois would fetch several million.
The first million-plus results in Germaine Richier’s market are recent: two new records were recorded last year in Paris with her Don Quixote setting her latest auction record in June 2014. Over two meters tall, the bronze is the largest known sculpture by the artist. It was exhibited at the 21st Venice Biennale in 1952. Sotheby’s Paris gave the work an estimate of 500,000 to 600 000 euros and described it by reference to Giacometti’s wiry silhouette, L’Homme qui marche. At the hammer, the work fetched 1.4 million euros (over 1.6 million including fees), adding 1 million to it price in 2009 (Sotheby’s London, June 25, 2009). In fact over the last five or six years, Richier’s work has generated a number of price “outbreaks”, reflecting a substantial market re-adjustment for this major figure of 20th century sculpture, despite relative anonymity compared with her major contemporaries. For example, Germaine Richier’s prices have only recently caught up with César (1921-1998), an eminent sculptor associated with New Realism… and one of her students.

A few years after returning to Paris in 1946, Germaine Richier integrated color into her work, creating a series of large painted plaster works. More baroque in style, the polychrome characters she portrayed introduced a certain gaiety that was previously absent from her work. These works are extremely rare. Her bronzes, although more sought-after, are much easier to find. Some small format sculptures (20cm) sell for around 10,000 – 15,000 euros, and her works measuring over 1 meter easily fetch above 200,000 euros, even without a bidding duel. Her prints (18% of her market) can be acquired for a few hundred euros. The artist used etchings to illustrate Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Une saison en enfer (series published in 1951).

Recognized during her lifetime, Germaine Richier’s work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1948, 1952 and 1954. It was also presented at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, was the subject of a retrospective at the Musée d’Art moderne de la ville de Paris in 1956, and was exhibited at the Kassel Documenta in 1958. At the height of her fame, the artist fell ill and stopped working for the first time. She died aged of 57 in Montpellier on July 31, 1959. Since her death, the museums of Antibes, of Zurich, the Tate Modern in London, the Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, the Pavilion of the Musée Fabre in Montpellier and the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Venice have organized significant exhibitions of her work. Her works have been integrated into prestigious collections such as the Guggenheim Museum in Venice and the MoMA in New York; but this distinguished artist deserves greater consideration from art history… and the art market.