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FRAME BY FRAME

Cubist take on icon of 1800s

WELLESLEY - Raymond Duchamp-Villon sculpted this terra cotta head of the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, in 1911. Baudelaire had been dead 44 years, but what a long shadow he cast - and continues to cast.

Here, with his smooth and swollen dome, his ruthless nose, his terrifyingly thin lips, and those dead, unseeing, angled eyes with ogee eyebrows, he combines ancient severity (one thinks of Roman or French Gothic sculpted heads) with diabolical, you-will-not-be-spared modernity.

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Duchamp-Villon was the brother of artist Marcel Duchamp, the 20th century’s table-turning trickster-in-chief. He was 34 at the time he made this work. Five years later he contracted typhoid fever while stationed with the French Army at Champagne. He died less than a month before the end of the First World War.

Duchamp-Villon was trained in medicine at the Sorbonne, but took up sculpting after an earlier bout of illness. He was an early champion - and practitioner - of Cubism. His most famous work is a Cubist sculpture of daunting, mechanistic rigidities called “The Large Horse.’’

Why Duchamp-Villon chose to sculpt the long-dead Baudelaire, as opposed to, say, his contemporary Guillaume Apollinaire, an avant-garde poet-critic, in this ultramodern style is hard to say, but he was probably riffing on a head by Auguste Rodin, long believed to be of Baudelaire.

At any rate, one feels Baudelaire himself - if he could recover from the surprise of seeing himself so conceived - would have approved.

Baudelaire may have been prescient; he was certainly some kind of genius. But he was not really as monstrously unswerving as he appears here: He was an anguished, self-destructive, and sickly loafer with a bad temper. (You can see how haggard and irritable he had become near the end of his life in a famous photograph by Nadar.)

But he was constitutionally made for passionate belief, in an age that had fewer and fewer uses for faith of any kind (except, perhaps, faith in pleasure). “To glorify the cult of images,’’ he once jotted (dismally?) in his diary - “my single, great, original passion.’’

He may have been one of the last of the Romantics. But in many ways Baudelaire’s achievement was to redefine Romanticism - by then a dwindling style, a jumble of literary and historical allusions - as whatever forms of beauty were most up-to-date, and most privately compelling.

By 1911, “up-to-date’’ and “compelling’’ meant Cubism. It meant the severe planes and masklike simplifications of Matisse’s portraits of his wife and Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. And it also meant this astounding portrait of the most compelling art critic and one of the finest poets who ever lived, a man Gustave Flaubert called “as unyielding as marble, as penetrating as an English mist.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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