Dina Vierny and the Maillol Museum

Aristide Maillol (1861–1944) was a French artist who spent most of his career drawing, painting and sculpting nude women.

Welcome sign with photo of Dina Vierny

Visitors to the Maillol Museum in Paris are greeted by a photo of a seventeen-year-old girl with no clothes but lots of hair. The text reads: “Dina Vierny (1919-2009), creator of the museum and of the foundation which bears her name, was the model and collaborator of the sculptor Aristide Maillol from 1934 to 1944. Her fondest wish was to make the works of Maillol available to the public by dedicating a museum to him, in which she intended also to present temporary exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. It took her forty years to achieve this dream and open this venue in January 1995.”

Below, in smaller print, is the sentence: “In 2016, the Dina Vierny Foundation and its president Olivier Lorquin chose to confide the temporary exhibitions of the Maillol Museum to Culturespaces.”

(Olivier Lorquin, born in 1949, is the older son of Dina Vierny. Culturespaces is an organization which manages thirteen French cultural sites including the Palace of the Popes in Avignon and the Jacquemart-André Museum in Paris.)

At the bottom of the text there is one more line: “Photo © Pierre Jamet, Dina, 1936”.

Pierre Jamet (1910-2000) was a French photographer and singer who took numerous photos of Dina Vierny, with and without clothes, during their hiking and camping trips between 1936 and 1939. Some of these photos were well known at the time, and one made the cover of the French youth hostel magazine Cri des Auberges. Dina later said in an interview: “Pierre Jamet took photos of me when I was very young. From the age of sixteen. He was my first lover.”

In the 1950s and 60s Pierre Jamet was best known as the tenor in the popular male quartet Les Quatre Barbus. He continued to take photos, but he made his living from singing, so he considered himself a professional singer and an amateur photographer. After his death in 2000, his daughter Corinne Jamet-Vierny inherited his photos, but she was busy at the time with her academic career, so it took her several years before she began publishing and exhibiting the photos. In an interview she later said: “One of the triggering factors was my visit in 2006 to the Willy Ronis exhibition at the Paris City Hall; I told myself, comparing the two photographers, that I should take more interest my father’s photos, because I was struck by the similarity between them.” (See my post on a different Willy Ronis photography exhibition a few years later.)

Dina Vierny: “I came to pose for an hour, I stayed for ten years.”

Aristide Maillol was 73 when a friend told him about a 15-year-old schoolgirl who looked like his statues and like the women in the paintings of Auguste Renoir. Maillol wrote a letter to the girl: “Mademoiselle, I am told that you resemble a Maillol or a Renoir. I would be satisfied with a Renoir.”

Dina Vierny, The Story of my Life

For the first two years, Dina Vierny posed only once or twice a week for Maillol, because she was still going to school and was keeping the posing a secret from her parents.

And for the first two years she only posed with her clothes on, because Maillol was too shy to ask her to take them off.

Finally she was the one who said: “Maillol, don’t be afraid to ask me to take off my clothes. I’m a member of the Friends of Nature, it’s our generation. Nudity is purity.”

This quotation is from page 53 of her book Histoire de ma vie (The story of my life), which consists of edited transcripts of a series of video and audio interviews that were conducted by the author and journalist Alain Jaubert between 1999 and 2008.

In the same book she also says: “Contrary to what is widely imagined, there was nothing charnel between Maillol and me. It was mutual admiration. And it was that way throughout the ten years of our work together.” (Page 50) She said that when Maillol decided she should “defend his work” as his artistic executor, he prepared her seriously for the task. “That’s the reason I am the heiress of the Maillol family, by way of the artist’s son, Lucien. But Maillol for me was mainly Pygmalion. I learned to see from him and his friends Matisse, Bonnard, Dufy.”

Dina by Maillol

Dina was born as Dina Aibinder into a Jewish family in what is now Moldova. They moved to Paris when she was a young child, because her parents were Mencheviks (social democrats), who felt threatened by the ruling Bolcheviks under Lenin and Stalin. She was seven years old when they arrived in Paris by train towards the end of the year 1926. “As soon as he set foot on the land of France, the second homeland for those who fight for the rights of man, my father seemed electrified! What’s more, people were singing right near the station! In that era, people sang in the streets. A man was selling sheet music of popular songs. Men and women stopped and sang together. ‘You see,’ he told me, ‘France sings! In what other country does this happen?” (page 21)

Dina by Maillol

She already spoke some French when she arrived in Paris (“My family was a cultivated bourgeois family; we all spoke French”), but she had to adapt it a bit when she started school. “Primary education in France was remarkable from the beginning of the century until the war. I was enrolled in the school on the Rue de Pointoise, where my teacher was Madame Lassalle, of the family of the great German revolutionary socialist. At school, at first, the children made fun of my French, which was much too refined, too literary. I quickly picked up the Parisian accent.” She added that when she started school “I was a little Russian girl, but I came out French. I became completely French, through and through.”

A sculpture and three paintings of Dina, by Maillol

In 1937 she began a relationship with Sacha Vierny, who shared her enthusiasm for hiking, camping and the outdoors. “I lived with him from the age of eighteen. Our parents married us just before we turned twenty. We remained married for ten years. The war separated us.” But she kept his name, which she had used even before they were married. “It’s a magnificent name! Vierny! In Russian it means both just and loyal.” (page 214)

Her second and third husbands were both sculptors, Serge Lorquin and Manfred Klein von Diepold.

More sculptures by Maillol

For a few months in the autumn of 1940, while she was living with Maillol and his wife in Banyuls-sur-Mer, near the Spanish border, Dina Vierny was one of those who guided refugees at night through the mountains from France into Spain, so they could escape from the Nazis. This was doubly dangerous because Dina was Jewish herself. The refugees were told to take the last train to Banyuls-sur-Mer, get off and look for a girl in a red dress, who would be in the café opposite the station. They were not to speak to her, just follow her at a distance in silence. She never knew the identity of the people she was guiding, except for a few who contacted her after the war.

Dina was arrested twice for smuggling people across the border. The first time she was arrested by the local police, who were loyal to the collaborationist Vichy regime. She was sure she would be convicted and sent to prison, perhaps even handed over to the Nazis, but Maillol engaged a prominent local attorney, a friend of his, who defended her at her trial and got her acquitted. To get her out of danger, Maillol then sent her to pose for his friends Matisse and Bonnard, who also lived in the South of France but far away from the mountains and the Spanish border.

The second time she was arrested was by the Gestapo in Paris, in 1943. They kept her in prison for six months and interrogated her repeatedly, but she never admitted she had smuggled people across the border. She told them: “Of course I went hiking in the mountains. I love that. I love hiking. I bought groceries in Spain.” (page 125)

She was also interrogated by German counter-espionage agents, who suspected she was some kind of super-spy like Mata Hari in the First World War. “Mata Hari! That was ridiculous. That was so idiotic that they all wanted to interrogate me […]. I was twenty-four years old, and I was convinced my life was over.” (page 131)

Again it was Maillol who secured her release, this time by appealing to Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker (1900-1991), who had studied in Paris, spoke fluent French and was well acquainted with all the prominent French sculptors of his era.

After winning the first prize in a competition for sculptures at the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, Breker had changed his style completely and become (in Dina’s words) “the emblematic sculptor of the Third Reich.” His works were now “gigantic, athletic, monumental, infuriating!” Hitler gave Breker “palaces, ateliers, personnel, commissions and power, lots of power. Everything!” During the war years, Breker directed an enormous atelier in Germany “where dozens of sculptors spent their time producing eagles, statues, all sorts of ugly allegories for the palaces and monuments of the Reich.” (page 129)

(Dina’s description of Breker’s wartime atelier reminds me of the Mansudae Art Studio in North Korea, a huge operation which produces all the millions of statues and paintings of that country’s first two “leaders” Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-Il — see my post about The Fairy Tale Fountain next to the opera house in Frankfurt am Main.)

Méditerranée, an earlier sculpture by Aristide Maillol, completed long before Dina Vierny was even born

Dina never found out exactly how Breker managed to get her out of prison, but after the war she wrote a letter to the authorities which helped him get ‘de-nazified’, so he only had to pay a fine but was never seriously punished for supporting the Nazis. For the rest of her life she was grateful to him. “Thanks to him I survived, I had two sons. After each birth I wrote him a touching letter thanking him for giving me this joy.” (page 133)

Nonetheless, she continued to find Breker’s sculptures disgusting. After the war, she refused to display his works at her art gallery in Rue Jacob in Paris. “He was a charming man, with true charisma. But his brain was bizarrely empty of any sort of social, moral or political principles.”

In front of the Maillol Museum at 61, rue de Grenelle, 75007 Paris

My photos and text in this post are from 2018.

See more posts about Museums in Paris.

4 thoughts on “Dina Vierny and the Maillol Museum”

  1. Great story not all known to me, I was impress by the showing at the Paris CDG espaces musée T2 E M sat (posted) which show her work, great lady too. Cheers

    1. Thanks, Sarah. The Maillol Museum currently has a Giacometti exposition until February 3rd (which I hope to see sometime in January) and then a selection from “The Bührle Collection: Manet, Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh… ” from 20 March to 21 July. They used to remain closed during the gaps between temporary exhibitions, but I don’t know if that is still the case.

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