Rodin Retrospective: Modernity drawn from antiquity
It was Rodin’s intention to match himself against the great sculptors of the past and to sum up all that had been said, and all that still needed to be said, in favour of sculpture as one of the supreme human activities, writes Uma Nair.
"I like the language of two or three thousand
years ago, closer to nature than
any other" — Auguste Rodin
While the autumn leaves fall and drift by the windows the Met Museum in Manhattan will celebrate 100 years since the death of Auguste Rodin on November 17, 1917.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which opened its first Rodin gallery in 1912, boasts of the best collection in the United States of America. Set up with the help of patrons such as Kate Simpson, Daniel Chester French and Thomas Fortune Ryan (who wrote a $25,000 cheque for Rodin purchases), the Met has brought works out of storage this autumn, for its display of nearly 60 bronzes, plasters, marbles, and terracotta.
Although strongly influenced by Classical and Renaissance precedents, Rodin challenged long-standing notions of sculpture and beauty and paved the way for modernist works of the 20th century. He created protean studies that credited him as an inventor of assemblage, partial figure and collage. In the light of 100 years, an expressionist sensibility has flourished with an exploration of time, material and meaning.
To look at Rodin's sculptures here at the Metmuseum is to be drawn into Rodinseque energies, with an impetuous incantation of sculpture identities.
Be it busts or tall human wonders, each piece is a study in anatomical perfection. On a winter's day in December, 10 years ago, with the light streaming through the windows Rodin's 'Madame X,' a masterpiece in marble was a delight — the bust tucked in a corner of the Met's modern sculpture gallery, amidst a crowd of Rodin's bronzes can knock you over. It's a bare-shouldered Madame X: a sort-of nude emerging from a rough-hewn base, which covers up the top of the subject's torso where a dress might otherwise go – its feminine fervour at its zestful best.
Rodin's works have to be set at a height so you can look up and be bowed by its magnificent monumentality. She represents the sudden onrush of artistic creativity, how it strikes the artist unawares. As with creation itself, one moment there is nothing, and then there is something. These are images of the genetrix, so potent, so unstoppably vital.
'The Gates of Hell' ranks not only as "one of the greatest imaginative works of art in history'' but also as a telling commentary on the decline of religion in late 19th-century France, and the rise of the materialism that was to take its place. It is on a Herculean scale (Rodin would not have disputed the adjective). "The Gates of Hell,'' which occupied Rodin on and off from 1880 to 1900, incorporates several of his most celebrated preoccupations, among them 'The Thinker,' 'The Three Shades,' 'Eternal Spring,' 'Ugolino' and his Sons' and 'Paolo and Francesca.'
"Admiration is a generous wine for the noble spirits. Let nature be your only goddess. Have absolute faith in her, be sure that she is never ugly and limit your ambition to be faithful to her. Be deeply, fiercely truthful. Perhaps you will not be understood at first, but your isolation will be short-lived, because what is sincerely true for a man is for everyone," wrote Rodin.
It was Rodin's intention to match himself against the great sculptors of the past and to sum up all that had been said, and all that still needed to be said, in favour of sculpture as one of the supreme human activities.
Rodin loved the transitive and the fugitive. For what matters to this lover of nature and the wild passions that animate mankind is what a gesture, an attitude, an expression deeply signifies. Often he surpasses them, emphasising the tension of the bodies, evacuating what is not subject to it to better tell the truth raw. Let us repeat, Rodin knows only one trinity: freedom, sincerity, beauty. To the point that in his studio, he let his models wander without clothes.
To look at a collection of Rodins at the Metmuseum is to recall excavated antique remains, which in their elemental structure unveil an overflow of life, a dynamic expression of truth which obsesses the visitor who becomes an unconscious participant of an immersion of human echoes. Auguste Rodin revisited all the facets of sculpture, from the magnificent moods of marble to the tensile strength of bronze.
For him, the unthinking gestures of the fleeting moment had to "become a part of [himself]." This is why he said: "My goal is to test how well my hands already feel what my eyes see." Before concluding: "between nature and paper, I have suppressed talent, I do not reason, I let myself be done."
Rodin has recapitulated so much of the questions of sculpture, explored so many directions that a hundred years after his death, the tracks he has opened are still current.
And this retrospective, that should be visited more than once, attempts to break through all the secrets. It is said 100 years ago, Rodin was nothing less than a sacred monster these sculptures reflect him as one who possessed a synthetic spirit; one who explored. The many readings of academic and human experimentation, with the sinews and muscles and emotions of human ennui, show us how his successors have appropriated his singular researches and his inventive touch.
Whether he created man in his perfection of bone and muscle and brawn, or feminine creatures supple and sensual, you remember the words of a French critic who said: "Everything is beautiful for him, for in every being and in all things his penetrating gaze discovers character, that is to say, the inner truth which appears in the form."
Of great intrigue are Edward Steichen's photographs of Rodin and his sculptures. Steichen brings alive the classic rhythms of realism and the magical miasma of contours. Scholars at the Metmuseum state that Rodin was profoundly moved when he saw the photographs: "It is Christ walking in the wilderness," he said to Steichen. "Your photographs will make the world understand my Balzac." To thank the photographer, Rodin gave him a bronze cast of The Walking Man.
And then there are the timeless words of Christina Buley-Uribe in Paris: "Rodin lives with the female sex as a pole, around which are organised problems of profiles, contours, surface, mass, pattern, relief, form and occupation of space." – An apt epitaph for the world's greatest sculptor who gave so much to the world of art.