Issue Number: 92
He dragged sculpture off its pedestal to create forms that were earthy, erotic and pulsating with life. Martin Gayford praises the singular genius of Auguste Rodin, whose passion for the body redefined sculpture
Few great artists remain as hard to pin down as Auguste Rodin (1840–1917). He was both a traditionalist and a revolutionary; he grew up under the influence of French romantic artist Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) and was the leading artist of his day when Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) came of age. Amazingly, he had affinities with both. The task of grasping Rodin as an artist is exacerbated by the vast extent of his work – the 8,000 or so drawings alone – and its elusive, shape-changing nature. He is like the mythical Proteus: as soon as you get hold of him, he starts altering into another form.
Such a thing as a single piece scarcely exists in Rodin’s oeuvre, since his figures mutate and multiply over the years. A particular figure may – and usually does – exist in multiple incarnations: in bronze, plaster and marble, large and small, finished and unfinished, each with a different presence and effect. It may also shift in meaning and in orientation from one group to another.
As Catherine Lampert – curator of the Royal Academy exhibition alongside Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, formerly of the Musée Rodin – observes, Rodin’s output is ‘overwhelming’; the sheer profusion of his legacy, preserved in the Musée Rodin, is ‘beyond the lifetime scrutiny or analysis of any individual’. However, the exhibition in Burlington House, with its ten thematic examinations of different aspects of Rodin – from his preoccupation with the art of antiquity to his studies of models in movement – is the best opportunity to consider Rodin in this country for many years. It contains sculptures, drawings and photographs, some never exhibited before outside France, and explores the evolution of iconic works such as The Gates of Hell, The Burghers of Calais and The Kiss – the last of which, like The Thinker, has attained Mona Lisa-like currency in the popular imagination.
Auguste Rodin, The Gates of Hell, c. 1890. Bronze, cast by Alexis Rudier. 680 x 400 x 85 cm.
It is appropriate for a major Rodin exhibition to take place in London, since the sculptor – like his friend Monet – was an Anglophile and the British took to him from quite early on. He had friends in this country – including the critic and journalist W.E. Henley, a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, and also pupils and models from this country, such as Jessie Lipscomb from Peterborough and the artist Gwen John. Among Rodin’s minor achievements was to have forced the English to speak French, as he was utterly unable to communicate in English.
Rodin was collected by Londoners, such as the merchant and stockbroker Constantine Ionides, and supported by Lord Leighton, painter, sculptor, and president of the RA. His relationship with the Academy did not, however, run entirely smoothly. In 1886, an apparently anodyne work of his, depicting two children (Idyll) was rejected by the committee of the Academy’s annual exhibition. This slight by a conservative faction of the RA was a veiled threat to Lord Leighton, who supported Rodin and was an advocate of the New Sculpture, a movement which opposed the static conventions of the mid-Victorian period.
Auguste Rodin, The Age of Bronze, 1877 Bronze, 181 x 60 x 60 cm.
So who was Rodin as man and artist? He was, as the dancer Isadora Duncan recalled, ‘Short, square, powerful, with close-cropped head and plentiful beard’. Of humble origin – he was born into the Parisian lower orders, where his father was a minor functionary in the police – his ascent was slow. He spent years as a jobbing assistant. ‘I did not know I had any talent,’ he later recalled. ‘I knew I had skill, but never thought I was anything more than a workman.’ He was in his mid-thirties before he was working independently and producing his first major works like The Age of Bronze (1877).
Those who encountered him in his years of fame thought of him as a force of nature, as in some ways he was. He struck an aristocratic sitter, the Countess Anna de Noailles, as ‘intelligent’, and, she added, ‘he understands everything intelligent one says.’ He was well-read in literature – he spent a whole year in the company of Dante when beginning The Gates of Hell and he knew his Baudelaire and Balzac. From time to time, claimed the writer and critic Octave Mirbeau, he would say something ‘immense’ about art or philosophy.
Witnesses were struck by his physicality, both in relation to his works and also to his models, between which, in some accounts, there was not a clear distinction. Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer, watched him at work after dinner. ‘His eyes, which at the table had been amiably inattentive, now flashed with strange lights, and he seemed to have grown larger and younger. He worked, worked, and worked, with the entire force and passion of his heavy body, so whenever he stepped forward or back the floor creaked. But he heard nothing. He had forgotten me entirely.’
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who acted for a period as Rodin’s secretary, made a similar observation. ‘The intensity of his interest is terrifying when he focuses. Then he takes on a concentrated gaze that comes and goes like the light cast by a lighthouse.’ This beam of concentration, when applied to women, could be either disconcerting or compelling. The Countess de Noailles was exhausted ‘from the way he looks at me, the way he imagines me nude, from the necessity of fighting for my dignity before this hunter’s gaze.’
Isadora Duncan, on the other hand, was thrilled. ‘He gazed at me with lowered lids, his eyes blazing, and then, with the same expression that he had before his works, he came towards me. He ran his hands over my neck, breast, stroked my arms and ran his hands over my hip, my bare legs and feet. He began to knead my whole body as if it were clay.’ She later regretted resisting when Rodin began these advances.
He was a man of many affairs, who became known as the ‘Sultan of Meudon’ after he moved to that Parisian suburb, because of the harem he seemed to keep. But there was more than simply libido involved. As Ruth Butler, author of a magnificent biography of Rodin, remarks, one aspect of his concept of genius was ‘that sexual impulse is at the very centre of its energy’.
In a way, he concurred with Balzac, subject of one of his greatest works. According to the Goncourt brothers, French critics and patrons, Balzac thought of sperm as ‘an emission of pure cerebral substance, a sort of filtering out and loss, through the penis, of a work of art’. (Van Gogh was another contemporary with similar views.) Rodin made this connection quite explicit in a work such as The Sculptor and his Muse. As Butler describes this two-figure piece: ‘In a paroxysm of contortion, the muse nuzzles the side of his jaw with her nose, while placing her right hand and left foot securely on his penis.’ This sculpture embodies his two great subjects: male genius – as extolled in The Thinker, Balzac and monument to Victor Hugo – and the élan vital of femininity. Rodin was, like Pablo Picasso, a great artist obsessed by sex and sexual attraction. The Kiss is the best-known result of that fascination, but far from the only work. One wonders if Picasso did not have Rodin in mind when he etched again and again the bearded sculptor and his naked model.
‘A model,’ said Rodin, ‘is, therefore, more than a means whereby the artist expresses a sentiment, thought or experience; it is a correlative inspiration to him.’ He could do nothing without living bodies in front of him; as soon as he could afford to, he kept them constantly in his studio, observing them always ‘out of the corner of his eye’. The critic Gustave Coquiot suspected that the women who posed for him were the only people to whom Rodin felt close, because he was able to acknowledge the joy he found in their presence. ‘He would say, “Don’t hurry in taking off your clothes”... and with greediness he watched.’
Rodin’s assistant Jules Desbois once saw him approach a model lying on a table. Rodin ‘delicately kissed the young woman on her stomach – a gesture of adoration for Nature who had just yielded up all her joys to him’. He would frequently draw naked models embracing, or young women masturbating. This disgusted the Countess de Noailles. ‘How could a woman be so shameless as to take her melancholy pleasure in front of an old artist?’ On the other hand, it could be argued that Rodin, in the intensity of his reverence for women and their sexuality, was – paradoxically, perhaps – a feminist. In The Kiss, he suggested that, like the man, Rodin’s woman ‘is awake and filled with longing, as though the two made common cause to find their souls.’
In any case, the inspiration Rodin found in the naked bodies of his models lay at the centre of his art. Butler compares the sculptor’s compulsive drawing of naked models in his later years, with Monet’s pictorial obsessions. His naked women, she suggests, ‘were analogous to Monet’s lily ponds and poplars – they were his nature, his leaves, his shimmering movements of watery surface. They held unfathomable secrets.’
This is why Rodin seems to face both forward and backward. He was compared frequently during his lifetime to Michelangelo. George Bernard Shaw, who Rodin sculpted, went one further. There was, the playwright believed, no other figure in the history of sculpture ‘in the running with him but Praxiteles and Michelangelo, and both of them beaten in some points.’ Rodin himself, for much of his career, longed to succeed in the only way that seemed open to sculptors in nineteenth-century France – by creating monumental public art dedicated to great men or edifying themes. But the tradition in which those works were created was, if not dead, at least formulaic and rhetorical. Before Rodin, the nude body in sculpture had become as predictable as a suit of clothes.
In many ways, Rodin looks forward not back. He anticipates Picasso and Matisse – who was rumoured to have used his model César Pignatelli for early works such as Portrait of Bevilacqua and The Serf. Rodin’s great, headless The Walking Man irresistibly brings Giacometti to mind. His work is of interest to contemporary artists as diverse as Marc Quinn and Lucian Freud. As much as any artist, he was the hinge between Modernism and what came before, between the past and the future. And the turning point in his own career – the central drama – was The Gates of Hell.
When he was first awarded the commission in 1880, it seemed like a dream: bronze doors, like those which made the Renaissance Florentine artist Ghiberti famous, for a grand institution in Paris – a new museum of decorative arts. For familiar political reasons, the museum, which didn’t yet exist, was never built. But for Rodin this wasn’t a tragedy, as Michelangelo’s unfinished tomb of Julius II was for him, but a rite of passage.
Auguste Rodin, The Kiss, 1901-4 Pentelic marble, executed by Ganier, Rigaud and Mathet. 182.2 x 121.9 x 153 cm. ]He chose the subject – the fashionably romantic one of Dante’s Inferno – and for a year he diligently tried to illustrate the text. At the end of that period, came a recognition: ‘I realised that my drawings were too far removed from reality, I started all over again and worked from live models.’ In a second attempt, he created an extraordinary population from the Inferno including The Thinker – simultaneously Dante, Baudelaire and himself – Paolo and Francesca (The Kiss), and the amazing Crouching Woman, which Mirbeau dubbed ‘The Frog’. The last is testimony, as Butler points out, to the rapport between Rodin and the model, Adèle Abbruzzesi – noted as ‘very good looking’ in his ledgers – and the unprecedented freedom with which she was able to move in his presence.
But the whole became supercharged – in fact congested – with associations. One by one the figures moved away, shed their Dantesque identities and became autonomous. When it came down to it, Rodin was not much interested in titles – which changed bewilderingly in some cases – only in movements and bodies. When he came to exhibit The Gates in 1900, he felt that they had ‘too many holes’ – that is, too much complexity, too many shadows. So he showed the piece without figures, a state in which it resembles one of Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral. Or perhaps the comparison is with the nude in Balzac’s story The Unknown Masterpiece, worked over so intensively that it became completely abstract except for one protruding foot.
Just as Rodin’s figures became autonomous – not Paolo and Francesca, just themselves – so the parts of their bodies, fragments, became whole works such as the headless Walking Man. As Rilke realised, ‘Rodin knows that the body consists of so many stages for the display of life, of such life as in any and every part can be individual and great, and he has the power to bestow on any part of the vast, vibrating surface of the body the independence and completeness of the whole.’ Throughout his life, Rodin explored and rediscovered the body, in whole and in part. That is why he remains so important and so various.
Rodin, Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), 23 Sep–1 Jan, sponsored by Ernst & Young
Click here to buy tickets for this exhibition
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