The daring instability and torsion of The River are rare in Maillol's sculpture. Instead of trying to emulate the dynamism of twentieth-century life, as did so many artists of his time, Maillol usually sought an art of serenity and stillness, of classical nobility and simplicity. As late as 1937, in fact, he remarked, "For my taste, there should be as little movement as possible in sculpture." Yet within a year or so afterward he had conceived The River, a work in which the movement is almost reckless.
Commissioned to create a monument to a notable pacifist, the French writer Henri Barbusse, Maillol conceived the sculpture as a work on the theme of war: a woman stabbed in the back, and falling. When the commission fell through, he transformed the idea into The River. In a departure from the usual conventions of monumental sculpture, the figure lies low to the ground and rests apparently precariously on the pedestal, even hanging below its edge. Twisting and turning, her raised arms suggesting the pressure of some powerful current, this woman is the personification of moving water.
Curator, Ann Temkin: This is a very unusual sculpture for Maillol, because most works by him are composed in a very calm, still, balanced sort of way. And you wonder why this woman is in such a twisting turning position? This sculpture began as a monument in honor of a pacifist, who died around the time this was made. And the idea of the monument was in fact a woman being attacked. The commission for this monument fell through. But Maillol kept going with it, called it The River, and in fact there is precedent for water goddesses, or nymphs cavorting in such a way. But you see her writhing pose in a whole new way when you know that it started out as this very dramatic violent scene.
Today, its hard to see the rather violent form of this woman independently from the fact that Maillol, working in France in the years leading up to and during World War II, was somehow reflecting that horrible time in the work he was making.
This is a work made at the very end of Maillol's life. It wasn't cast until after his death, and the plaster model for it was made with the help of an assistant, because here was an artist over 80 years old at this point.