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Rodin captures the human body

Review by Corinna Lotz

Auguste Rodin’s figures and faces are the incarnation of human emotions — anguish, awakening into consciousness, civic heroism, shame, despair and downfall, erotic yearning, ecstasy, contemplation, rational thought and literary creativity.

Like that of the Impressionist painters, Rodin’s early work was dismissed out of hand by the French art establishment as well as the British Royal Academy.  The art of the Academy was full of literary description but devoid of energy and life.  A standard rejection card sent by Royal Academy to the artist in 1886 is still preserved. He is asked to remove the work he has submitted as soon as possible.

Only four years later, Rodin was being courted by the French state and lionised by society, especially in London. But even so, he always struggled hard and more often than not, unsuccessfully, for his works to be placed on public view in the way that he wanted.

Rodin Gates of hell

The Gates of Hell, c. 1890
Bronze, cast by Alexis Rudier
680 x 400 x 85 cm
Kunsthaus Zürich

Visitors entering the Royal Academy courtyard, on their way to the Rodin exhibition, are confronted by the awesome Gates of Hell, begun in 1880, the sculptor’s first public commission. It is inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and its vision of human damnation. And yet this life-long project by the artist was only cast in bronze in 1926, nine years after the his death.

Rodin was denied admittance to the École des Beaux-Arts three times, which would have discouraged most aspiring artists. His Man with a Broken Nose was rejected by the state-run Salon in 1865.  We can see why – it’s not a “classical”, idealised view of a man’s face. Modelled on a local handyman called Bibi, it is a depiction of an ordinary worker with a broken nose, a furrowed brow and anxious expression.

The head has no back, the extreme cold in Rodin’s studio having caused it to fall off. But Rodin made this accident into a virtue. He discovered a jarring and strange beauty in the human form with missing limbs. Many years later, in 1900, Rodin modelled his Walking Man, a headless, armless figure which sees a striding male body in muscular meltdown. It is an innovation which continues to inspire artists today. Recently for example, Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant in Trafalgar Square also emphasised that beauty does not need to conform to stereotypes of bodily perfection.

Rodin Eve

Eve, 1881–82
Bronze, cast before 1911
175 x 60 x 52 cm
Manchester Art Gallery

His kind of realism was new and shocking – so much so that he was accused of having made a plaster cast of a person’s body for his Age of Bronze submitted to the Paris Salon in 1880. Inspired by Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, the piece evokes a similar drama and tension, even a softness in the sway of the hips. Rodin has infused the Classical and Renaissance heritage with a new sense of urgency. 

One of the most thoughtful interpreters of Rodin’s art, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, described how the pain expressed in the man’s face is re-played in the body itself – “every part was a mouth that spoke a language of its own”.

Rodin Thinker

The Thinker, 1881–82
Bronze 71.4 x 59.9 x 42.2 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

In 1884 a major commission from the city of Calais stimulated Rodin to make a breakthrough in the idea of a public monument. His Burghers of Calais shows six men as separate individuals contemplating their fate – frightened and yet ready to make a sacrifice on behalf of their fellow townspeople.  He described it to the writer Robert Louis Stevenson as “his novel”. The head of Pierre de Wissant, of which several versions are on display in clay, plaster and bronze, shows such pain that it could make you weep. The group, along with The Thinker and The Kiss, is one of Rodin’s best-known works, having been cast 12 times in over 100 years, and yet its political message does not sit smoothly with the myths of democracy conveyed by existing governments.

Rodin wanted his work to stand raised high on a plinth in Old Palace Yard, directly in front of the Houses of Parliament. “Placing the monument in a garden or a building would kill me,” Rodin worried at the time. And yet this is precisely where the cast donated to the British nation has ended up – in Embankment Gardens, on the side of the Houses of Parliament.

Rodin nude

Leaning Nude Woman from Behind,
Arms Folded
, c. 1910
Graphite on thin smooth white wove paper
30.3 x 19.9 cm
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Few, if any, can match Rodin in his sensuous expressive way of recreating the human body, not simply to tell a story as in the Burghers, but to redefine what it is to be human. He freed the female body from all inhibition. Sexuality for him was a natural, crucial part of existence, not something to be hidden away or to be ashamed of. He showed women in many different moods, departing again from artificial poses. Rodin encouraged his models to walk and move freely. He wrote: “Formerly I chose my models and indicated their poses. I have long left that error behind. All models are infinitely beautiful, and their spontaneous gestures are those that one feels are most divine.”

Much has been made of Rodin’s serial intimacy with his models and female associates. But his view of women and his relationship with them was revolutionary. Rodin’s women are not a passive object of desire but powerful amazons, centaurs and fauns with their own sexual prowess. One of the most explicit, Iris, Messenger of the Gods, possibly inspired by the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, is both erotic and wonderfully athletic. While his relation with the talented Camille Claudel was tragically fraught, he never forgot her and devoted a space to her in his museum-to-be, the Hôtel Biron.

Rodin Pierre de Wissant

Pierre de Wissant, Monumental Nude, 1886 Bronze
193 x 115 x 95 cm
Kunstverein Winterthur

The grand sweep in this show allows us to appreciate Rodin within the artistic currents of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Post-impressionism, Symbolism and Art Nouveau. Claude Monet, for example, was born only a month later than Rodin in 1840.

So we can understand The Gates of Hell, together with Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series as well as Antoni Gaudi’s famous unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, also made in the closing decades of the 19th century.  They all show a disintegrating world, the breaking-up of form and flow of organic energy. Figure and forms are in melt-down, simultaneously floating upwards. Where the painter liberated light and colour, the architect set form into motion, the sculptor defied gravity. Male and female bodies float, writhe and tumble in a mass of bronze as they emerge and disappear into the solid mass of the doors.

As Geoff Dyer writes in his new book*, “There is . . . a succession of confinings and freeings, of imprisonment and release, of positives and negatives; a constant inverting of the idea of inside and out, of exterior and interior. As Rilke succinctly phrased it, ‘surroundings must be found within’.”

Jennifer Gough-Cooper’s new photographs capture the beauty of the Rodin Museum which still preserves the intimacy of the artist’s studio, with works placed on rotating wooden pedestals and soft daylight catching the subtlest of surface imprints. Large pieces transported from Paris and the artist’s home in Meudon allows us to appreciate familiar icons like The Kiss and The Thinker anew, as part of the artist’s life-long creative impulse. And we can see how important his British connections were for him. In addition there is a outstanding group of photographs, supervised by Rodin making use of unusual lighting to dramatise the dreamy, delicate aspects of his sculpture.

This enormous and richly varied display includes 200 pieces of sculpture in different media, as well as a multitude of photographs and drawings. There are sculptures and paintings by contemporaries who worked closely with him, including Camille Claudel, Alfonse Legros, Gwen John and John Singer Sargent. A new film brings tributes by well-known British sculptors of today - Rachel Whiteread, Barry Flanagan, Richard Deacon, Mark Quinn, Tony Cragg and Tony Caro. Altogether there is far more than can be taken in a single visit, even for those who are familiar with his work. The result is a new, provocative and more contemporary Rodin.

Rodin is at the Royal Academy until January 1, 2007. Admission £10/£8/£6. Open daily 10am-6pm, 10pm on Fridays.
* Apropos Rodin. Photographs by Jennifer Gough-Cooper, introduction by Geoff Dyer. Thames and Hudson. £16.95. A selection of these photos are on display at the Royal Academy and will be shown at the Rodin Museum in Paris from 25 October.

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