[Rodin: The Evolution of a Genius
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
November 21, 2015 – March 13, 2016]
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem
May 16, 2016 – September 5, 2016
Auguste Rodin is one of those institutional artists, whose last name has become synonymous with a distinctive kind of art, much the same as Donatello or Rembrandt, but Rodin: The Evolution of a Genius, currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, is as remarkable as it is unexpected. While it covers the salient points in Rodin’s oeuvre, the focus here is neither marble nor bronze, but rather the humbler medium of plaster. The underlying thesis is that Rodin was more of a modeler than a carver, a practice reflecting the nature of the art market in his day as well as the sculptor’s natural inclination. Created jointly by the Musée Rodin in Paris and the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Montreal, the exhibition showcases two hundred works that emphasize Rodin’s pivotal place in the grand tradition of sculpture, between the worlds of Michelangelo and of Brancusi.
Rodin dispenses with the chronological trajectory of the artist’s career, glancing back occasionally at his haphazard training and tempestuous relationship with the fashionable sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, who recognized the younger man’s talent and exploited it; neither, for that matter, does it engage much with portraiture, which became bread and butter to Rodin after 1900. Instead, it focuses upon the processes by which Rodin created the masterpieces now associated with his name. It begins around 1880, when the sculptor won his first official commission for bronze gates to adorn a proposed museum of decorative arts. Although the museum was never built, Rodin’s models or maquettes for this project became a crucible for many of the major works that would later achieve independent status as in the case of The Thinker or The Kiss. Indeed, the first room is dominated by a stunning image of The Gates of Hell, so named for its source in Dante’s Inferno, and teaming with 180 figures. In front of this tableau are set a few plaster and bronze works that relate to the sculptor’s technique: The Hand of God with the braided bodies of Adam and Eve enveloped by a cloud, The Cathedral as an image of two cupped, right hands reminiscent of gothic vaulting, and an evocative cast of Rodin’s right hand with a plaster model of a nude woman.
The stress here is on the artist as faber or maker more than carver, with an emphasis upon Rodin’s penchant for assemblage, the recombining of motifs to achieve new compositions. The exhibition’s six sections emphasize his recombination of motifs, his use of live models to capture movement, and his cult of fragmentation. While marble and bronze feature here, they seem somewhat underwhelming when compared to the raw material of his plaster maquettes. This is conveyed most clearly in the second and third galleries where large and small plaster models are strikingly displayed on tables of blond wood. Rodin was a formidable modeler, and he applied great energy to assembling forms and pulling them apart. This gave new meaning to every juxtaposition of forms as when a figure of the mythical monster the Minotaur was reconfigured as the Greek sculptor Pygmalion with his beloved creation, Galatea. In recasting the subject, Rodin scarcely modified the Minotaur, leaving traces of its cloven hooves and horns as if to underscore an elemental male-female polarity in the two figures. The difference in scale between them is implausible but heightens the basic conceit.
In Rodin’s oeuvre, bodies grapple with each other and intertwine in a primal struggle. A number of these, like Lust and Avarice or I Am Beautiful, derive from The Gates of Hell, and their metamorphoses are on display here. This process of assemblage came naturally to the sculptor by virtue of his training in workshops like the Sèvres porcelain manufactory where existing forms were regularly recombined. One of the most striking of these combinations is I Am Beautiful, which takes its name from a poem by Baudelaire: “Je suis belle ò mortels comme un rêve de pierre” (I am beautiful, o mortals, like a dream carved of stone). This work combines two separate motifs from The Gates, the Crouching Woman and The Falling Man, turning both into a balletic creation that seems a perfect fusion of opposing forces. The concept of falling bodies is very Michelangelesque, and when viewed as a whole, The Gates of Hell owes as much to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment as it does to a reading of the Dante’s Inferno.
Rodin’s vast library of plaster forms remained largely unknown to the public from his death in 1917 until they were first exhibited in the 1950s. This exhibition is the first, to my knowledge, which puts them center stage. Indeed, one of the surprises here is a cache of ancient ceramic vessels that Rodin bought and embellished with his own works. These were invariably female forms with names like Galatea or Small Water Fairy and appear to be bathing or about to step out of their ceramic base. A score of them are on display in Richmond, placed under glass domes normally reserved for the museum’s extensive Fabergé collection. This gives the works a Victorian quality, but that belies the eccentric nature of these concoctions, testifying to Rodin’s incessant experimentation with modeling, much like a nineteenth-century Gianlorenzo Bernini. They are also revealing of Rodin’s constant measuring of himself against antiquity as well as against the masters of the Renaissance. One of these, Small Water Fairy, was actually carved in marble in 1903, but the effect of the original does not transfer successfully into the more permanent medium.
From the 1890s, Rodin’s career was assured even though many of his public commissions became causes célèbres. The commemorative statue of Honoré de Balzac is one of the most remarkable in this category, and there are eight models on view in Richmond, ranging from a rare, surviving terracotta to plaster models and modern bronze casts of this commission, which can be said to have assumed a life of its own. Having embarked upon the Balzac in 1891, Rodin did not submit a formal model for seven years. The protean nature of Balzac’s writings and his penetrating studies of human nature struck a chord with Rodin, who saw himself as a sculptural equivalent to the novelist. He obsessively recast the figure in a variety of ways: in the nude, in the robe of a Dominican friar, and in a dressing gown—this last being the version exhibited in 1898. It was a fusion of an expressionistic portrait of Balzac’s head, together with a block barely suggesting the human form underneath. Its unorthodox appearance was rejected by the commissioning body, and the work was eventually cast for a private patron a decade after the sculptor’s death. But Rodin also took pains to insure the alternative versions were preserved by casting them in bronze as well.
Rodin once said that his direct experience of Michelangelo’s sculpture and painting during an Italian journey of 1876 liberated him from academicism. His Thinker was inspired by Michelangelo’s statue of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, but more importantly the allegories on the Medici tombs and the so-called Slaves in the Boboli Gardens provoked Rodin to re-examine the power equation between patron and sculptor. Michelangelo turned his later works into a personal quest for artistic expression and can be said to have given Rodin “permission” to do the same. As he grew wealthy and well established, Rodin flouted the normal conventions for public commissions as happened with the Balzac and a state commission for a monument to Victor Hugo and another in England for James McNeill Whistler. However, it has to be said that these last two do not measure up to the achievement of Balzac. Where Rodin’s emulation of Michelangelo was more successful lay in the relationship of the sculptural form and its block. This “non-finito” or unfinished aspect of Michelangelo’s late works appealed to Rodin’s imagination, and the contrast of a smoothly finished form with a rough-hewn lump of plaster or clay became a Leitmotif of his later works, seen here in Thought (1893-95)—the head of his sometime muse and collaborator Camille Claudel imprisoned in a marble block—or the Sirens or Hand from the Tomb. Among Rodin’s immediate followers, this type of contrast became something of a cliché.
Coupled with his homage to Michelangelo, Rodin’s later work was also informed by his fascination with fragmentation. This is a central theme of Rodin: The Evolution of a Genius, and a key work in his revolutionary approach was the early St. John the Baptist Preaching of 1878. The sculptor revisited an early and somewhat conventional figure of the saint by deconstructing it: he took the torso of one state and combined it with legs from an earlier version. Conceived in 1899-1900, the resulting sculpture reads like a palimpsest, registering the joins of the two plasters as well as the roughness of the torso. Dubbed The Walking Man, the sculpture has been purged of extraneous elements, including the head. It thus becomes an embodiment of energy without locomotion or as Rodin once described his works: “…the subject is of no interest…it is the life animating them that merits my being known”. The central gallery of the exhibition focuses on fragmentation, featuring The Walking Man, as well as a splendid bronze of the torso of The Falling Man, still with the struts on the shoulders and chest where the model supported The Crouching Woman. Other large-scale works include the Nude Torso of the Muse, detached from the monument to Victor Hugo. In all of these cases, the relationship of Rodin’s work to the antique is explicit. Rodin was fond of saying that a beautiful thing in ruins was more beautiful than a beautiful thing (une belle chose ruinée est plus belle que une belle chose), and this fragmentation is a theme that links Rodin to the direction of sculpture in the twentieth century. The German poet Rilke, who served as Rodin’s secretary from 1905 to 1906, observed of these works: “nothing necessary is lacking. One stands before them as before something whole.”
Virtually all of Rodin’s major works are on view here, in one medium or another. It is interesting to note that the marble and bronze versions of his compositions are sometimes used didactically, to illustrate the point that Rodin turned over these processes to assistants or major foundries. With the help of Henri Lebosse, the studio turned out hundreds of large and small editions of The Kiss, The Thinker, and the numerous portraits in marble and bronze. Rodin found it financially more productive to focus on modeling, which was his true métier, and the marble versions often seem to suffer by execution through another pair of hands. The curators of the exhibition have had the intelligent idea to treat bronze and marble as special sections in which the work of different foundries and praticiens can be compared. There are even master casting-models of works like The Kiss to convey an idea of the industrial scale of Rodin’s workshop after 1900 as well as the variations in bronze casts from Rodin’s lifetime to the present. Indeed, a large number of the bronzes on display here are from later casts, which is rather like looking at modern reprints of vintage photographs.
Rodin: Evolution of a Genius is accompanied by a handsome volume called Metamorphoses in Rodin’s Studio. Edited by Nathalie Bondil of Montreal and Sophie Biass-Fabiani of the Musée Rodin, it contains a documentation of Rodin at work in his studio as well as beautifully detailed images of the works on display in the exhibition. There are also concise and well-informed essays on major works and themes that the exhibition so imaginatively displays. If any exhibition can be said to have given Rodin a fresh look, it is this one. By stressing assemblage and fragmentation, it draws attention to his modernity as well as to his position on the cusp of two narratives in European sculpture, that of the Renaissance and that of the twentieth century. In many ways, Rodin marked the end of the earlier tradition by bringing it to a logical conclusion. It is not surprising that the young Constantin Brancusi only spent two months in Rodin’s studio before leaving. As he later explained it, “nothing can grow under big trees.”