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b. 1921, France

César Biography

An important proponent of the French Nouveau Réalisme movement in the 1960s, César contributed to the development of modern sculpture. Appropriating cutting-edge materials and processes, his famous 'Compressions' and 'Expansions' capture the aesthetics of their time.

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Early Years

Born to Italian parents in the poor Belle de Mai quarter of Marseille, César Baldaccini (later known just as César) saw first-hand the contrasts of abundance and deprivation in Marseille. Out of this experience came César's thrift in selecting commercial and scrap materials.

César studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Marseille and then Paris in the 1940s, learning the techniques of classical sculpture and draughtsmanship. In the late 1940s, he moved into a room above the atelier of Alberto Giacometti in Montparnasse, and began to mingle with Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, among other avantgarde figures. He later found common cause with proponents of Nouveau Réalisme in Paris, joining the second wave of artists to sign the manifesto in 1961.

César Artworks

César's art, made from scrap materials and later commercial materials like polyurethane foams, polyester resin, and plastic polymers, embrace contemporary reality. Throughout his works, César experimented with the possibilities of transforming scale and shape.


From the early 1950s and out of economic necessity, César began making sculptures by welding together pieces of scrap metal he had collected. Referred to as 'Fers' (Irons), these works saw scrap metal forged into animals, insects, and nudes, as well as anthropomorphic and hybrid forms.

Many of these welded steel scrap sculptures from the late 1950s took the form of winged figures, like The Man of Saint-Denis (1958). A partial figure with massive wings, the work pays homage to French 'bird man' Léo Valentin.

Launching a sell-out first solo show with these scrap works in 1955 at Salon de Mai, Paris, César was soon invited to present them at the 1957 Venice Biennale.


César's 'Compressions', comprising of cars and other scrap objects compacted into rectangular blocks, were envisioned as monuments to the new mechanical age. Exhibiting his first Compression in 1958, and continuing into the 1960s, these works were inspired by César's encounters with new large-scale steel presses at scrap metal factories near Paris.

Typically working with a hydraulic press, César crushed together components from different automobiles, occasionally employing a welding torch and hammer to finesse his works. Moving beyond cars, César 'compressed' other objects, including several thousand crushed counterfeit Cartier watches in 1983.

Revisiting his Compression motif for the 1995 Venice Biennale, César erected a 520-tonne square block of crushed cars in a gallery space.


In 1967, César's focus flipped from compressing to experimenting with new expandable polyurethane foam. César's polyurethane 'Expansions' are free forms defined only by the results of chemical reaction and physical gestures, and resistant to moulding. He incorporated objects into these works that included cans, jugs, a suitcase, and even a television.

Between 1967 and 1970, César performed a series of 'happenings', producing his expansions before a live audience, who witnessed in real time the fluctuations in shape and scale that took place while pouring.

Scaling up

Towards the end of the 1960s, the development of plastic polymers led the artist in a new direction. He began making resin casts of human body parts, which were upscaled through traditional mechanisms used by sculptors to enlarge works.

Among these were gigantic pink polyester resin reproductions of a cabaret dancer's breast, later reproduced in bronze, and various renditions of the artist's thumb, first cast in polyester resin in 1965.

Public Commissions

A number of César's larger artworks have appeared in public spaces. Le Pouce (1990), a 12-metre-tall version of the 1965 cast of the artist's thumb, was installed at the heart of Paris' La Défense quarter in 1994. Renditions of varying scales have featured in public spaces internationally, including in Koblenz, Seoul, and Qatar.

Awards and Accolades

César was made an officer of the French Legion of Honour in 1993, and received the Japan Art Association's Praemium Imperiale prize for sculpture in 1996. In 1975, the artist also designed the French film industry's annual award, known as the César.


César has been the subject of both solo exhibition and group exhibitions internationally.

Solo exhibitions include Hommage à César, Château de Boisgeloup, France (2021); César: La Rétrospective, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2017); César une histoire méditerranéenne, Musée Mohammed VI, Rabat (2015); César, Anthologie par Jean Nouvel, Fondation Cartier, Paris (2008); César, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul (1996); César, Tokyo 82, Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo (1982); César, Musée d'art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1976); Retrospective "César", Stedelijk, Amsterdam (1966).

Group exhibitions include César & Claire Tabouret, Musée Picasso, Paris (2021); 408: Stamp, Scavenge, Crush, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2019); Magritte, Broodthaers & Contemporary Art, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (2017); Le choix de la modernité, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon (2014); Le Nouveau Réalisme, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris (2007); Pop Art & Nouveau Realisme, Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1991); Paris/Paris, Musée national d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris (1981); l'Homme et son Empreinte, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1974); and Sculptures from the Twenty Nations, Guggenheim Museum, New York (1967).

Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2021

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