A Magnificent Obsession
RAYMOND J. STEINER
“…A LOVER WHO could not be resisted.” So said Rainer Maria Rilke in his love/hate paean* to Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) written during his extended stay at Meudon as personal secretary beginning in 1902 and ending in 1906, when, also according to Rilke, he was “dismissed like a thieving servant.” In truth, so much has been written about Rodin that it is somewhat of a problem to get beneath the anecdotes, the lionization, the reams of adjectives that have been lavishly strewn in his wake by admirers and detractors (both those who have known him and those who have not) to get to see the man behind the mythos that has grown up around him. In the end, of course, it is less the man than his work that matters most to us and, with some 70+ bronzes — from maquette-sized studies to monumental works — the present exhibit at the Albany Institute of History & Art* affords an exceptional opportunity for us to come away with a more than adequate impression.
To begin with, organized as they are into related themes (“The Gates of Hell”; “The Burghers of Calais”; "Balzac”; “Hands”; etc.) spread throughout the half-dozen or so galleries devoted to the exhibition makes for easy viewing — the order imposed certainly nothing like Rodin’s studio and grounds which, like many sculptor’s environs, had more the hodge-podge appearance of disorder found in used car lots. Secondly, a certain amount of order is also imposed in view of the fact that these pieces represent the individual tastes of collectors, viz. Iris & B. Gerald Cantor whose foundation both organized and made possible the exhibit (funding and support was provided by Sponsor First Albany, Omni Development Co., Inc., Lois and David Swawite, M&T Bank, and Mountain View Group). Nevertheless, ignoring the artificial categorizations and taking the time to study Rodin’s works as discrete entities does leave the viewer the freedom to come away with a personal impact.
In point of fact, many of the works included in the exhibit are indeed discrete pieces — in one instance just hands, in others, partial figures — each, however, capable of standing on their own as complete and integrated works of art, such being the potent power of Rodin’s ability to “speak” through his creations. The question is whether in partial or monumental completion, what does his work say?
For this viewer, I come away with considerable disquiet inasmuch as a great deal of Rodin’s work seems to bespeak an unclear vision of just what the human figure is. Certainly he does not ascribe to the Greek ideal or its offshoot, Italian Renaissance art, with their belief in the perfection of man. This is not to say that he cannot follow in the very large footprints that they left in Western art — every so often we come across in the exhibit what may be called for lack of a better term, “finished”— that is to say, with a “polished” exterior such as that in “Idyll of Ixelles” or “The Sirens” (Cat. Nos. 13, 89, respectively) as well, of course, in pieces not included such as “Fallen Caryatid with Stone” (Cat. No. 142), “Mme. Morla Vicuña” (Cat. No. 147) or “Thought” (Cat. No. 131) all carved a la Carpeaux from marble, the first a promised gift to the Cantor Collection, the other two in the Musée Rodin, Paris. The latter examples are, as noted, carved from marble and by all indications Rodin’s preference was for modeling his pieces in lumps of clay.
Perfection in the human figure, in any event, seems not to be Rodin’s ultimate vision of mankind. Instead, his “magnificent obsession” appears to show mankind in a state of becoming, a state of striving toward some completion that he cannot as yet foresee. Figures are not only contorted into “inhuman” shapes, but often far from anatomically correct. Abnormally elongated limbs and necks or an awkwardly realized upper torso in, e.g., “Jean d’Aire, Nu” might give rise to the mistaken belief that the artist simply doesn’t know any better. Rodin’s figures — whether real or imagined — are not, properly speaking, “beings” at all, but rather rough drafts of them. For all its apparent order, strolling through this exhibit is like wandering through some earlier prototype of Eden in which a confused Creator is hastily lumping earth together and still seeking his ultimate “intelligent design”. That Rodin knew his anatomy, however, can clearly be seen not only in those pieces more classically executed, but also in his drawings, several of which are in the exhibit (see especially the engravings “Antonin Proust”, and “The Ring” (La Ronde).
Even taking into account that many of the studies in the exhibit were intended for his masterwork, the “Gates of Hell”, in which convulsed figures seem de rigueur, one looks in vain to find classical beauty in his modeled works. One can only assume, therefore, that Rodin’s figures are exactly what he intended them to be — a realization that becomes even clearer when we see the several studies that often precede final versions, a fact made especially evident in the “Balzac” gallery and the variations he went through before settling on the Balzac he envisioned (“envisioned” since Rodin never actually met the great author). In no instance do we find a hint of idealization.
Yet, if we cannot find classical beauty, there is little doubt that we find another kind of beauty — that of Michelangelo’s terriblita, a kind of overpowering grandeur that lies at the heart of raw creativity, that creative cauldron from which all art arises before it is imprinted (and modified) by human consciousness. Indeed, many of Rodin’s pieces are reminiscent of the great Italian sculptor’s half-finished works, those awesome figures forever encased in and breaking free from their stony origins. The impact of Rodin’s vision of ‘dead matter coming to life’ is most vividly experienced in the monumental conceptions, several of which (“Fallen Caryatid with Stone” (so different in aspect from the work of the same name carved in marble), “Whistler’s Muse”, and the especially awe-inspiring though partial “Monumental Torso of the Walking Man” — this last, it seems to me, to sum up Rodin’s true genius of forcing his viewer to see man in all his awesome “becoming”.
In a sense, from what we know of Rodin the man, his bronzes — his gallery of prototypical human forms — might be seen as an extended self-portrait. Rough-hewn and often ill at ease with his Parisian sophisticates, Rodin made little effort to exude a “polished” surface himself. He knew himself also to be not yet fully realized, a living example of the work-in-process — the human being who still has to grow into his idealized state.
This is a rare occasion for not only upstate-New Yorkers, but for all those who do not anticipate a trip to France in the near future to get a close-up look at the work of one of the major figures in the annals of modern art. While you’re visiting “A Magnificent Obsession”, take the time to watch the 53-minute award-winning video, “Rodin: the Gates of Hell”, that presents a dramatic showing of the 10-step lost-wax casting process that chronicles the project. This is a show you ought not miss, and kudos to all those who made it possible as well as to the Albany Institute of History and Art for taking the time to present it to the public.
*Auguste Rodin: Rainer Maria Rilke. (Archipelago Books, 2004. Translated from the German by Daniel Slager). Pgs. 73, 26.
**“Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession, Sculpture from the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation” (thru Dec 31): Albany Institute of History & Art, 125 Washington Ave., Albany, NY (518) 463-4478. A fully-illustrated catalogue is available: Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession by Kirk Varnedoe et al. 192 pp.; 9 ½ x 11; B/W & Color Illus.; Checklist; Index. $29.95 Softcover.