A fine body of work

She posed for Matisse, Bonnard and Dufy, but Dina Vierny's relationship with the sculptor Aristide Maillol was something else. By Ian Phillips
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The Independent Culture
"I have had the chance to know almost all the great men of my time," says Dina Vierny. She has rubbed shoulders with Charles de Gaulle and the nuclear physicist, Oppenheimer. She was friends with legendary French writers, such as Andre Gide, Jacques Prevert and Andre Breton. She lunched with Picasso and posed for Matisse, Bonnard and Dufy. Yet, she is best known for being the model and muse of the French sculptor, Aristide Maillol.

"My life has been devoted to Maillol," she claims, and in her eyes he is one of the three greatest sculptors of all time, along with Michelangelo and Rodin. Maillol began his first major statue, The Mediterranean, at the age of 41 in 1902, and over the next 40 years gained ever-increasing acclaim for his sculptures of the female form captured in attitudes of voluptuous calm and repose. In 1964, Vierny donated the 18 Maillol sculptures now displayed in Paris's Tuileries Gardens to the French state, and earlier this year opened the exquisite Musee Maillol only a stone's throw from Saint-Germain-des-Pres. On show alongside Maillol sculptures, pastels and oils is Vierny's splendid private collection, which includes works by Rodin, Kandinsky, Degas, Cezanne and Poliakoff.

Vierny herself is everywhere in the museum. She is cast in bronze by Maillol on the ground floor, painted in oils by Bonnard on the first, and drawn in ink by Matisse on the second. You will also find her in the flesh in the same building - she has lived in the same apartment there since 1954.

The room where we meet looks more like the museum's archives than somebody's house. There are drawings and canvases piled up against the walls, and part of Vierny's doll collection sits behind her on an antique chest of drawers. Vierny is now 76, and while she no longer displays her model figure of days gone by, she exudes an infectious warmth and enthusiasm. Maillol once wrote to Matisse that she "talks like Gide", and on meeting Vierny, you realise that she must have seduced the great artists of that time as much by her intelligence as by her appearance.

Yet it was her looks that first attracted Maillol's attention. She was only 15 when she first met him in 1934, by which time Maillol was already a venerable 73. They had an architect friend in common and Maillol wrote to her: "Mademoiselle, I have been told that you look like a Maillol and a Renoir. I'll make do with the Renoir." He invited her to come to his small bourgeois villa in the Parisian suburb of Marly-le-Roi. She at first refused and was only persuaded to go when she heard that the who's who of the art world gathered there on Sunday mornings. "How will I recognise him?" she asked a friend. "Look for the old man with the large white beard," came the reply. She followed the advice to the letter and strode up enthusiastically to greet the first elderly bearded male in sight - a rather astonished Van Dongen.

Andre Gide was also there. "Later on, we got on really well, but Gide was not nice that day," remembers Vierny. "He had a book under his arm and I asked him what it was. He replied: 'You are excessively indiscreet. That's none of your business.' "

But all other artists paled into insignificance when she was finally introduced to Maillol. "I looked like [all the sculptures] he'd ever made and he called me over and said that he wanted to work with me. But, like all young people, I was very pretentious and said 'never'. Then he went to get his wife and they said such wonderful things that the ice finally melted."

It was the beginning of a symbolic collaboration which would last for 10 years until Maillol's death in 1944. He had worked with numerous other models before, but none had represented his ideal image of a woman. "One day, I was climbing up an almond tree and Maillol turned to my father," recalls Vierny. "He said to him: 'You made her, but it was I who invented her.' And he really did believe that he had invented me. He said that he had been drawing my features for 20 years before my birth."

If Maillol had finally found his muse, then Vierny had found her "spiritual father". "I did not work with him because he was famous. I'm the opposite of a snob," says Vierny, who today remains down-to-earth. "I modelled for him because it was completely fascinating. Otherwise, I would not have stayed for 10 minutes. He was a very funny man. I laughed for 10 long years with him. Of all the artists I have known, he was the only one who was not selfish."

Maillol's altruism stretched to lending his favourite model to his artist friends - Matisse, Bonnard and Dufy. Vierny spent much of the war years at Banyuls on the Mediterranean coast where Maillol had a house, and acted as a go-between for the four great artists. "Luckily, Maurice Denis and Vuillard were on the other side of the demarcation line, so I didn't have to go and pose for them too," she laughs.

She did, however, go regularly for Sunday lunch to Raoul Dufy's in Perpignan. "Maillol said to me, 'You must go and learn.' At the time, I was studying chemistry at university and sending me to Dufy was part of Maillol's mission to draw me away from science towards the arts."

In the Musee Maillol, there is a line drawing dedicated to Vierny from "her old friend, Raoul Dufy", and she remembers how he once told her that he was "the youngest of my old friends". Given that at the time Maillol was 82 and Matisse 74, Dufy did have a point. After all, he was still a relatively youthful 66. Vierny compares him to champagne. "He was bubbly, amusing and unpredictable," she remembers. "He was always playing tricks."

Pierre Bonnard proved to be a lot more reserved. "At the beginning he did not say anything. I said to myself, 'What am I doing here?' Then, all of a sudden, he began to talk and was wonderful. Just like Maillol, he was very humble about his work. But he suffered a lot because his wife would not allow him to have other models or to see his friends. I was the only woman who ever posed naked for him except her, and I once said to him, 'Matisse is just nearby. Why don't you go and see him?' But his wife wouldn't let him."

Fortunately, Vierny did not suffer from the same restrictions and spent several months with Matisse in Nice. "We were very close," she says affectionately. "He was adorable. Not at all like how he is portrayed in books. If Maillol was my father, then Matisse was my uncle." Matisse executed numerous drawings of her and even tried to persuade her to pose for a "Matisse Olympia". "Until the age of 30, I did look like Manet's Olympia," says Vierny, "but I asked him how long it would take. 'Six to eight months,' was the reply. I couldimagine the expression on Maillol's face and sent him a telegram saying, 'Matisse wants to do an Olympia with me.' " She received a pithy reply within days - "Come back immediately."

Picasso was one artist whom she did not meet through Maillol, but simply through artistic circles during the war. "I used to cross over the demarcation line to go and have lunch with him," she recalls. "The fact that I took the risk pleased him enormously." They later lost touch when Picasso joined the Communist Party, but Vierny remembers bumping into him in the middle of the street years later. "He insulted me and said, 'Why did you disappear?' "

After the war, Matisse persuaded Vierny to open a gallery at Saint-Germain- des-Pres and launched artists like Poliakoff in the Fifties. In the late Sixties, she returned to her native Russia (which she had left at the age of seven when her family took up exile in Paris), and discovered three of the finest contemporary Russian artists - Kabakov, Yankelevsky and Bulatov - in the space of one evening.

Yet her most enduring mission has been to promote the work of her old "master", Maillol. In true style, she invited yet another "great man of her times" to open the museum last January - the then French president, Francois Mitterrand. "My daughter-in-law was there and was very pregnant," she says. "Mitterrand put his hand on her stomach and she went into labour immediately. My grandson, Alexandre, was born before the end of the opening."

n Musee Maillol, Paris (00 331 42225958)