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Emily McDowell
French artist Emile-Antoine Bourdelle’s (1861-1929) bronze bust entitled, “Mask
of Beethoven” (ca. 1905), is a portrait paying homage to the famous composer, with roots
in both cultural and individual interests. Bourdelle’s France was characterized by the
“cult” of Beethoven. This cult glorified Beethoven’s ability to tap into his inner
creativity to create intense music that united with the forces of life. This cultural
phenomenon certainly influenced Bourdelle’s initial interest in Beethoven.
Yet Bourdelle had a more personal connection with the composer. When
Bourdelle was eighteen, he first encountered an engraving of Beethoven. He was stuck
by what he considered to be a startling visual resemblance of himself. Perhaps it was this
first encounter that sparked the inspiration for Bourdelle’s Beethoven series, which
occupied him until his death. This series of busts portray Beethoven in a variety of
moods, while utilizing varying modes of representation from carefully modeled figures to
turbulent forms which seem to break forth from the sculpture.
Beyond his superficial connection with Beethoven, Bourdelle more importantly
identified with the composer’s creativity. He once even claimed he could “hear”
sculptures in Beethoven’s music. “Mask of Beethoven,” as with all of the pieces
belonging to Bourdelle’s Beethoven series, seeks to portray the psyche and genius behind
the great composer. Bourdelle related to Beethoven’s creativity and was inspired, which
resulted in a new form of creativity uniquely his own. In this bust, Bourdelle takes the
meaning he perceives from Beethoven’s music and persona, and then translates it to an
expressionist, visual image representing the composer. There is even the possibility that
Bourdelle takes this representation a step further, reflecting his own likeness and persona
into this piece as well.
This piece, on a basic level, is a portrait of Beethoven. However, Bourdelle is not
as concerned about exact, physical representation as he is with expressing the composer’s
psyche. “Mask of Beethoven” is both a cultural and personal homage to the great
composer and his prodigious creativity. In this bust, Bourdelle captures Beethoven in a
moment of fierce creativity and inspiration. Bourdelle achieves this representation of
Beethoven’s creative energy through its expressionist manner. Bourdelle does not
portray Beethoven in the most attractive way; the composer is frowning, and his features
are as rough as the surface of the bust itself. Like the brushstrokes of an impressionist
painting, the molding of this piece is course and consequently not the most realistic of
portrayals. But as a unified piece, Bourdelle proves his great skill as a sculptor by
conveying through this bust the energy behind Beethoven’s psyche. Bourdelle is
appreciating and expressing Beethoven’s genius. Through this portrait, Bourdelle
successfully highlights the creative energy that made Beethoven so unique. Thus this
piece also serves as an “embodiment” of creativity, both that of Beethoven and
“Mask of Beethoven” is a piece of art which engages and intrigues the
contemporary viewer as much as it did its artist over a century ago. Indeed, the passion
and the influence of Bourdelle live on.