Richier created The Bat shortly after returning to Paris from Zurich, where she and her husband, the Swiss-German sculptor Charles-Otto Bänninger (1897–1973), had spent the war years. Her return to France appears to have generated a burst of creative experimentation: in making The Bat, she employed a new technique of dipping tow (rope fibre) in plaster, before draping it over the metal armature that forms the basis of the animal’s lacy wings. Also innovative in this period are the wire spokes themselves; she had first incorporated such wires in a series of sculptures created immediately before The Bat, including Mantis and The Spider I and II (reproduced Germaine Richier: Rétrospective, pp.62–8). Mantis and the two spiders portray female figures with insect or arachnoid characteristics; by contrast, the relationship of The Bat to the human figure is more ambiguous; only through its head – which is human in scale in relation to its body – and in its elongated neck can any resemblance to the human form be discerned. Her print Bat 1948–51 (P11286) shows a similarly proportioned creature, its facial features recognisably human. It seems likely that these works were based on study of an actual bat. A visitor to Richier’s studio after the artist’s death found in a cupboard a miscellany of books and objects that had inspired the artist, including pebbles, petrified plants, and a skeleton of a bat with its wings spread out. Richier always worked from models. Françoise Guiter, her niece, has stated that the artist asked a relative to send her mantises from the village in Provence where she spent her childhood, which she used as sources for Mantis. Richier herself said, ‘All my sculptures, even those that seem to contain the greatest amount of imagination, are based on something true, on an organic truth ... The imagination needs a point of departure. It is thence possible to plunge straight into poetry ... I invent more easily while contemplating nature – its presence makes me independent.’ (Quoted in Frances Morris ed., Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945–55, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, p.161.)
Having established her sculptural practice with naturalistic busts and nudes created by modelling in clay from life during the late 1920s and the 1930s, Richier produced her first hybrid figure, combining human with insect, in 1944. The Grasshopper, Small Version (reproduced Germaine Richier: Rétrospective, p.46) depicts a woman, whose tiny stylised head and low crouching pose suggest a grasshopper, about to leap. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s she developed this theme, allowing human-animal or -insect hybridity to become an increasingly abstracted play on anthropomorphic form, until her final work Chess Board, Large Version 1959 (T07616), which comprises five semi-abstracted figures that combine human and animal characteristics. The theme of human and animal or vegetable hybridity was prevalent in sculpture and painting during the post-war years in Europe, in part a response to the horrors of war. Reacting against the culture of the ‘civilized’ world, many western artists turned to nature and the sculptural objects produced by primitive peoples. Representations of figures in which animal or vegetable forms combine with the human came to European art via primitivism through such surrealists as Max Ernst (1891–1976), whose sculpture The King Playing with the Queen 1944 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) presents a human upper torso with an abstracted square-shaped horned head fixed to a section of chessboard over which he presides. While Ernst was concerned with a personal mythology, woven from tribal cultures combined with moments of mystical and emotional intensity in his own life, the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam (1902–82) created images of hybrid figures in his paintings of the 1940s, such as The Jungle 1943 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), as a way of reconnecting with his Afro-Cuban roots. In a similar way, Richier appears to have been drawn to human-animal-vegetable hybridity by a nostalgia for her childhood in rural southern France. At the same time, the rough, pitted surfaces of Richier’s sculptures, and their frequently emaciated forms, recall the aesthetic of such sculptures by her friend Alberto Giacometti (1901–66) as Man Pointing 1947 (N05939) and Standing Woman 1948–9 (T00780).
Richier’s method of constructing The Bat proved a great challenge to the foundry that made the mould for the original edition of eleven in 1946, the open membrane structure of its wings very difficult to cast (Germaine Richier: Rétrospective, p.70). The effect, however, was striking: unlike the modelled volumes of traditional bronzes, the wings had a linear, almost graphic, quality, which in turn suggested the underlying nerves and sinews of the bat – as well as a sense of tension and energy. Richier commented: ‘The main quality of sculpture is, in my view, the way one renounces full and solid form. Holes and perforations lead like lightning bolts into the matter, which becomes organic and open; wrapped by all its sides, lit from above, from inside and through the openings.’ (Quoted in Germaine Richier, p.24.) She used this technique again, in even more refined form, for a sculpture entitled La Mandoline or La Cigale (The Mandolin or The Cicada) 1954–5 (reproduced Germaine Richier: Rétrospective, p.143), the body of which is almost entirely made of wire while its wings are a trellis of plaster-encrusted fibre. Like this sculpture, The Bat is cast in natural non-patinated bronze that has been highly polished to give it a golden colour.
Tate’s copy of The Bat is the fifth in a posthumous edition of six created under the direction of Francoise Guiter (the artist’s neice) by L. Thinot, Paris, the foundry responsible for casting Richier’s sculptures during her life.
Germaine Richier: Rétrospective, exhibition catalogue, Fondation Maeght, Paris 1996, pp.69–70, reproduced p.71.
Luca Massimo Barbero, Germaine Richier, exhibition catalogue, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice 2006, p.88, reproduced p.89.