Ipoustéguy

Sculptor of total originality


Jean Robert (Ipoustéguy), sculptor and artist: born Dun-sur-Meuse, France 6 January 1920; married (one daughter deceased); died Dun-sur-Meuse 8 February 2006.

The sculptor Ipoustéguy was one of the world's greatest human beings. Few people knew his name, but his giant works live on in public places in churches and museums all over the globe. He was a genius from the working classes who became an angel of art.

He was born Jean Robert at Dun-sur-Meuse, in Lorraine, the village to which he finally returned three years before his death. He took his mother's maiden name as his signature in art, perhaps influenced by the sculptor known as Adam, who was his first teacher. His beloved father was a joiner who inspired his son from an early age, for he was a good amateur painter, a violinist and enthusiast for amateur theatricals. He was also a great reader, and passed on all these gifts to his son.

Consequently, the boy did exceptionally well at school. He never forgot the inspired work of one of his teachers, a Monsieur Lesbounit, who had encouraged him to read books well beyond the normal range for a child of his age, and introduced him to the world of art through visits to the Louvre and galleries of contemporary painters and sculptors. Ipoustéguy always said he had the good luck to be taught by two wonderful fathers.

He started as a humble lawyer's clerk but from the age of 18 attended art classes in the evenings. It was here that he met the sculptor Adam, who at once recognised his pupil's artistic promise, and remained a close friend all his life: his massive sculptural works like the 1949 Grand Nu and the giant concrete figure Signal outside the Maison de la Culture at Le Havre certainly were an inspiration for Ipoustéguy's later monumental works.

But art studies were interrupted by the misery of war. He was mobilised, but joined the Resistance. After the Liberation, he got his first job teaching drawing. He joined a "collective" of young artists to decorate the church of Saint-Jacques at Montrouge, in Paris. But from 1949 he started serious sculpture studies and with the recommendation of Adam exhibited at the 1956 Salon de Mai: it was the first time I saw his name and his first great work, La Rose. This one-metre high sculpture, of a rose clutched in an enormous hand, was prophetic of his later large-scale woks. However, it attracted no critical attention.

Like many artists of his generation, Ipoustéguy became a fervent disciple of Abstractionism, especially in the work of Brancusi, before returning to figuration. In 1962, a visit to Greece became an important step in his development, with the creation of giant free-standing figures like La Terre ("Earth", 1962), L'Homme ("Man", 1963) and the heroic figures placed in a setting like his Ecbatane (1965), realised in expanded polystyrene, then in cast iron. He also began experimenting with all kinds of treatment of bronze, which produced two of his best-known works, L'Homme passant la porte ("Man Passing Through the Door") and La Femme au Bain ("Woman in the Bath", 1966).

It was now that his art took a change of direction, occasioned by a number of deaths among his family and friends. The death of his father is memorialised in a giant recumbent marble figure wearing a mortuary mask of electroplated silver and crowned with a papal tiara, a work of startling grandeur now in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. His mother's death is expressed in a more direct form in L'Agonie de la mère (1968).

Most of these impressive works were created at Choisy-le-Roi, a suburb of Paris, where since 1948 he had been repairing and living in a disused ceramics factory. He had converted this into an immense studio on a sort of treasure island, which he and his family allowed to grow wild until it resembled one of the jungles of the Douanier Rousseau, inhabited by all kinds of happy animals and birds, a veritable artist's paradise, wherein, he said, "my sculptures are enveloped in their own simplicity. I am an image-maker. I cannot disassociate the image from its environment." He lived there rather remote from the rest of the world, though never far from art.

He showed his works in Paris with Claude Bernard, who remained his admirer and agent to the end. He obtained numerous commissions - not always then found acceptable. His great work of art in celebration of the French army medical corps, intended for the Val de Grâce military hospital in Paris, is now in the possession of France's former enemies at the Kunsthalle in Darmstadt, Germany, while an abashed Lyons was reluctant to take on his tribute to the city's great (and highly sexed) woman poet of the 16th century Louise Labé. His Rimbaud (1985) for the courtyard of the Arsenal in Paris was very coolly received ("arse and all" as I heard one British tourist describe it).

The total originality of Ipoustéguy's life and character produced great work without equal. His works can now be seen all over Europe - France, Germany, Denmark, Italy, even Britain (at the Tate). He is also well represented in museums in the United States, Canada and Israel.

James Kirkup

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