Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 358-359
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It is rare to discover a substantial body of work by an important albeit hitherto neglected artist. But Jacques de Caso has achieved this remarkable feat. He has brought to light a largely forgotten master of French Romanticism, the artist and author, Théophile Bra. In two recent books, one an exhibition catalogue devoted to Bra's visionary drawings, The Drawing Speaks. Théophile Bra: Works 1826-1855, the other an annotated edition of a previously unknown and unpublished manuscript by Bra, L'Évangile rouge, de Caso has brought to the public for the first time results of his extensive research begun after his initial discovery of the treasure trove of drawings and documents which lay neglected for well over a century in the municipal library of Douai. On the basis of a portion of this rich material De Caso restores a major artist to the history of Romanticism.
Théophile Bra, although largely unknown today, was recognized as an important sculptor, especially during the 1820 s when he received significant civic and religious commissions. He was a contemporary of Delacroix and part of the generation of Romantic sculptors that included Barye, David d'Angers, Pradier, Préault and Rude. De Caso emphasizes that, as a result of his eccentricities, originality and aesthetic independence as well as his cult of the self, Bra's public career was short-lived and was already foundering in the 1830 s. After he left Paris to retire to his hometown of Douai in 1847, he was forgotten for the next one hundred and fifty years. Bra, for example, refused to sculpt the nude or treat mythological subjects and refused to cater to popular taste. He believed sculpture should only represent serious historical or religious subjects and portraits of great individuals. Contemporaries and friends such as Balzac considered Bra to be a genius (De Caso suggests he may have been the model for Louis Lambert); others thought he was mad.
The exhibition, The Drawing Speaks..., opened at the Menil Collection in Houston in 1997 (the catalogue was published in French and English with a foreword by Hubert Damisch, the participation of André Bigotte and English translations by Erika Naginski). In his central essay and entries for the exhibition catalogue, De Caso describes Bra's familial tragedies in the late 1820 s that led to spiritual, mystical and artistic crises. He explores the artist's aesthetic vision manifest in the fascinating and arcane filiation between word and image in a group of fifty drawings selected from Bra's vast archive that De Caso describes in the following terms: The archive... served as a measure of the diversity and complexity both of outer events and of Bra's inner psychology in terms of time, place, and context, reevaluated in written and visual form. Through his archive, Bra unfolded the tale of his spiritual quest in what was effectively a diary, and in the process incorporated those themes that obsessed him: God and the experience of the Divine as well as the fundamental claims of science, [End Page 358] reason and faith. (26) De Caso analyzes several of the drawings at some length with especial attention to the interrelationship of text and image and epistemological meanings that Bra ascribed to them.
De Caso's second publication in his mission to resurrect Bra is his annotated edition of Bra's L'Évangile rouge, published by Gallimard in 2000 (postface by Frank Bowman). In a brilliant and lengthy introductory essay, L'Urgence du mot, De Caso situates Bra within a burgeoning Romantic psychology and literary aesthetic. De Caso analyzes this fascinating text, part private journal, part epistolary novel, within the context of Bra's vast archive. L'Évangile rouge is not an...