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François Pompon and the Quest for the Polar Bears

I have been on a quest on this sabbatical to have a photo taken of myself with three polar bears. My fascination with polar bears didn’t begin until my late 20’s. Of course they’re pretty and all, but it wasn’t until my beloved friend Rose Anne gave me a pink “Snuffie” bear that I began to think polar bears were really wonderful. She and her husband Ben had a collection of Snuffies, and they all had names. Not classical bear names, but numbered names. Number One, Number Two, and so on. My last recollection was they had 7 or 8 of them. And they each had their very own personalities and facial features. Ben could manipulate the face and body of a Snuffie to just make you weep with joy, turning their little heads sideways, and waving their little paws at you.

Ben & Rose Anne Freed and the Snuffle Bears, seeing Ben off to Madagascar
Ben & Rose Anne Freed and the Snuffle Bears, seeing Ben off to Madagascar

When Ben went for his anthropology Ph.D. research in Madagascar to study lemurs, Rose Anne joined him about halfway through his journey. This was no ordinary trip by the way. I’m joining my husband on sabbatical and we are living quite civilized. By comparison, Rose Anne joined her husband in a jungle wilderness, where things go bump in the night, and where they were sleeping in a tent, and eating raw berries from trees, and there were NO mens or ladies facilities. She reminded me recently that she once badly sprained her ankle out there, and Dr. Sports Medicine was nowhere to be found.

I was with her for the packing decisions on what should go into her luggage, which had to make it all the way into a jungle. Besides Lorna Doone cookies, the most important decision … which Snuffie got to go because they ALL wanted to go. She’ll have to remind me who won out, but I think it was Number Two.

The story of my pink snuffie is that I decided I desperately had to have one, and I wanted a pink bear. What can I say, I’m girly! I couldn’t afford it though, and after I bought her, and she came home with me, I sadly returned her because I was just flat out broke, probably from buying a 12 piece place setting of Noritake Conservatory china. I do have my compulsions! And then, a few days later, Ben and Rose Anne came by with that pink snuffie for me. They had gone back and got her, the very same one. I still have my adorable little pink bear, and I’ll never forget them doing that for me.

So now, I too love polar bears. I have many that we set out at Christmas time. One large one sits sparkling amidst the presents under my tree, a very knowing bear! Another set, a mother and her baby, walk along one of my side tables during the holiday season. One year, Bruce, my master packer, had packed them separately when we were taking down Christmas. I didn’t know it until the next year when we were putting things out and we couldn’t find the mother, and so the little baby bear was crying. I was frantic at the loss of the momma bear. So Bruce climbed through the attic, and the back room, and finally, thankfully, he found her in a box of things we were not going to set out that year. There was much rejoicing at the uniting of momma and baby bear, and we’ll always be sure they are packed together!

So when researching about things to do in Dijon, France, which is very near our house in Semur, I read that the sculptor Pompon had a large polar bear there in a park. It turns out, there are many identical bears in the world that he sculpted, but as far as I can tell, only three that are life size. One is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, one is in a park in Antwerp, Belgium, and one is in the park in Dijon. And I knew I had to see all three! It’s a quest for me, and it’s a quest in honor of my dearest friends, Rose Anne and Ben, because they taught me that polar bears are magical!

According to the Musée d’Orsay website…

“For many years, Pompon was one of the most sought-after assistants in Paris, hewing blocks of marble for Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel. But after 1905, in reaction to Rodin’s expressionism, Pompon abandoned the human figure and turned to the animals that he observed at the Jardin des Plantes. Polar Bear is the finest achievement in this vein; when it was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1922, it brought the artist tardy recognition, at the age of sixty-seven.

Stripping away the trappings and details, he abandoned any realistic rendering and focused on “the very essence of the animal”. This economy of means gives the work a presence which draws its true force from its monumental scale. Far from the anecdotal, it reveals a search for timelessness and permanence: under the silent outer appearance of fullness, the smooth sculpture nurtures an aspiration to universal form. “I keep a large number of details that will later go” said Pompon. “I first do the animal with almost all its trappings. Then I gradually eliminate them…” Colette was struck by the “thick, mute” paws of his animals.

Pompon’s sculptures are characterised by an intuitive understanding, rounded forms, a refusal of geometrical shapes, and a taste for traditional materials. “I love sculpture without holes or shadows” he used to say, preferring pale stone with nothing to stop the smooth flow of light over the volumes.”

So the Polar Bear sculpture at the Orsay should have been easy. I remember seeing the bear when we were there in 2010. At that time, you could take pictures in the museums of Paris, but they are now forbidden, probably because of the craze of young girls needing to be caught “jumping” in photos, sometimes while making a victory sign. I can only imagine the museum curator’s horror as girls jumped in front of a Monet. Or the clashing mobs of people trying to get their photo in front of their favorite world famous paintings, while others are simply trying to just get near enough to see the painting. In theory, I actually agree with this new ruling. Trying to get near the Mona Lisa at the Louvre was like being caught in a mosh pit with cameras being slung all around your face.

Pompon Polar Bear, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France
Pompon Polar Bear, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France

But I had to have a photo with that bear, and I had to insist that Bruce break the law to get it. Bruce is NOT a rule breaker. If it says don’t do this or that, he Will Not do it. He was once very upset with me for sneaking photos of the exquisite mosaic ceilings in the Sacre Coeur church on Montmartre in Paris, because they weren’t allowed. He even moved to another pew, lest he be caught and scolded by a Nun. Me, I went to Catholic school for eight years and am used to such things!

So, I found the bear, and snuck a couple of photos before I insisted he take my phone, pretend he was reviewing email, and then quickly snap a photo of me with the bear. He was not happy, but he did it. Grimacing and taking rapid fire photos, he then turned tail and took off like a scared rabbit. But I got my photo with Pompon Polar Bear Number One, which is the original that Pompon debuted!

Pompon Polar Bear Number Two sits near the entrance to the Middelheim Museum, a large outdoor sculpture park in Antwerp, Belgium. Having fallen into a canal boat the previous Sunday in Amsterdam, and badly hurting my knee, I assumed there was no way this polar bear quest could continue, as we were just trying to get ourselves moved out of one hotel in Amsterdam, and safely make it to our next one in Ghent, Belgium. But by the time we left, I was up moving about, and just limping a bit with my cane. So Bruce insisted that we find the bear, since we were going through Antwerp anyway.

Now, Google Maps could find the park, but it had us stopping on the interstate, saying we had reached our destination. So after pulling over twice, and looking at maps, and driving in circles, we finally found the park. It was just after 6:00 p.m., and as we walked up to the park entrance, I could see the gates were open. Oh thank heavens, we weren’t too late! But then we were accosted by a park ranger, who spoke Flemish to us, which translated to “We’re closed”. I asked if he spoke English, and he said, “Closed”.

No Way could this be our luck! “But we’ve come all the way from the United States, just so we could see the Polar Bear!”, I exclaimed. “The Ice Bear?”, he asked. “Yes! Yes! The Ice Bear. Please?!! Could we just take one photo by the Ice Bear, and then we’ll leave. We promise. Please??!!” And I used my big brown eyes look, which I only use in desperate times. He pondered this, and glanced around, and then said, “Ok.”, and he led the way towards the Ice Bear.

Pompon Polar Bear, Middelheim Open Air Sculpture Park, Antwerp, Belgium
Pompon Polar Bear, Middelheim Open Air Sculpture Park, Antwerp, Belgium

And there it was! Pompon Polar Bear Number Two, looking lovely and Knowing, as Bruce likes to say. And so we snapped many photos, and I kissed the bear on his nose, and we headed back to our car. I stopped to explain the story of the three bears, but I don’t think the ranger understood much, but he smiled and nodded and then closed the gates behind us. As we drove off, I gave him a great big smiling wave, and he smiled and waved back with a big grin, and I’m sure he thought, crazy Americans, coming all the way from the United States, just to see an Ice Bear!

Pompon Polar Bear Number Three on my quest was a fairly easy gig, since the Jardin Darcy in Dijon, France, was open and photos were legal. We drove over to Dijon on Sunday, and found the park first thing, and there he was! The “Polar Bear in Stride” is another common name for the bear, And so we snapped the photos with the grand bear and went about our happy way.

Pompon Polar Bear, Jardin Darcy, Dijon, France
Pompon Polar Bear, Jardin Darcy, Dijon, France

But things are not so simple it turns out. In researching the bear the night before, I came across a lovely blogger from Alaska, who has a marble copy of Pompon’s bear on her coffee table, which is cast from the same mold as one of Pompon’s smaller bears, located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. AND, it turns out, she had visited the Dijon Polar Bear, and later discovered that it is not actually cast from Pompon’s original mold. One of his friends sculpted the bear in an hommage to his great mentor. It is as identical as one could be, although Bruce said he thought the expression may have been a little more Knowing on this bear.

In addition to the park, there is a Museum of Beaux Arts in Dijon, which has a smaller original Pompon bear in the Pompon room. We wanted to get by there, and I still hope to, but the day got away from us.

And lastly, Pompon is from Saulieu, France, which is very near us. They have the Musee Francois Pompon, with a large collection of his work, and I believe there is a replica of the polar bear there, in addition to many of his sculpted animals. Bruce commented the other day that he wanted to go to that town to see a cow sculpture. Turns out, it’s Pompon too!

And so… I have achieved my original quest to be photographed with the Three Polar Bears. But will I see every single Pompon Polar Bear in the world? Most likely not! But that’s ok because everyone knows that Polar Bears are magical creatures and can turn up anywhere, anytime, striding proudly through a park, or in a museum, or walking across someone’s coffee table in Alaska!

Lorie McMillin, Semur en Auxois, France, October, 2013

Jardin Darcy, Pompon Polar Bear, reproduced by his friend Henry Martinet, as an hommage to his mentor and friend.
Jardin Darcy, Pompon Polar Bear, reproduced by his friend Henry Martinet, as an hommage to his mentor and friend.