Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Auguste Rodin

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) has become so famous that it can be hard to appreciate what a great sculptor he was. Everyone knows The Thinker -- but, really, before it became an icon it was a terrific piece of work.

Rodin was the son of a policeman and a seamstress, and when his artistic talent became apparent they sent him to a school that trained skilled artisans like cabinetmakers. Reaching higher, he applied to the École des Beaux-Arts, but was turned down. So instead of formal training he entered an apprenticeship with Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, one of those artists who was mainly a salesman for a workshop where his badly paid, overworked assistants did all the sculpting. Still, given how Rodin turned out he must have learned the important things. (The Man with the Broken Nose, 1874)

Rodin was badly nearsighted, and this problem grew worse with age. It may have partly because of his poor eyesight that he got so much pleasure from working with clay. Clay was really his medium; it was in shaping clay that he did his creative work. He did many terracotta works that were never rendered into marble or bronze, and in fact some of the bronze and marble works for which he is best known today were made by others. Those that Rodin finished have a rough quality, still visibly bearing the mark of their maker's clay-shaping hands. (Terracotta study for Eustace de Saint-Pierre, 1885)

Rodin was no prodigy; his oldest surviving works dates to the mid 1870s, when he was entering middle age. The first full-sized work that he exhibited under his own name was The Bronze Age, 1877.

Rodin as a young artist, in 1862. He seems to be glaring, but I think that expression is actually a nearsighted squint.

Rodin was obsessed above all with faces and hands -- these were the bearers of meaning for him. He was fascinated by nineteenth-century theories about how climate shaped human life, and he believed that the people of each region shared a common physiognomy. Thus when he was commissioned to create a portrait of Honoré de Balzac, he went to Tours where Balzac grew up and persuaded half a dozen men who looked vaguely like Balzac to sit for portraits. This is one of those preparatory studies, said to be a street car conductor named Estager (1891).

Victor Hugo, 1883.

In 1880 Rodin received a commission that in some ways dominated his career. This was for a doorway to a new museum in Paris. Rodin decided to base his doorway on Dante's Inferno, and the resulting creation is known as the Gateway to Hell. However, Rodin never finished his masterpiece; it was never cast in its entirely until after his death. Instead he spent 37 years tinkering with various designs and sculpting various elements of the composition.

Several of Rodin's most famous works were originally conceived for these doors. The Thinker sits in the center; around him are Eve, The Kiss, I am Beautiful, and others; at the top are the Three Shades.

The Kiss in marble, 1882.

The Three Shades.

Rodin at the height of his career.

Another of Rodin's hugely famous works is The Burghers of Calais (1889). This was commissioned to promote French patriotism in the aftermath of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. It depicts the six leading men of Calais who volunteered to serve as hostages to Edward III of England when he threatened to destroy the city in 1346. The commission called for a heroic monument focusing on Eustace de Saint-Pierre, their leader, but Rodin made it clear he had no interest in such a treatment. Instead he rendered all six men as equally important, all individuals reacting in different ways to the crisis. Rodin's preliminary models divided the commissioners, but eventually they decided to proceed with Rodin's design, and the result was an immediate success. Millions of people have felt ever since that these dignified old men have a heroism beyond that of any conqueror on horseback.

Danaïd, 1889.

Georges Clemenceau, 1911-1913, terracotta. According to the Rodin Museum, this commission
gave rise to several studies and variants : “In the room he used as a studio, ten or so clay heads of Clemenceau, cut off at the neck, stood on turntables and consoles. It was incredible… Rodin sculpted as an engraver produces aquatints, in states. In order not to ‘tire’ his clay with numerous amendments, he had several casts made, experimented on these successive copies and thus reworked them ten or even twelve times…” Clemenceau did not like his bust. He said that Rodin had made him look like a soldier of Napoleon’s old guard and refused to let him show it at the Salon of 1914.
Clenched Hand, 1895.

No comments: