Francois Rupert Carabin, perhaps the most brilliant sculptor in wood of the Art Nouveau era, was also an accomplished photographer, medal-maker, and designer of ceramics. He was regularly invited to the Vienna Secession. Carabin’s work exemplified the Pantheist spirit in Art Nouveau, a movement that emphasized a return to unconventional, realistic depictions of nature, often conveying a sense of awe and fear. His sculpted furniture was often composed of conjoined bodies of animals, often cats, snakes, owls, and other “creatures of the night” and female nudes, often clinging to the objects in support. His work was based not on utility, but was a celebration of natural bodily forms, and edged towards the dangerous and threatening psyche of the spirit. The sculptures displayed wit, cunning, intelligence, desire, temptation, and cruelty.
Carabin gained fame in 1890 when Gustave Geffroy published an article in Revue des arts décoratifs highlighting a carved bookcase by Carabin created in 1889. The piece had been commissioned by Montadon, a wealthy business man. Carabin was given artistic license to create a piece of furniture of his own choice. For a year Carabin carved a large walnut and wrought iron sculpture, featuring masks representing ‘Vanity’, ‘Greed’, ‘Intemperance’, ‘Folly’, ‘Hypocrisy’ and ‘Ignorance’ with three female figures carved on top representing ‘Truth’, ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Contemplation.’ The bookcase was rejected from Société des Indépendantes, of which Carabin was a founding member, because the piece did not qualify as a sculpture. Geffroy’s article applauded Carabin’s work as ‘an original piece of work which introduces a new form of art’ and decried the Société for upholding the prevailing hiérarchie artistique . For Geffroy Carabin’s bookcase, and many subsequent sculpted furniture pieces, represented a new way of looking at sculpture and furniture which rejected the traditional definitions and classifications of the ‘Arts.’
Another innovative practice Carabin ushered in was the use of photographs instead of live models while sculpting. In the second half of the nineteenth century, artists frequently worked from photographs instead of live models. Common enough for painting, this practice seems to have been less frequent for sculpture, perhaps because of the difficulty of transposing a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional object. Carabin was an exception to this rule. Between 1890 and 1914, he produced over six hundred prints, mainly female nudes, which provided a stock of original attitudes and postures for his work as a sculptor.
As Carabin’s career continued his works became increasingly erotic, and were received disquietedly by the Revue. He ended his career as the Director of the École des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg. However his artistic contributions and sculptural work helped redefine what constituted furniture and sculpture. Many examples of Carabin’s works can be found in various museum such as Musee d’Orsay, Paris; New Pinakothek in Munich; Musee d’Art Moderne de Strasbourg; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.