Cesar Baldaccini
Biography of French Sculptor, Assemblage Junk Artist.

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La Pouce (Thumb) (1965)
A 40-foot high replica of this work
is installed at La Defense, Paris.

Cesar Baldaccini (1921-1998)


Early Life and Career
Other Sculptures

Freedom (undated)
Epinal, France.

See: History of Sculpture.


Famous for his assemblage art and innovative abstract sculpture, the French artist Cesar Baldaccini, known simply as Cesar, was an active member of the Parisian world of avant-garde art during the 1950s and 1960s and France's best known sculptor of recent decades. Along with contemporaries Yves Klein (1928-62) and Arman (1928-2005), he was an active participant in the Nouveau Realisme movement, the French variant of Neo-Dada art. Acclaimed and reviled for the imaginative junk art of his scrap metal compressions, typically made from squashed cars (Compression Ricard, 1962, National Museum of Modern Art, Pompidou Centre, Paris), he was also known for his polyurethane foam sculptures called expansions (Expansion No 14, 1970, Pompidou Centre), and organic abstraction (Divided Head, 1963, Fiorini, London). Both loved and detested by the French cultural establishment, Cesar was one of the most innovative and 'visual' of 20th century sculptors. Occasionally kitsch, his sculpture was more often arresting and witty - like La Pouce, a replica of his thumb. He also produced some disturbing self-portraits.

Louise Nevelson (1899-1988)
Anthony Caro (1924-2013)
Duane Hanson (1925-96)
Sol LeWitt (1928-2007)

For a list of the world's top 100
3-D artworks, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

For a guide to the world's
top plastic artists, see:
Greatest Sculptors.


Early Life and Career

Born to Italian parents in la Belle-de-Mai, a working class neighbourhood of Marseilles, he quit school at 12 to work with his father before taking night classes at the city's Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1935-9) at the age of 15. Later he enrolled at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1943-1948), where he lived for the remainder of his life. Influenced by modern artists including Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Germaine Richier (1902-59), Picasso (1881-1973), and Jean Dubuffet (1901-85), he began the initial phase of his career as an artist by making a series of sculptures (of fish, animals and insects) out of soldered and welded fragments of scrap iron. In 1954, he enjoyed his first one-man show at the Galerie Lucien Durand in Paris, and the following year received an invitation to represent France at the 1956 Venice Biennale. By the end of the 1950s he was seen as one of France's leading exponents of plastic art.


In 1960, when paying a visit to a scrap merchant, Cesar saw a hydraulic crushing machine in action, and decided to make use of it in his sculpture. By combining pieces from differently coloured vehicles, he was able to control the surface pattern and colour scheme of the crushed package. He exhibited his first crushed cars - known as 'compressions' - at the Salon de Mai, causing an outcry among the French art critics and public. Later in the year he joined the Nouveaux Realistes (New Realists) - a French movement founded by Klein, Arman, the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely (1925-91) and the art critic Pierre Restany (1930-2003) - whose aim was the creation of a new concept of art more in tune with the new consumerist society.


During the early 1960s, as well as welding metal he also cast in bronze: see, for instance, his graceful semi-surreal organic work Divided Head (1963). Then in 1965, he added plastic to his list of mediums. He began with plastic moulds of human imprints, creating large-scale shiny replicas of parts of the human body - with echoes of the pop sculpture of Claes Oldenburg (b.1929) - before turning to polyurethane foam in 1966 which he allowed to expand and solidify. These polyurethane sculptures he dubbed expansions, in contrast to his previous 'compressions'. He became so taken with plastic and other new materials, that the following year he abandoned metal welding altogether. During the period 1967-70, influenced by Klein and Arman, he even turned briefly to performance art, by arranging a series of Happenings during which he produced expansions in the presence of an audience.



Other Sculptures

In 1975 he designed the French film awards, modelled on Hollywood's Oscars, which are now universally known as Cesars. He began experimenting with glass sculpture and also produced a number of sculptures made from molten crystal. He also became involved in two pieces of public art, which are seen every day by thousands of Parisian commuters: Centaur (1985), a large equestrian-like statue, which he described as a homage to Picasso and which stands in the Carrefour de la Croix-Rouge on the Left Bank; and a 40-foot high reproduction of his original work La Pouce (thumb), which is located at La Defense in western Paris. In 1995 he was France's representative at the 1995 Venice Biennale.

Appreciation of 3-D Art
To learn how to evaluate contemporary sculptors like Cesar, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

In 1978, Cesar was made Chevalier of the Legion d'honneur and, in 1993, Officier. He died of cancer in Paris, in December 1998, aged 77.

Works by Cesar can be seen in many of the best art museums in France, including Le Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges-Pompidou, and the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. In 2009 a major retrospective of his art was held at the Jeu de Paume, in Paris.

• For more about the history and styles of assemblages, see: Homepage.

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