Charles Malfray

L'irruption de la modernité dans la sculpture

Portrait du sculpteur art deco Charles Malfray de l'école de Rodin

Charles Malfray

ORLÉANS 1887 - DIJON 1940

Aristide Maillol, Charles Despiau, Robert Wlerick, Antoine Bourdelle, among others, all regarded Charles Malfray as a master sculptor. Charles Malfray, whose work sparked a scandal akin to Rodin’s Balzac, signaling a pivotal moment in 20th-century modern sculpture, was born into a family of stonecutters and architects. He began his apprenticeship under sculptor Alfred Lanson and continued his training until 1904 at the École des beaux-arts d’Orléans. Moving to Paris to join his brother Henri, an architecture student, Malfray immersed himself in bohemian life and independence. He rubbed shoulders with eminent artists like Auguste Rodin and forged enduring friendships with contemporaries such as Antoine Bourdelle, Charles Despiau, Maurice Ravel, and Aristide Maillol.

In 1907, Malfray enrolled at the École des beaux-arts de Paris, supplementing his academic pursuits with dedicated drawing sessions, capturing spontaneous moments along the Seine’s quays. His resolve to break free from academic constraints became evident. Participating in numerous competitions until 1914, Malfray was enlisted into the artillery that year. The war years proved immensely challenging, with his health significantly compromised after repeated exposure to gas during the brutal battles at Chemin des Dames.

Despite several pre-war setbacks, Malfray clinched the second prize of Rome in 1920 for his masterpiece “Maternity”, subsequently acquired by the State. However, he faced personal and financial turmoil until his mother’s passing in 1935. Coping with his brother’s mental illness, who passed away in 1932, and contending with the aesthetic disputes surrounding war memorials for Pithiviers and Orléans, Malfray found himself in profound moral and financial distress. Despite his innovative style, the press, associations, and local authorities persistently criticized Charles Malfray’s work, remaining indifferent to his artistic contributions.

Photographie de la sculpture du groupe sculpté principal du monument à la victoire d'Orléans par Charles Malfray
Photographie du monument à la Victoire de Charles Malfray pour la ville d'Orléans en cours de réalisation - Archives municipales et métropolitaines d’Orléans

Charles Malfray’s sculptures are known for their strength and solidity. Quickly diverging from academic norms, he drew inspiration from Romanesque art, which he admired as authentic, and from Khmer art, which provided him with muscular anatomical references. By breaking with the academic conventions of his time and returning to an ancient, genuine, and sincere sculptural style, Malfray considered himself truly modern.

In his own words: “Modern art, as you put it, is merely the precise pursuit of the true tradition in sculpture, a tradition we have lost since the 15th century.” – Notes, Charles Malfray.

Amedeo Modigliani’s sculptures also show influences from Khmer art.

Dessin au fusain du sculpteur Malfray de l'école de Rodin
Charles Malfray - Danseuse - Dessin au fusain vers 1937

It’s striking to note that sculptor Charles Malfray, in his creative process, remains wholly aligned with the principles guiding his work and his vision of sculpture, which takes on a distinctly architectural essence. As he underscores in his notes, “Architecture in sculpture… in other words, what truly matters in sculpture… Everything else is insignificant…”. For Malfray, architecture embodies the mastery of the forces governing matter in a pursuit of elevation. This resonates seamlessly with his sculptural approach, emphasizing power and solidity while drawing inspiration from architectural structures to craft works that assert themselves through their strength and presence.

This is exemplified by Malfray’s depiction of the dancer.

Charles Malfray - la danse sculpture art deco de 1938
Haut-relief La Danse par Charles Malfray

Esteemed and supported by his contemporaries, Charles Malfray enjoyed fervent advocacy from leading sculptors of his time such as Charles Despiau, Antoine Bourdelle, or Robert Wlerick, as well as prominent art critics like André Warnod, Louis Vauxcelles, or Charles Kunstler. With the backing of his peers, notably Maillol, Malfray had the opportunity to teach sculpture and drawing at the Académie Ranson, ensuring a modest income for himself.

Starting from 1935, several exhibitions and state commissions invigorated Charles Malfray, providing him with a renewed momentum that persisted until 1939. In that year, he participated in the exhibition “A Century of French Sculpture” in Amsterdam, alongside Rude, Carpeaux, Rodin, Despiau, and Maillol.

Charles Malfray met an abrupt end in Dijon in 1940. It was only after his passing that, through exhibitions and retrospectives in the 1950s, he was acknowledged, alongside Rodin, Bourdelle, or Maillol, as one of the eminent figures of 20th-century sculpture. A significant number of figurative sculptors, including the group of Nine (comprising Jean Carton, Raymond Corbin, Paul Cornet, Marcel Damboise, Léon Indenbaum, Léopold Kretz, Gunnar Nilsson, Jean Osouf, and Raymond Martin), endeavored to preserve his memory.

The works of Charles Malfray presented by Galerie Theophanos