Obituary: Cesar

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THE FRENCH sculptor Cesar was one of the original agents provocateurs of modern art. A member of the New Realism movement who enjoyed squashing automobiles and other metal objects to create his work, Cesar often attracted controversy. Eventually, the darling of the avant-garde became so famous in his homeland that, in 1975, the French film industry asked him to create the statuette presented to actors as the country's equivalent of the Oscar. There could only be one name for the award: the Cesar.

Born in 1921 along with a twin sister, Cesar Baldaccini was the son of Italian immigrants and grew up in Marseilles. "I'm a peasant, a self-taught man," he was fond of saying. "I didn't go to school, I played truant. Chance meetings in cafes mattered more to me than books. The street taught me the lessons of life."

Although he left school at 12 to work with his father, a barrel-maker, Cesar would spend hours drawing. He was also influenced by his mother, who worked as a cleaning lady but loved Michelangelo, and he took evening classes at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Marseilles from 1935 to 1942.

After a year of forced labour under the Germans in the Var area with les Chantiers de la Jeunesse, he won a scholarship and studied at l'Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris. Already a rebellious talent, Cesar would infuriate his lecturers by ignoring their teachings and creating tiny figures out of metal or plaster.

Coming back to Marseilles in 1944, he struggled doing odd jobs and eventually returned north. He may have been in the right place at the right time but, for a struggling conceptual artist, life was hard. "At Les Deux Magots, I hung out with Jean Cocteau and Orson Welles. They went there because they were famous. I was sitting outside on the terrace because I didn't have anywhere else to go," he recalled later.

In the early Fifties, hammer and blowtorch in hand, Cesar set about moulding and reshaping scrap metal found on rubbish tips and at the Villetaneuse factory. "It doesn't cost me anything," was his justification. He created fantastic, eerie-looking animals (Poisson, Chat, Chauve-Souris, Rascasse, Moustique, Scorpion, a veritable three-dimensional bestiary) and human figures with tragic or comic expressions (L'Homme Qui Marche, produced in 1954, the year of his first show, at the Galerie Lucien Durand in Paris, L'Homme de Draguignan, La Parisienne, La Grande Duchesse, Nus de Saint-Denis).

He showed expressionist leanings. His work also betrayed the influence of Picasso, Duchamp, Brancusi, Giacometti and Germaine Richier. Indeed, Cesar's new direction paralleled the Arte Povera movement in Italy and that of France's own matieristes, who used "lost and found" material to create their work.

A move to bigger metal panels, like the ones used by car manufacturers, made Cesar's name. Soon he was bashing, beating and burning heavy and light metal alike. Solex mopeds, bedframes, bumpers, coffee-makers, tins, cans, crates and even fake Cartier watches seized by French customs; everything was fair game for Cesar's squash-and-melt approach. It was only a matter of time before he graduated to compressing a whole car with a power hammer.

The resulting blocks of twisted steel invited grandiose intellectual interpretations. Ironic comment on the consumer society? Symbol of a decaying Western civilisation? In 1960, the metal cubes drove political and cultural commentators of both left and right to write reams of prose about the sculptor. His detractors waded in and called Cesar a charlatan. Museums and collectors bought his sculptures all the same. Cesar would point out that "a ton of melted iron is not like a blank canvas. You have to feel and master the material, make it yours. It has its own life."

According to the art critic Ann Cremin, "the French establishment always has trouble with commercial success. Cesar was a life force. Wherever he was, there was a buzz. People gravitated towards him, yet Cesar refused to take himself seriously. He even compacted the wreckage of a friend's car after he'd been in a serious accident so the survivor could display the sculpture in his Paris living room. A masterstroke worthy of Andy Warhol!"

Cesar also worked with more traditional materials like plaster, creating Le Pouce, a huge reproduction of his own thumb, which caused a sensation at the 1967 Salon de Mai in Paris as part of an exhibition entitled Compressions et Expansions. A 40ft tall variation now stands in La Defense, the Paris business district, while a 30ft-tall bronze version still welcomes visitors to the Musee d'Art Contemporain in Marseilles. Taking the commercial potential of the idea to its logical conclusion, the sculptor eventually made endless reproductions of his famous thumb, for every budget and in every size (including a thumb-size desktop model).

The discovery of polyurethane excited the artist even more: the foam- like compound which expanded or contracted according to the space available seemed tailor-made for him. In 1968, he came to London and demonstrated his new processes at the Tate Gallery. He was feted by the intelligentsia in Tokyo, Paris, New York and Helsinki.

In the late Sixties he created Sein ("Breast") by moulding the decolletage of a Crazy Horse dancer and then blowing up the dimensions to a monumental and breathtaking scale. Confronted with a symbol of their Freudian fixation, the French male-dominated media had a field day. Cesar appeared on television and became a household name.

He didn't have much truck with official unveilings and functions and was happier when portrayed as a bon vivant pottering around his workshop in his clogs and overalls. Always self-deprecating, he would go as far as declaring he was "useless, hopeless, worthless. I have no culture, no education whatsoever. I'm not an intellectual. I like to touch. It's my hands that make my head work. My sensibility drove me to create. I have a purely physical and organic relationship with art. Everything to me is tactile and instinctive."

He would sometimes bemoan the lack of "an art dealer to push the work in the United States. I have a difficult life," he claimed. "In fact, I've had several lives, several houses, several stages in my work. I don't disown any of it. I just ask people to interpret it differently."

In the Seventies, Cesar lectured at l'Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts. He began a series of Masques by moulding his own bearded face in plastic and plaster. Many a French art student followed his lead. In 1975, he was approached by Georges Cravenne to fashion the film award statuette named after him, which was first presented the following year. In 1976, he was also made Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur.

Even wider recognition came when one of his "compressions" was pictured on a French stamp in 1984. The same year he paid an Hommage a Eiffel, using material recycled from the Eiffel Tower, and when his L'Homme du Futur was installed in the small Burgundy town of Clamecy, it caused as much uproar as Antony Gormley's Angel of the North has in Gateshead.

In 1995, Cesar built a 500-tonne wall of piled-up cars for the Venice film festival, while, last year, the Jeu de Paume in Paris mounted a huge retrospective which ran for four months. Unfortunately, Marseilles has so far balked at the cost of a Cesar museum, even though he had presented his hometown with 186 of his works.

Cesar Baldaccini (Cesar), sculptor: born Marseilles, France 1 January 1921; married 1960 Rosine Suzanne Groult (one daughter); died Paris 6 December 1998.