Born in Marseille in 1921 to Italian parents, César Baldaccini, known as César, went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Marseille from 1935 then the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1943. He remained enrolled there until 1955, the status of student offering him substantial material advantages. At the end of the war, after a brief stay in Marseille working in a shop he came back to Paris in 1946, and in 1947 worked notably in plaster and iron until 1949 when he was introduced to arc welding in a factory in Trans-en-Provence. In 1952 César created his first sculptures using this technique, which allowed him, during those lean times, to work using pieces of discarded metal that he could easily salvage from scrap metal merchants in the district of Villetaneuse. A metal furniture factory in the district invited him to set up his workshop there in 1954: it was the start of the Fers ('Iron') series, powerful and disquieting representations of animals – some imaginary some not – and humans, made from a complex assembly of various pieces of scrap metal that he would elaborate upon prolifically until 1966. Starting with the 3.4m long Poisson (Fish), which would make him famous and which was bought by the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. So much so that he was able to buy a workshop on the Rue Campagne-Première in Paris.
"I became myself the day I dared do certain things that I thought were forbidden. To create, you need to have great freshness, great naivety. What is called sacred fire. In the workshop you forget yourself and the material transforms you. Suddenly one thing leads you to something else and so it goes on. In reality, when you are an artist, you have fun."
"I don't have any imagination. It only comes to me through touch and the eyes. Without these two elements, the brain doesn't function."
In 1958, the discovery at a scrap-metal merchant of a hydraulic press capable of reducing lumps of metal, immediately started César along the path of the Compressions which at first he applied to 3 whole cars. They became rectangular blocks through a mechanical operation that excluded the subjectivity of the artist: a genuine challenge to consumer society that caused a scandal but also put a new focus on an everyday object. Considerations that all made him participate in the foundation of Nouveau Realisme, or "new perceptual approaches to reality" created by art critic Pierre Restany on 27 October 1960, notably alongside Raymond Hains, Nicky de Saint-Phalle and Arman.
César rapidly mastered this technique, choosing his materials and knowing how to arrange them to obtain the desired result: the Compressions dirigées ('Directed Compressions') then moved him away from Nouveau Realism. He still continued to compress (Suite Milanaise, 1998: brand new compressed Fiats were then painted by a Turin factory in that year's colours); even unexpected material such as bales of paper (Un mois de lecture des Bâlois of 1996, 960 tonnes of paper, now lost), fabric, gold jewellery which became cubes to wear as a pendant and also the César trophy (1975).
The sculptor was led to an interest in the human body when he was invited to participate in an exhibition called 'La Main, de Rodin à Picasso', the time he discovered the pantograph, a tool that allows a cast to be enlarged. Recalling Julius Cesar whose raised or lowered thumb decided the fate of gladiators, he decided to mould his thumb and make an enlargement of it in pink plastic. It was the start of the Empreintes humaines (human imprints): thumbs, forefinger, hands, fists and breasts produced in various forms and in very varied materials – from modern plastics and resins to traditional marble, bronze, steel, gold etc.., via more unusual materials such as sugar and bread. They could attain monumental dimensions, up to 12m for Pouce (Thumb) on the Esplanade de la Défense in Paris, 7 tonnes for Poing (Fist) (polished cast stainless steel, installed in 1969 on the Place d'Armes of the Lycée Militaire de Saint-Cyr).
In the course of an experiment during the creation of the Empreintes, César discovered the chemical phenomenon at the origin of the Expansions, an inverted version –also due to lightness – of the Compressions: from 1967 he used polyurethane mousse mixed with freon to carry out performances, cutting and distributing pieces of the 'coulée-oeuvre' (the 'poured work') to the audience to create Expansions in numerous forms and variations, all marked by his intervention: he played with the colours, the degree of solidification, with the flow of the poured elements that were juxtaposed or layered, but also with the mass when it was set, finishing it off by means of sanding, lacquering or coating the top. Never finished with experimentation, he discovered a technical means of preserving these objects in 1969 but also took series of bronzes from them.
Despite a self-mockery that for a long time prevented him from being taken seriously, César was internationally recognised from the 1970s and represented in many major galleries, such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, not to mention public spaces in many cities.
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Art works from César
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