The Hand of the Master
The hand of Rodin, a relentless worker and incomparable modeller, was his primary tool, his signature— directing the act of creation and giving life to the medium. Blending audacity with philosophical profundity, with The Hand of God he averred himself the creator of the Creator. In connection with that work, writer George Bernard Shaw declared, “The Hand of God is his own hand.” For his part, Rodin stated, “If we can imagine what God was thinking when He created the world, it is of modelling he must have thought of first of all. Is it not funny to make God a sculptor?” Beginning in 1900, Rodin attached so much importance to his hands that he rendered them in marble.
Nevertheless, during his lifetime, the sculptor was hesitant about showing such studies, which were only exhibited at the Pavillon de l’Alma in Paris in 1900, and in Prague in 1902. He kept the secret pleasure of working as he wanted on those “little things” to himself: “His Sunday pastime at Meudon, when he had escaped the curious gaze of visitors unknown to him . . . was to make new and original combinations of groups of already existing works and, to make that easier, had prepared ahead of time what he called his abattis (limbs), the sets of arms, legs, hands, or feet that he used in his compositions.”
In 1912, Rodin gave a series of such pieces to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose director kept them for the use of students, as he felt they provided invaluable lessons concerning the “close and laborious study of nature, a fact that your imitators are too apt to forget.” It would take until the 1970s, however, for their modernity to be recognized once again.
As writer, actor and director Sacha Guitry recalled, “He took a bit of clay and made hands just like you roll a cigarette.” Rodin himself said, “It took me a great deal of work to succeed in modelling hands with the greatest amount of truthfulness. The study of the human hand is full of difficulties.” The artist borrowed so much from nature that we can now recognize, in his claw-like Clenched Hand, a characteristic absence of radial muscles and elongated wrist. He was often criticized for the exaggerated size of his hands and feet, which was nonetheless a deliberate choice in order to accentuate the expression of a gesture and ground the sculpture. In contrast, the duplicate cast of Rodin’s hand on view here shows only a lifeless, mechanical replication of a part of the body.
Hands were a key subject for Rodin. Assembling heterogeneous or fragmentary pieces, and varying scales using pre-existing works, unfolded an entire range of dramatic stagings of hands that were in turn caressing, imploring, or menacing. As in his friend Loïe Fuller’s performance of her choreography Dancing with the Hands, in which the dancer’s strongly lit hands burst forth out of the darkness, throwing huge shadows, such works introduced a symbolist plunge into the closed world of the master’s.
The Gates of Hell
In 1880, Rodin received his first public commission, for a bronze door for a future Musée des Arts Décoratifs that the French Third Republic contemplated building on the banks of the Seine in Paris. The museum was to be ready for the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle celebrating the centenary of the French Revolution. Ministerial changes and a financial crisis determined otherwise, however, and the project was cancelled. Nonetheless, Rodin retained full ownership of his monument. Remaining in its plaster version in his Dépôt des Marbres studio, the door acquired the status of a masterpiece in its own right, entitled The Gates of Hell.
Rodin took his inspiration from the Inferno, one of the three parts of the Divine Comedy, written by the Italian Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). He did not so much illustrate the poet’s story as show the bodies of the damned of the Earth in the turmoil of the circles of hell. Engulfed in a whirlwind of violence, swept up in confusion, Paolo and Francesca, and Ugolino, driven to devour his children, play out their tragic fates amidst a mass of anonymous figures, under the gaze of Dante, or The Thinker.
Although Rodin made reference to Ghiberti’s bronze doors for the Baptistery of Saint John in Florence, the foundational basis of Renaissance sculpture, he primarily looked to the imposing, dark stone portals—at times in ruins—of the medieval French cathedrals he venerated. “We descended into Hell, like Dante,” he wrote, after a night-time visit to Reims Cathedral. “The unknown is the mystery of that spectacle. . . . The frightful bulk of night, feebly pushed aside for a moment, as quickly, and with an irresistible violence, regains empire. . . . I am in terror and in rapture.” Powerfully architectural in its composition, the work falls within a symbolist impulse. It marks both a kind of end to romantic sculpture and a way forward to modernism.
Rodin worked out each figure with obsessional care to create strong contours that animate this world of darkness with strong contrasts of shadows and light. During years of intense creativity, he modelled “a crowd of figures,” a great vivarium of forms to which he gave autonomous life through recycling and assemblage, enlargement and fragmentation.
Although the figures of The Gates of Hell escaped from it to become sculptures on their own, exhibited, discussed and sold, the work as a whole remained a mystery and off-limits to the public, as it stayed in the confines of the sculptor’s studio. The first cast in bronze was made for the Musée Rodin only in 1928, eleven years after his death. Rodin had shown a plaster version of his doors but a single time, in his 1900 Pavillon de l’Alma exhibition. Yet that version was incomplete, as the figures were absent! It was an astonishing decision. Was it a tribute to the fragmentary beauty of cathedrals ravaged by time? An exploration of the simplification of forms and a move toward the abstraction of his medium? For this reason, The Gates of Hell appears to be the emblematic work, the “phantom” essential to the creative urge within the studio, where everything was transformed, brought to life, and brought to life again . . . ad infinitum.
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