Totemic Sculpture attributed to Janine JanetBy Janine Janet, read more.
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About this piece
Plaster totem/statue, the cleft hoof base supporting a pillar-like body of climbing ivy and entwined snake, ending in an antlered stag's head with symbolic crown
France, 1950 - 1960
'For her, there are no boundaries between species or genres; they are bound by a profound affinity.' (Claude d'Anthenaise, 'Janine Janet: Métamorphose', p.9.)
This mysterious totem statue in plaster is attributed to the French sculptor, set designer and installation artist, Janine Janet.
Born in 1913 on the French island of La Réunion, Janet spent her childhood surrounded by exotic nature - an upbringing which engrained in her a profound love of the elemental and animal. This love was to serve as the basis for the artist's free-spirited preoccupation with breaking the boundaries between the genres found in the natural world.
Having spent time at the École des Beaux arts in Toulouse and Paris, Janet remained in the capital to study at the École des Art Décoratifs, experimenting with painting, engraving and sculpture. Her style developed within the context of a broad artistic reaction against the rationalism that prevailed during the Art Deco movement. Artists had begun to stretch their imaginations and liberate their minds to explore the irrational, the bizarre and the fantastical.
The artist is perhaps best known for the unique window displays she created for fashion designers, particularly those made in collaboration with the designer Cristobal Balenciaga, who requested that the artist work for him after admiring her talent. Her ambitious creations were thus at the forefront of the Parisian fashion scene, and were often shown on their own - without the designer's clothes - to embody the brand's spirit and capture the attention of the audience of the Parisian streets through their curious narrative and medium. These sculptures frequently incorporated singular or incomplete sections of the body, isolated from the whole. One such example is 'Nymphe', a plaster figure created for Balenci- aga in 1957. Janet has covered the plaster in golden straw; the woman's armless torso poised amongst bundles of wheat. The scale of the piece, at 140cm, is similar to that of our plaster totem.
Janet also worked closely with the poet and artist, Jean Cocteau, creating costumes for his 1950s Orphic Trilogy - a project which married both artists' fascination with mythology. The horse costume created for Testament of Opheus, for instance, morphs a human body with a horse's head and tail, creating a surreal therianthropic vision.
Our totem statue is highly evocative of this same predilection for metamorphosis. Emerging from a base with a cleated hoof at each corner, the pillar-like body of the statue rises, its crystallised surface suggesting climbing leaves of ivy, ending in deer's head. A snake entwines itself around the figure. Unlike Janet's creations made of found objects, this statue is of pure plaster: the organic lines of the snake's body and the deer's antlers, together with the delicately interlocking shapes of the leaves, demonstrate a strong sculptural ability.
The mysterious combination of symbols crowning the deer's forehead contributes to the statue's cult-like energy, as well as presenting a window into the significance of the statue. Whilst fire could signify life and prosperity - three flames as past, present and future - the crescent moon and sun together might represent the infinite flow of time. Furthermore, though the snake might first strike a more ominous note with the audience, the serpent is in fact seen in many cultures as a symbol of rebirth. Last but not least, the deer itself - an animal that Janet frequently portrayed in her work - is also often understood as harbouring a regenerative power. Here it is exalted both through the physical uplifting of its head, as well as the symbolic crest adorning it, adding to its natural crown of antlers.
Janet cited nature as helping her come to terms with death: she argued that as the circle of life continues, we are captured in nature, and our bodies and spirits are therefore carried forward infinitely. Her preoccupation with metamorphosis, the transposition of matter from one genre to another, is an embodiment of this be- lief in the indomitable life force found in the natural world.
As with Janet's many other curious works, we are captivated and beguiled through truly imaginative sculpture.
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