themes

room 01 - Introduction

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.

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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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room 02 - Creation laboratory

Plaster

In nineteenth century studios, the ephemeral material of plaster was both essential and mundane. At that time, sculpture was defined as the practice of modelling in clay. However, works in clay could not be preserved, as it dries out and crumbles apart if not kept constantly moist.

 

Rodin recalled: “Since I didn’t have enough money to have everything I made cast, each day I lost precious time in covering my clay with wet cloths; despite that, at every turn I had accidents from the effects of cold or heat; entire sections detached themselves—heads, arms, knees, chunks of torsos fell off. . . . Sometimes I was able to put fragments back together. You could not believe what I lost in that way.”

 

A sculptor therefore always called on the services of a caster to make a plaster mould of his clay model and then a cast (if not several) from it, again in plaster. The latter, called the original, served as a reference from that point on. It was kept and exhibited at the Salon or elsewhere, before being rendered in nobler iterations, a costly process necessitating the financial wherewithal to pay for the materials (bronze or marble) and professionals (founders or practitioners) involved.

 

Rodin employed numerous plaster casters during his career, but the two Guiochés—the father and especially his son—who worked for him from 1897 to 1915, were particularly talented. Their plasters were distinguished by their extraordinary lightness, as a contemporary related: “They were able to cast enormous sculptures, and their casts were so thinskinned that, for example, one man alone was able to lift The Thinker.”

 

Plaster has many advantages. Before drying, it is flexible, malleable, and even liquid; once dry, it is light but solid, allowing heterogeneous elements to be attached, and can be easily cut up and stuck back together. Furthermore, it is inexpensive and infinitely reproducible, making endless variations possible.

 

It was Rodin’s innovation to capitalize on those qualities that, through a kind of bricolage, enabled the fragmentation and assemblage of his works to create new compositions. “It is Rodin alone,” explained journalist Jean-Ernest S. Jeanès, “who assembles the small plaster figures, decides how one will be placed in relation to another, breaks off such-and-such a limb as he pleases to reveal a particular form or effect, in anticipation of it later being executed in a more ‘noble’ material, or simply following his inspiration of the moment. It is in plaster, therefore, more than anything else, in which one can guess at what the true presence of the master and his work in the studio reveals. If it were not fragile and so easily soiled, plaster, which Rodin used with such a sure hand, would be the perfect material for sculpture, because it shows everything and nothing can be concealed or dodged.”

 

Rodin lent a new aesthetic dimension to plaster, ennobling it in a way, by leaving the cast seams exposed, and in so doing asserting the beauty of his work in and of itself.

 

The importance of these plasters—mistakenly confused with the countless copies of antique works that filled art schools and museums, or with life casts of very poor quality—would not be understood until the second half of the twentieth century, when art historians realized that they provided the most faithful evidence of the master’s initial modelling.

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Assemblage

Assemblage constituted Rodin’s most innovative creative process. The sculptor endlessly reinvented his lexicon of preconceived forms like so many prefabricated components. Contrary to the conventions of sculpture, Rodin disregarded the “paradigm of the aesthetics of analogues,” as art historian Leo Steinberg put it.

 

Rodin employed the term abattis—“limbs”—to describe the wide array of heads, hands, feet, arms and legs that made up his stockpile of ready-made “spare parts.” Plaster was the material and casting the technique he favoured for such explorations. Through the combination of the migrating fragments, Rodin took his work in new and fertile directions.

 

One of his studio assistants, Victor Frisch, related: “He had several plaster casts made. One was kept intact, the others were cut apart, and the sections numbered and catalogued, so that they might be drawn out of their cupboards to serve in other figures, perhaps years later. Thus dissected, limb from torso, they would be set, again and again, in new arrangements and further considerate groupings.”

 

While sculpture was considered an analogical art in the nineteenth century, Rodin evaded the provisos of realistic similitude. Turned every which way, heads down, feet in the air, his figures break free from the primal pull of gravity to enter into a new, weightless, mental space. Defying logical proportions, the assemblages form richly symbolic and expressive plastic dissonances. When they feature repetitions of a single figure, it is due to a serial aesthetic that accentuates their rhythm, conveys a sequence of moments, and suggests time in its continuity.

 

Steinberg, who rediscovered Rodin’s modernity in the 1960s, saw this ambiguous relation to ground and support as one of the sculptor’s great plastic innovations: “a threat of imbalance which serves like a passport to the age of anxiety. . . . Rodin unsettles the obvious and brings to sculpture that anxious questioning for survival.” Mixing, recycling and grafting fuelled his unending investigations, sculpture always concerning a transitory, and therefore unfinished, state. 

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Abattis

Rodin used the term abattis (“limbs”) to refer to the “pieces”—small arms, heads, legs, hands and feet—that he modelled in clay before having numerous copies of them cast in plaster. In this way he built up a repertoire of forms that he did not hesitate to draw from to complete his fragmentary figures, devising new groupings and assemblages.

 

This manner of working takes us to the very heart of the creative process of the demiurgic Rodin, who constantly put things together, and then broke them apart and reconfigured them. The little limbs also provide an idea of the wealth of poses— bent or outstretched arms, clenched or open hands, broken wrists—employed by the sculptor, and his tremendous inventiveness, always starting from reality to give life to his creations. The museum at Meudon preserves hundreds of them.

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room 03 - The Cups

Vessels and "Flowers"

Among the extraordinarily rich variety of plasters that emerged from the never-ending creative process at work in Rodin’s studio is a remarkable, little-known series of female figurines coupled with vessels of archeological origin, on view here for the first time on the American continent.

 

“Antiquity is my youth,” said Rodin, who worshipped Greco-Roman statuary, which in his mind was inspired by nature and the quiver of life itself. He denounced those who only copied the ancients’ style without understanding their essential lessons. First at the Villa des Brillants in Meudon, and then at the Hôtel Biron, Rodin avidly assembled a collection of over six thousand antiquities! Between 1893 and 1917, he haunted Parisian antique dealers and purchased hundreds of fragments of Egyptian, Greek, Hellenistic, Etruscan and Roman works in marble or bronze, as well as vessels and other figurines in terracotta or stone.

 

Beginning in the 1890s, in an audacious conflation of different eras within single works, Rodin put ancient vessels from his collection together with his own figurines, the majority of them from The Gates of Hell. Some of the compositions were later executed in marble or bronze, like The Small Water Fairy shown here. The allusion to antiquity embodied in these composite works should not be allowed to obscure their resolute modernity. Combining the effects of the fragmented body with smallness of scale, the white plaster, sometimes speckled with air bubbles, converses with rough clay and a gamut of ochres.

 

In their containers, each of these “flowers in a vase,” to use the words of the poet and Rodin’s one-time secretary Rainer Maria Rilke, burst forth like strange excrescences, poetic invocations of the plant world, reflecting the vitalism then in vogue. Transfigured objets d’art, staged quasi-collectibles, these delightful and idiosyncratic assemblages tell us much about the multiple threads that formed the fabric of Rodin’s powerful creative urge.

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room 04 - On the Scale of the Infinite

Fragmentation

Behind Rodin’s aesthetic of the incomplete figure can be found his passion for the often fragmentary sculpture of antiquity. As he put it, “A piece of beauty is beauty in its entirety.” He rebelled against the prevailing notion that a sculpture could not be left mutilated or amputated. 

 

It is necessary to go back to one of his very first works, the mask of The Man with the Broken Nose, to find the origin of this practice. Rodin had worked long and hard on that bust during the winter of 186465, but the clay froze and the back of its head fell off. Delighted with the result of that accident, the young sculptor decided to adopt it as an aesthetic choice, and to submit the work to the jury of the Salon. It was refused because it was deemed to be incomplete. His friend Jules Desbois later passed it around . . . as a beautiful antique found at a second-hand shop! Rodin eventually had it cast in bronze and exhibited it in 1878. Random chance thus became a spring to his creativity.

 

Another stage was reached with Study of a Torso, a fragment that Rodin found in his studio and had cast about 1887. He put it together with the legs from his Saint John the Baptist, placed that assemblage on a column in 1900, and then had it enlarged in 1907 to create The Walking Man. Apparently, such an approach was scandalously iconoclastic: “Haven’t the public, and the critics pandering to the public, reproached me sufficiently for having exhibited ‘mere parts of the human body’? . . . And that [I am] logical and far more of an artist to exhibit an arm rather than a ‘bust’ arbitrarily deprived by tradition of its arms, legs and abdomen?” inveighed Rodin. It has to be understood that his work in the studio proceeded by individual pieces, and that limbs—in which the force of life always had to be palpable, and not only in the fashion of the academic tête d’expression conveying passion—were modelled separately. One piece could therefore be more successful than another.

 

From the 1890s on, Rodin sought to capture the essential and simplify forms. He reworked his existing sculptures, eliminating certain of their elements in order to heighten their expressive power. In so doing, he introduced profoundly modern ideas in respect to the concentration and synthesis of sculptural effects. His work changed, was refocused, suggested new possibilities and, in order to be redefined, recognized the importance of chance and accident— it became “pure sculpture.” Very much in the spirit of contemporary philosophies such as those of Simmel and Bergson, Rodin inferred another relationship to time, by the very reason of its incompletion.

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Enlargements and Pedestals

Beginning in 1894, Rodin availed himself of the exclusive services of a remarkable “reproductive sculptor,” Henri Lebossé, to transfer his figures to various different scales. Lebossé had opened a business engaged in the “Reduction and enlargement of all artistic and industrial objects by a mathematically perfected process.”

 

While the traditional three-compass method for enlargement slowly progressed point by point, and was therefore very expensive, Lebossé used a sculptor’s three-dimensional pantograph with articulated needles, a machine derived from Collas and Sauvage’s 1844 invention of a mechanical reduction method. That invention had a considerable impact, as it enabled such work to be done more quickly and the reduction of the great sculptural masterworks to a scale suitable for bourgeois interiors. A new market then opened up for editions.

 

While reductions of works facilitated their dissemination amongst collectors, as of 1900, Rodin was mainly interested in enlargements, unusual experiments that turned the spotlight on his figures or body parts. Judith Cladel described “his work process: a sketch, a meticulous rendering that was a third or half as big as the final size and, finally, the enlargement followed by some reworking.” Enlargement allowed the simplification of forms, accentuating their synthetic, rather than anecdotal, character. It also intensified their symbolically expressive power; for example, The Walking Man became iconic once it was enlarged in 1907, many years after its initial creation.

 

A conscientious technician, Lebossé, who wanted to be Rodin’s “perfect collaborator,” worked day and night for the master. In order to enlarge a figure, he had to proceed piece by piece, and handle unpleasant surprises in proportion when the time came to assemble them. His most famous enlargement is certainly that of The Thinker: “I have done a great deal of reworking so as to preserve the character of your beautiful model,” he wrote to the sculptor. Presented at the Salon of 1904 in its new size, the sculpture caused a sensation, provoking jeers— “a wild orangutan, a huge brute, a bloated boxer”— from some, and praise—“a new Hercules, a peasant philosopher”—from others. The Thinker was not enlarged in a systematic fashion; certain limbs were thickened in relation to the rest of the body. However, everything was designed to enhance the work’s monumentality.

 

Rodin’s approach to the pedestal made it an integral part of the work. For the 1900 exhibition at the Pavillon de l’Alma, he used antique columns—plaster casts from pieces in his own collection or foliated plinths made in the reproductions department of the Louvre—as pedestals, in order to play with height and scale, and show his thus glorified creations from a fresh perspective. One of The Thinker’s feet was presented as a sculpture in its own right: the part, exalted by its placement on a pedestal, became the whole.

 

Another radical option saw the material of the sculpture itself become the pedestal. In the portrait of Gustav Mahler, the head erupts from a shapeless, albeit insistently vertical, support, while Thought, based on a portrait of Camille Claudel, emerges from a block of rough-hewn marble. When the practitioner Victor Peter was preparing to sculpt a collar below the bonnet, Rodin, seeing how the spirit of the work seemed to burst out of the medium, told him, “Don’t touch it, leave it as it is.”

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room 05 - Marbles and practitioners

Marble

Now highly appreciated, Rodin’s marbles met with a certain disinterest in the twentieth century. Some modernist critics regarded them as outdated and rather overly reflective of belle époque taste. Later, the public’s incomprehension combined with its suspicion as a result of the 1919 trial concerning fake Rodins: one of his practitioners had continued to turn out posthumous marbles without permission. Finally, heroically confronting the medium in the tradition of stonecutters from the Middle Ages to the time of Michelangelo, the new generation of twentiethcentury sculptors adopted the vogue for direct carving, and as a result censured the practice of transposition.

 

Nevertheless, such “translations,” as Rodin called them, were entirely usual in sculpture studios. Since the advent of the concept of the artist as an intellectual in the Renaissance, it was the inventiveness related to the initial modelling that was of prime importance, rather than the execution of the work. The idea supplanted the material as the basis of what was original. Although Rodin very closely supervised the carving of his marbles, his singular poetics in the medium depended not on their physical making but his theoretical vision—that was his personal innovation.

 

Rodin was conditioned by his recognition of the supremacy of ancient statuary. Above all else, he prized the marble of Greece—the fine grain of that from Penteli in Attica, the translucency of that from the island of Paros in the Aegean Sea—as well as the immaculate white marble, the same used by his idol, Michelangelo, from Tuscany’s Seravezza quarries. The latter benefited from a legendary reputation, as mechanized cutting enabled faster and less hazardous handling. All the same, Rodin refused certain blocks delivered to his studio that were flawed.

 

Rodin blurred the indeterminate boundaries between the subject of his sculpture and the convention of the pedestal. He asserted a highly personal, symbolist aesthetic of unfinishedness in those of his maturity. The sculptor drew his inspiration from Michelangelo, whose famously unfinished Slaves remained imprisoned within stone. Gradually disposing of iconography, Rodin made use of the contrast between smooth, luminous surfaces and the roughly worked medium. The nonfinito shows the metamorphosis, the transformation of the material, either with the emergence of the form from its mineral bounds, or its engulfing in a kind of non-consciousness.

 

This aesthetic of the transitory, paradoxical for the very concrete art that is sculpture, is illustrative of mobility, instability, the essential flow of life—a then modern vitalism. This basically Platonic struggle between mind and matter was not always grasped by Rodin’s contemporaries, as some deemed his marbles overly rough—in short, they considered them frauds. However, his teachings would be understood and adopted by younger artists, starting with Brancusi.

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The Sirens

Typical of the symbolist spirit that blurred the boundaries between art and nature, these three women, intertwined like the spume of the sea, mythological figures whose songs lured sailors into the abyss, captivate through their musical and deadly eroticism. Sometimes entitled The Nereids, or sea nymphs, they do not have the traditional fishtails. In any case, it is known that Rodin attached little importance to the title.

 

Assembled to form a group for The Gates of Hell, the popularity of The Sirens is reflected in the various versions made in different materials. An independent plaster dating from 1887 was cast in bronze in 1889. The first marble copy was entrusted to the excellent practitioner Jean Escoula in 1889, and it is almost certainly the one now in the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The Montreal collector George Alexander Drummond had purchased the piece in 1891 and his descendants donated it to the Museum in 1958.

 

The presence of stains and “wormholes” in the marble block is surprising— the possible result of it having been exhibited outdoors—but the work has been executed with considerable skill. The natural handling of its base is deftly accentuated with a few apparently random strokes of the chisel. There are three other versions of the work that are very similar to this one, one at the Dallas Museum of Art, and two larger versions at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen and the Thielska Galleriet in Stockholm, respectively. 

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room 06 - Didactic Room

Chronology

1840

Birth of Auguste Rodin on November 12, in Paris.

 

1854

Enrols at the École impériale spéciale de dessin et de mathématiques (known as the “Petite École”), where he studies under Lecoq de Boisbaudran.

 

1857-1859

Fails the entrance exam for the École nationale des Beaux-Arts three times.

 

1858

Works for various decorators and ornamentists.

 

1862-1863

Joins the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament.

 

1864

Begins working in the studio of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse.

Meets Rose Beuret, aged twenty.

 

1865

The mask of The Man with the Broken Nose is rejected by the Salon.

 

1866

Takes classes in animal anatomy with Antoine-Louis Barye at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle. Birth of his illegitimate son, Auguste-Eugene Beuret.

 

1870

Lives and works for a time in Brussels.

On returning to Paris in late September, he is called up.

 

1871

Discharged from the army, joins Carrier-Belleuse in Belgium, where he remains until 1877.

 

1872

Stops working for Carrier-Belleuse, who returns to Paris.

 

1875

Has a first work accepted by the Salon in Paris: the bust of The Man with the Broken Nose in marble.

At the end of the year, leaves Belgium for a study trip to Italy, where he discovers the work of Michelangelo.

 

1877

Exhibits The Age of Bronze (plaster) in Brussels, and later in Paris (Salon des Artistes français). Rodin is accused of having cast the figure from life. The scandal nonetheless contributes to his growing fame.

Returns to France.

 

1879

Works at the Sevres porcelain factory until December 1882.

 

1880

The French government commissions a cast of The Age of Bronze, and later The Gates of Hell, for a planned museum of decorative arts. He is assigned a studio at the Dépôt des Marbres, 182 Rue de l’Université.

Exhibits the plaster version of Saint John the Baptist at the Salon.

 

1881-1882

Creates The Thinker, The Kiss and Ugolino.

 

1882

Meets Camille Claudel, aged eighteen.

 

1883

Shows his drawings for the first time, in an exhibition at the Cercle des Arts libéraux in Paris.

 

1885

The city of Calais commissions The Burghers of Calais, inaugurated in 1895.

 

1888

The French government commissions a marble version of The Kiss for the Exposition universelle of 1889.

 

1890

The Gates of Hell reaches its final form.

 

1891

The Société des gens de lettres commissions a Monument to Balzac.

 

1892

First break with Camille Claudel.

 

1893

Becomes vice president of the Société nationale des Beaux-Arts and president of the sculpture section.

Hires Antoine Bourdelle as a practitioner.

 

1895

Buys the Villa des Brillants in Meudon.

 

1897

Meditation is exhibited in Stockholm and Dresden. For the first time, an incomplete figure is treated as a finished work.

 

1898

Final break with Camille Claudel.

 

1899

His first monographic exhibition is shown in Brussels, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and The Hague.

 

1900

Inauguration on June 1 of the Rodin Pavilion on the Place de l’Alma in Paris, during the Exposition universelle.

 

1901

The Rodin Pavilion is dismantled and rebuilt in Meudon.

Exhibition of photographs of Rodin’s works by Eugene Druet at the Galerie des artistes modernes.

 

1902

Meets Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), who will serve as his secretary from September 15, 1905, to May 12, 1906.

 

1904

First exhibition of the large plaster version of The Thinker at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in London, then at the Salon of the Société nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

 

1906

A large bronze of The Thinker is installed in front of the Panthéon, in Paris.

Paints a series of watercolours of Cambodian dancers at the Exposition coloniale in Marseilles.

Meets the Japanese dancer Hanako (1868–1945), who poses for him for the first time in 1907.

Receives a commission from London for a Monument to Whistler.

 

1907

First exhibition composed exclusively of drawings held at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris.

 

1908

The sculptor moves to the Hôtel Biron (today the Musée Rodin in Paris), which he had learned of from Rilke.

King Edward VII visits Rodin in Meudon.

 

1909

Initial proposal for a major donation to the State and the founding of a Rodin museum at the Hôtel Biron.

 

1910

Exhibition of drawings, The Thinker and photographs by Edward J. Steichen at the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in New York. Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt visits Rodin in Meudon.

 

1911

Éditions Bernard Grasset publishes L’Art, entretiens réunis par Paul Gsell.

 

1912

Rodin exhibition in Tokyo.

Inauguration of a gallery devoted entirely to Rodin’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

 

1913

Camille Claudel is confined to a mental asylum.

 

1914

Fleeing the war, leaves for England with Rose in the company of his biographer, Judith Cladel.

Gives eighteen sculptures to Great Britain.

 

1916

Rodin is seriously ill.

Donation of Rodin’s work and collections to the State in three installments (April 1, September 13 and October 25). The Chamber of Deputies and the Senate accept the donation, and the National Assembly votes to establish a national Auguste Rodin museum at the Hôtel Biron.

 

1917

Rodin marries Rose Beuret on January 29 in Meudon.

February 14: death of Rose.

November 17: death of Rodin.

 

1919

On August 4 the Musée Rodin opens its doors to the public.

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room 07 - Models

Drawings

Drawing played a central role in Rodin’s approach to art: “Having begun drawing very young, I brought everything I knew to the modelling of my figure. In my life, I have made thousands of drawings, even now I still draw almost every day. I could not tell you how much that knowledge has served me.” Rodin never neglected to include drawings in the exhibitions he organized. Today, the Musée Rodin has approximately seven thousand in its collection.

 

Rodin’s graphic work parallels his sculpture in a number of ways. He only worked after a live model and avoided academic poses and stereotypes, seeking rather to capture the inherent dynamism of bodies. He worked in graphite, but also made use of watercolour, which, beginning in the 1890s, highlighted his powerful sketches, drawn in virtually unbroken lines without even glancing at the sheet of paper.

 

The composition of the drawings is reduced to a minimum, unencumbered by accessories or objects, and often lacking a background. Rodin concentrated all his attention on the body and the expression of its vital tension, using the same processes as in his sculpture. He built up series, reproducing the same motifs after the initial session with the model, each of which could generate new works independent of the original.

 

Rodin played with the notion of weight. Positioning a reclining body vertically has the effect of creating new viewpoints, the “suspended” version conjuring the three-dimensionality of the sculpted body while endowing it with an unaccustomed weightlessness.

 

Another feature of Rodin’s experimentation through drawing, similar in that to his plaster works, was his strategy of découpage and reassembling. The bodies are sometimes roughly cut out and isolated from their ground, or rearranged in pairs.

 

Marine gods were among the artist’s favourite sculptural themes, fascinated as he was by classical mythology and the ever-changing moods of its deities. A watercolour wash may flood across an entire image, as if to submerge the figures in a kind of sea. In his drawing, Rodin revealed yet again his predilection for multiple identities and the kind of experimentation that alters forms by increasing perspectives.

 

The drawings selected for this exhibition illustrate the work carried out in the studio. The similarity between the types of paper and sizes, along with the models and the graphic styles used, present a coherent corpus of drawings developed within a limited time frame, which may come from a sketchbook that was taken apart or from analogous sheets.

SBF

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Models

Confessing “infinite worship of the nude,” Rodin could not work without a model, even when executing a posthumous portrait, sculptor and model forming a single creative force. He chose his models for their character, vigour and . . . lack of experience: “It is when [the models] leave a pose that they most often reveal their beauty to me. I never dictate a movement, I just tell them, ‘Be angry, dream, pray, cry, dance.’ It is up to me to seize and render the line that feels right.”

 

His earliest, male, models are known to us: Bibi, the street-sweeper with the battered face; the feral Pignatelli for Saint John the Baptist; Cailloux, the circus acrobat who twisted his body for Adam; and the soldier Auguste Neyt, who posed for The Age of Bronze for a year and a half. He recalled: “Rodin did not want the muscles to be exaggerated, in fact he despised academic poses. The master wanted the action to be ‘natural,’ drawn from life. I nonetheless achieved this through training, and so I would work two, three, even four hours in a row.”

 

When Rodin could afford to pay a sufficient number of models, he constantly observed the spectacle of their muscles in movement. In his view, they were beautiful, because they were alive. Their customary presence intimately instructed the sculptor, who fixed a pose in clay or quickly drew one without turning his eyes away, or even looking at his sheet of paper! He objected to the usual art school formulas, with their “lifeless automatons” that obliged artists to conform to a worn-out repertoire of poses, like the “mannequins” of dead, artificial works.

 

A contemporary witness recounted: “It is Rodin’s habit to have his models take various positions and let them change them as they want, when suddenly, his attention will be drawn to a way they turn or bend a particular limb—to a certain twist of the hip, a raised arm, the angle of a joint—and it is only that part, along with its movement, that he will set in clay, leaving out the rest of the body. Later, sometimes long afterwards, the idea of an entire body will come to him.”

 

“I owe everything to women, they are walking masterpieces.” Rodin had affectionate, though paternalistic, relationships with his female models. It was how the penniless young sculptor came to meet Rose Beuret, the girl of rustic charm who became his companion. Many of the models of the time were Italian, like the Abruzzesi sisters, one blonde and the other brunette, for whom he had high regard. Along with the practice of drawing that asserted itself in his maturity, Rodin valued improbable, erotic, acrobatic and exotic postures, like those of unconventional dancers: the “unbourgeois” passion of the performers of flamenco; the Americans, with the classically inspired Isadora Duncan, the hypnotic Loïe Fuller, and the modern Ruth St. Denis; the formidable Hanako “rooted in the ground like a tree” during posing sessions; the agile Alda Moreno, whose strange arabesques suggested “sphinx-like creatures from which a woman emerges as from a chrysalis”; and the incredible Cambodian dancers, “new reasons to believe that nature is an exhaustible spring for those who drink from it,” exclaimed the sculptor, who sought to capture nature in its infinite forms.

 

Effecting a revolution, Rodin eluded the diktat of the subject: “Composition is the science of the theatre, that is, the science of the lie.” Iconography was not important to him, as the value of the completed work lay in what it was, not what it illustrated. He once wrote, “Sir, I am embarrassed to tell you the subjects: graceful women and muscled men. . . . I would point out to you that the subject is of no interest in my works. It is the life animating them that merits my being known.”

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Bust of Hanako

Rodin first met the Japanese actress and dancer Ohta Hisa (1868–1945), whose stage name was Hanako, at the 1906 Colonial Exhibition in Marseilles. She had triumphed in a play through a performing style that bore no relation to Western conventions, at a time when colonialism and a keen interest in foreign civilizations had led to the rise of Japonisme. Mesmerized by her intense look of anguish as she performed scenes of hara-kiri, the sculptor pressed her to pose for him during 1906 and 1907.

 

All her portraits concentrate on the metamorphoses of a face, constituting a corpus that exemplifies the collaborative nature of Rodin’s work with his models. The result is a series of unusually powerful pieces, including busts and masks, versions on pedestals, and free-standing fragments, life-sized or enlarged. Rodin, a collector of Japanese art, rendered the features of the tiny but energetic woman through large masses of clay to which he later added detail through fine incisions.

 

The portrait bust, with its barely outlined shoulders and plain base, simply a mound of clay cut with a wire, emphasizes the actress’s distinctive coiffure, which is treated with particular care. Rodin varied his studies of contorted, angry, or pensive expressions. It would be simplistic to view this work as merely a manifestation of Japonisme: here the concerted quest to articulate human emotion as truly as possible is at one with the universal.

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The Various Versions of Balzac

The Monument to Balzac was Rodin’s most controversial work, and certainly his masterpiece. When he received the commission in 1890 for a public statue honouring Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), opinions concerning the writer and his work were still divided. Émile Zola, the father of naturalism, considering Balzac the precursor of the literary movement, did much to promote his recognition. He insisted that Rodin, then considered a master of realism, be selected to execute the work.

 

The monument’s long gestation indicates how the sculptor was moving away from realism towards a totally avant-garde, idealistic expressionism. Although Rodin had received the commission during the triumph of naturalism in the nineteenth century, in 1898 he delivered an early masterwork of the twentieth.

 

Rodin conducted a considerable amount of research, amassing a great deal of documentation—books, photographs, descriptions of the writer, and garments—to form a clear idea of his subject. In line with the physiognomic theories of the era, which posited that a particular region produced a particular physical type, he travelled to Touraine, the writer’s birthplace, to find a Balzacian look.

 

Rodin worked with a nude model. This first, realistic vision of the subject, showing an ungainly body, like Balzac’s own, with a pot-belly, as if pregnant with the author’s Human Comedy, and two stubby legs planted on the ground, was viewed by its commissioners in 1896 as vulgar and grotesque. For his part, despite all his hard work, Rodin was still dissatisfied with his maquettes.

 

The artist did not strive for “photographically real sculpture.” As he saw it, he was not to represent a dead author but to evoke a force of genius, a literary giant who understood all the lineaments of the human soul: “For me, Balzac is before everything a creator and this is the idea I would wish to make understood in my statue.” In 1897, Rodin developed a second version with a muscled, solidly built body posed quietly standing, holding his erect penis in his hand, a reference to the creative power of the life force combining with inspiration.

 

Abandoning the naturalistic approach of his first busts, and following Lamartine’s description of the author as having “the face of an element,” Rodin exaggerated the features, thickened the lips, deepened the eyes, and emphasized the leonine mane and bull’s neck. The head of a visionary thus emerged from a composite body.

 

According to the commission, Balzac was to be shown clothed in the dressing gown, similar to a monk’s robe, he liked to wear when working. A contemporary witness told of seeing in the studio six plaster casts of the second nude version and a big roll of cloth, which Rodin used to wrap each of the casts differently, in search of the right look. “The cloth began to enlarge and amplify the form, so the final version had something imperious and grandiose about it.” The thick cloak transformed the figure into a dense and powerful monolith.

 

Presented at the Salon in 1898, the plaster was endlessly derided as a sack of plaster, a block of salt left out in the rain, a stalagmite, and a menhir. “He calls that Balzac! It’s a snowman! Look how it’s melting! And it’s already listing on its side—it’s going to fall over.” Bernard Berenson, the great art historian, wrote: “A stupid monstrosity. Insofar as he has form at all, he looks like a polar bear standing on its hind legs.” The affair took an overly political turn for Rodin, who decided to take back “his beloved child.”

 

Misunderstood at the time, the ideas and investigations behind the daring concept for this “body-monument” would nevertheless result in one of his most masterly works. He himself described it as “the logical outcome of my whole life, the very pivot of my aesthetics.” 

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room 08 - Bronzes and Founders

Bronze

Although, during the Neo-classical era, marble for a time supplanted bronze in favour, the nineteenth century expansion in the production of series, enabled by the technique of sand casting, allowed their makers to meet the demand of a rising middle class for objets d’art. At a time when statuary was all the rage, the sand-casting process simplified production and ensured a more economical result. It meant that the work of a sculptor could be cast quickly from a reusable model that was cut into several pieces and then put together. Should the cast of a particular section be poor, it was simply redone. The fashion for small animal sculptures, timepieces and knick-knacks all contributed to the sector’s growth.

 

Artists, however, were frustrated by seeing the financial benefits of their creations elude them (rights belonging to the firms subcontracting the founders), as well as their alteration as a result of the many stages in the casting process. “He hands the child he has made over to others to twist beyond recognition. . . . These works reek of indifference,” wrote Arsène Alexandre. This explains why Rodin always carefully supervised the casting of his models, and kept the copyright to them.

 

In the 1880s, Rodin recruited a first generation of founders to execute a few works that he could sell, as he did not have the financial wherewithal to have them carved in marble. He worked with François Rudier, Jean-Baptiste Griffoul and Victor Thiébaut (see the first version of Eternal Spring, on display here), as well as Léon Perzinka (whose cast of The Defense, or The Call to Arms is also on view). Rodin did assign the rights for an edition of casts of Eternal Spring and The Kiss (both exhibited here) in four different reduced sizes to the Barbedienne foundry, but that was more of a business arrangement than an artistic collaboration.

 

The sculptor entrusted the casts he had made using the lost-wax process to the specialists Eugène Gonon and Pierre Bingen. The technique had been little used in France since the seventeenth century, as its practitioners were for the most part illiterate and their professional secrets jealously guarded. Furthermore, its high cost and potential for mistakes gave the advantage to sand casting. With the vogue for the perfection of the bronzes produced from the time of the Renaissance to the era of Romanticism, however, the Gonon father-and-son team and then Bingen uncovered the secrets for producing works of exceptional quality through this method, in which each cast was created in one go from a single wax mould and always touched up by the sculptor.

 

Although he called on the services of many different founders—there were six hundred foundries in France around 1900—Rodin had a special relationship with the Rudier firm. Alexis created the family sandcasting business in 1874. His brother, François, produced casts for Rodin from the 1880s on. With the major Rodin exhibition held at the Pavillon de l’Alma in 1900, the founder’s task became to render the work of a celebrated artist in bronze. Beginning in 1902, a key, and friendly, association formed between Rodin and Eugène, who respectfully kept his father’s foundry mark, “Alexis Rudier / fondeur à Paris.” In collaboration with the patinator Jean Limet, Eugène made close to five hundred casts for Rodin during the sculptor’s lifetime. At the request of the Musée Rodin, holder of the right to produce posthumous bronze casts of the master’s work, he continued to do so until his death in 1952.

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The Burghers of Calais

France’s secular Third Republic celebrated its heroes—whether humble or glorious—by commissioning six times as many public monuments as any previous regime. It was the ambition of every sculptor at that time to create one. After several failed attempts, in 1884 Rodin finally received his first such commission, from Calais. The industrial city in the north of France wanted to celebrate a major incident in its medieval history that took place during the Hundred Years War between France and England.

 

After a year-long siege from 1346–1347, Edward III agreed to spare Calais from destruction on the condition that six of its citizens give themselves up to him as an example, bringing him the keys to the city. According to the chronicler Froissart, Eustache de Saint-Pierre, Calais’ richest man, came forward, saying: “I will willingly strip to my shirt, bare my head, and put the rope around my neck, at the mercy of the king of England.” Jean d’Aire, Andrieu d’Andres, Jean de Fiennes, Jacques and Pierre de Wissant immediately followed him. Edward’s queen, Philippa de Hainaut, moved at the sight of the heroic procession, persuaded her husband to exercise mercy. Although the committee in charge of the commission wished to erect a conventional monument showing the single figure of Eustache de Saint-Pierre, Rodin effected a radical innovation by proposing to celebrate the six men equally, the better to glorify the entire population.

 

Rodin plunged zealously into the project. Believing that each region had its own distinctive physical type, he looked for models from northern France, using Cazin, a painter from Calais, as the basis for his depiction of Eustache de Saint-Pierre, and the actor Coquelin-Cadet, also a native of the area, for that of Pierre de Wissant. He fashioned six anguished individuals as they set out on their march towards death. Some stand determinedly erect (Jean d’Aire, his arms inordinately long and his jaw clenched, holding the keys sealing his fate), while others (Pierre de Wissant) turn their face away. Their sweeping, powerfully expressive gestures signify courage and resignation, despair and abnegation; they are embodiments of a universal humanity. Rodin’s forceful modern style was then often characterized as “gothic.”

 

The burghers were first modelled individually, limb by limb and in the nude, and were the subject of numerous studies. Camille Claudel, the sculptor’s assistant and lover, executed the hands. Rodin then dressed them in garments soaked in liquid plaster, a compositional stratagem rendering tattered sackcloth. Each of the Burghers would become the source of independent fragments and enlargements, especially of the heads and hands, enhancing Rodin’s oeuvre with a series of new works. 

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The Defense

Entering competitions was one of the most effective ways for an artist to become known and receive commissions. In 1879 Rodin conceived The Defense or The Call to Arms for a monument commemorating the heroic defense of Paris, which had been under siege during the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. It depicts a scene of tremendous tension, remarkable for its violence and drama. A winged allegorical figure of War, wearing the Phrygian cap of the Republic, howls out her thirst for vengeance. With her horizontally outstretched arms and clenched fists, she is reminiscent of the Romantic sculptor Rude’s The Departure of the Volunteers of 1792. The soldier at her feet breathes his last, evoking the Christ of Michelangelo’s Pietà. His proposal was refused, as it had “too much violence, too much vibration,” Rodin declared in 1917. Since he was very fond of the work, he kept it in his studio.

 

A cast of it was made by Griffoul and Lorge in 1893, and then a second by François Rudier in 1897. Late in 1899, Rodin commissioned Léon Perzinka to make a third, which he intended for his retrospective exhibition at the Pavillon de l’Alma, to be held alongside the Exposition Universelle of 1900. He subsequently embarked on the production of ten new casts from 1904 to 1917, entrusting them all to Eugène Rudier. A comparison of the Perzinka and Rudier casts brings to light two different bronze-casting practices.

 

The older, Perzinka cast reveals an artisanal process. The founder, who had an absolute passion for the work of Rodin, worked alone in a minuscule studio. His bronze betrays his limited resources: the casting seams on the right arm, wings and torso of the figure of War are still very apparent. Owing to their weight and the complexity of the process, the two figures were cast separately and then joined with lead-tin solder, which was concealed through painting it in bronze tones. The daring craftsman’s skill, however, soon began to show its limitations, and a number of imperfections and accidents affecting various casts undermined Rodin’s confidence in him.

 

In 1915 the Rudier foundry employed numerous workmen, and had the sophisticated and effective means necessary for casting this type of group. Its cast is more fluid and the seams practically invisible, while its patinas of green and brown-ochre conjure the tones Jean Limet developed for Rodin. Comparing the two versions of The Defense offers us an opportunity to take a close look at these technical details, as well as examine our individual taste in respect to which affects us the most. The early, imperfect but honest version by the artisan who put so much store in satisfying the demanding Rodin, or the later, faultless one from a large studio concern?

 

The Perzinka cast would have a singular destiny. Purchased by the famous Viennese industrialist and patron of the arts Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, in 1940 it was seized at the home of his nephew, who was forced to sell it for a ludicrously low price to the Nazis for the collection of the future Führermuseum in Linz. Rediscovered by the Allies in an Austrian salt mine amongst hundreds of other looted masterworks in 1945, it was returned to Bloch-Bauer’s niece, who had settled in Canada. In 1961, thanks to the intervention of Dr. Max Stern, it was acquired by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

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The Colour of Bronze

The notion of polychromy in sculpture was a major topic of debate in the second half of the nineteenth century. Jean Limet (1855–1941), the inventor of the modern patina, is central to the Rodinian aesthetic. Beginning to work for Rodin in 1900, he provided the link between the results of the explorations of his friend, the brilliant “sculptor-potter” Jean Carriès, and the Rudier foundry.

 

Following the first views of Japanese stoneware at the 1878 Exposition Universelle, Carriès created sculptures made with what he called “male porcelain.” As a result of the prevailing vogue for Japonisme, that rustic but solid material proved its worth. It enabled ceramicists to devise combinations of chemicals that worked their magic in the kiln to produce glazes of fascinatingly beautiful colours. The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, uniting simplicity, the accidental, change and chance, favoured the painterly effects that enlivened the sculptural surface.

 

The desire to revive artisanal practices and to return to the use of authentic materials, combined with the awareness that industrialization threatened the existence of traditional skills, was widely shared. Rodin worked with two of Carrier’s followers, who reconciled symbolist effects with natural renderings. Paul Jeanneney’s assistance with the Monumental Head of Balzac enabled him to play with unique tonalities intensifying the work’s expressiveness, while Edmond Lachenal rendered the tears falling down the face of the Crying Woman through streaks of enamel.

 

Rodin and Carriès were connected through Jean Limet, a landscape painter. It may have been Carriès, his studio neighbour, who encouraged him to become a patinator. Both he and the founder Bingen had a passion for the verdigris of old bronzes, the result of the fortuitous effects of time’s passage. In their opinion, colour in sculpture was less a matter of polychromy than a balancing of values, which made way for an aesthetic of random streaks and the “happy accidents” of the patinating process.

 

Possibly introduced to Rodin by Carriès, Limet, a patinator without peer, became the sculptor’s technical consultant for bronzes, which from that point forward were cast by the Rudier firm. Indeed, Rodin often specifically assigned Limet to the patination of works executed by the Rudier foundry. The sculptor was notoriously difficult to please, and the people who worked with him generally bemoaned his distrust and changeable moods. Limet had to propose three different patinas for The Walking Man before the master was satisfied. However, their correspondence shows a rare climate of confidence between the two. Following the sculptor’s death, Limet worked for Rudier, supervising and patinating in particular Rodin’s posthumous casts.

 

The patina of The Thinker on view here would have been created through the layering of chemicals producing tones ranging from black to mossy brown and bright green in a manner consistent with Limet’s palette. Subtle hues in the patina were achieved through strategic abrasion of the outer layer to reveal lighter or brighter shades of green below, resulting in variegated values that enliven the bronze surface. Passages of matte blue and red impart further life and energy to the forms. Prussian blue, used by photographers in the cyanotype photographic printing process, has been identified in the work’s patina. A talented photographer, Limet undoubtedly employed such chemicals for his patinas; moreover, he took photographs of Rodin’s bronzes, tinting them in different colours to show various visual effects. 

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Max Stern's Rodin bronzes

A Montreal personality would play a by no means inconsiderable role in the sale and dissemination of Rodin’s work in North America. The owner of the Dominion Gallery, the city’s first to specialize in modern art, Dr. Max Stern (1904–1987) developed a passion for the sculptor’s bronzes, to the point that he became one of the major dealers in them.

 

The story begins in 1960–61, with his sale of the Perzinka cast of The Defense, or The Call to Arms, on view here, to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. This caused him to consult the expert advice of Cécile Goldscheider, the director of the Musée Rodin in Paris. She informed the dealer that it would be possible to offer his clients legal posthumous casts; by virtue of Rodin’s bequest to the French state, the museum held the right to direct their production, restricted to a maximum of twelve in number— existing and new casts combined. Delighted by the idea, in 1960 Stern presented sixteen Rodin bronzes, all of which were sold in less than a year. It was the start of a lucrative collaboration for both the Montreal gallery and the Parisian museum.

 

Stern was behind the first Canadian showing of the exhibition Rodin, Sculptures and Drawings at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1963. He organized his own exhibitions of Rodin’s work, the most important of which took place in the prestigious context of Montreal’s Expo 67. At the same time, he ordered a monumental bronze—the impressive Jean d’Aire here on display—which was placed outside directly in front of his gallery. The Susse foundry was responsible for the cast, the fifth of the twelve authorized. Cécile Goldscheider paid tribute to the dealer by suggesting the dedication “Cast specially for Dr. Stern,” but he insisted that the inscription be inside the cast, known to him alone. The Burgher with the Key was inaugurated during his 1967 Fiftieth Anniversary of the Death of Auguste Rodin exhibition. It remained before the threshold of the Dominion Gallery until Stern’s death.

 

The renewal of interest in Rodin in the 1960s can be explained by a change in the appreciation of his oeuvre; as art historian Leo Steinberg wrote, “Rodin has become our contemporary.” Once again, the experimental dimension of his work took its place in the history of modernity. The role played by fragments in that reassessment was a boon, in that it considerably extended the nature and range of sizes of the works for sale. Some impressive figures shed light on the development of this part of the sculpture market: over fifteen years, from 1960 until the mid- 1970s, more than four hundred bronzes made the journey from Paris to Montreal, to be sold there and elsewhere. The majority of them were fragmentary works. By being furiously modern from an art history perspective and ideal for decorating interiors, Stern had been able to persuade his clientele to appreciate the French sculptor’s bold fragments.  

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Camille Claudel's Years with Rodin

Today, the name of Rodin can hardly be mentioned without that of Camille Claudel springing to mind books films, and dance having reawakened awareness of her amongst the general public since the 1980s. That is only as it should be, for that talented sculptor with a tragic end, the “woman of genius,” as Rodin repeatedly declared, deserves her place in the history of sculpture, on the one hand, and among women artists, on the other. Beyond the myths and fantasies, however, what about her life and art? If Camille’s work is a country, certainly a rugged one given the heights her formidable will enabled her to climb, Rodin’s remains a continent.

 

Current historiography sets the record straight in terms of a complicated life and career involving studio practices, a passionate love affair, social conventions, and a paranoid psychosis. In 1882 Rodin met Camille, then nineteen, the pupil of a fellow sculptor. He was struck by her talent and the expressive power of her modelling. For ten years, the young artist benefited from the teaching and protection of the master, the well-known sculptor who would become her lover. Rodin never failed to champion her in order to secure her sympathetic supporters and spots in exhibitions. Since, as he said, “the gold she finds is her own,” she moved beyond the status of a pupil to become his close associate. He entrusted her with the execution of pieces—hands and feet—for his public monuments, and he paid attention to her astute opinions.

 

The love Rodin felt for his confederate in art was reflected in his own sculpture, which took a sensuously voluptuous turn, as shown here in Eternal Spring: “I consider you a divine soul.” The master made portraits of his muse, such as Thought or La France, also on display. For her part, Camille wanted to become a sculptor equal to any man—an unusual decision, for the profession is physically taxing. The young woman was anxious to assert her artistic independence, especially in respect to Rodin, to whom she was systematically compared. It is important to understand that it was extremely difficult at that time for women to become professional artists, as they were only gradually allowed admission to the École nationale des beaux-arts beginning in 1897.

 

After a decade-long and stormy romantic relationship—Rodin refusing to abandon his first companion and Camille having a notoriously trying personality—in 1892 the latter decided to leave him and pursue her career on her own. It is likely that Rodin suffered a depression because of it. From that time on, Camille could no longer rely on the resources of a large studio, with its readily available materials and models, assistants to mix plaster and prepare clay, and active friendships. She ended up in increasingly alarming poverty, in a bitter isolation that intensified her pervasive illness. Her family decided to commit her to a mental institution in 1913 (she died in an asylum at the age of seventy-eight). Despite the collapse of their relationship and Camille’s deranged accusations against “Rodin’s gang,” the sculptor continued to support her financially, and requested that her work be included in the plans for the future musée Rodin.

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room 09 - Druet/Bourdelle

Antoine Bourdelle

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A Museum-Studio

The major exhibition that Rodin held at the Pavillon de l’Alma, alongside the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, revealed, in its “crowd of statues,” the immensity of his work. He had a large, airy and light-filled space—considered an innovation—built for his immaculate plasters. “For the first time, I have all of Rodin before my eyes,” wrote a critic. “This is an art of power, life, passion, reaching the extreme limits of expressive intensity.” No sculptor had ever organized such a retrospective for himself; it was a victory over the academicians. Some referred to the exhibition as the “Rodin Museum,” a combination of museum and studio that pleased the artist. The idea was realized in the end, thanks to the efforts of many of his friends, among them Judith Cladel.

 

In 1901, the sculptor decided to rebuild that pavilion in the garden of the villa and studio in Meudon where he lived and worked. In 1908, he discovered the Hôtel Biron, a beautiful eighteenth-century Parisian mansion that had formerly served as a churchrun boarding school for girls from the aristocracy. Even though he practically never worked there, he resolved to create his museum in that prestigious setting, and he bequeathed his entire oeuvre— drawings, sculptures, casts, moulds, personal effects, and rights, estimated to be worth several tens of millions—to the French state. Although surrounded by last-minute controversy, the act of donation was signed in 1916, right in the middle of wartime, by the minister Étienne Clémentel. The whole of the Musée Rodin, encompassing the Hôtel Biron in Paris and the villa in Meudon, was inaugurated in 1919, after his death. Since that time, the institution has been the guardian of the artist’s memory and legacy, as well as the holder of the rights to his work.

 

Under the stewardship of the museum’s first curator, Léonce Bénédite, strictly controlled posthumous editions of Rodin’s bronzes continued to be made from studio plasters and moulds. During the interwar years, the positions of founder Eugène Rudier and patinator Jean Limet were consolidated, as they were the only people who still had direct knowledge of the artist’s requirements. 

 

Beginning in the 1960s, a later Musée Rodin director, Cécile Goldscheider, promoted the marketing of casts in editions limited to twelve, with each work bearing a serial number and the museum’s copyright. The years that followed saw the development of a business relationship with Dr. Max Stern in Montreal, and the putting together of the B. Gerald Cantor collection in Los Angeles. Since the 1970s, the Musée Rodin has worked with the Godard, Coubertin and Susse foundries to produce authorized casts, helping to make the sculptor’s work known around the world. Rodin’s studio, central to that work, lives on.

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Eugène Druet

Very early on in his career, Rodin used photography to document his work, and over the years he maintained an increasingly inventive relationship with that medium. He called on the services of talented photographers who offered new aesthetic insights into his work. Photography was not only part of a modern practice of reproduction and dissemination, but also contributed to the creative process of the sculptor, who drew right on or touched up prints with pen or pencil to devise recompositions. Many gifted photographers would work for him or with him, Rodin preferring unusual, blurry and poetic views of his work to strict reproductions of it on a neutral background.

 

A lover of photography, Eugène Druet was certainly not a professional when in 1896 Rodin proposed that he work for him. He ran a café in the Place de l’Alma district of Paris that Rodin, as a neighbour, went to, dressed “in a smock like a quarryman.” That same year, on the occasion of an exhibition at the Musée Rath in Geneva, Rodin presented photographs alongside his sculptures and drawings for the first time. He repeated the novel experiment in 1900 in Paris during the famous retrospective at his Pavillon de l’Alma, when seventy-one photographs by Druet were shown in direct proximity to his works. Photography therefore acquired a rightful place in the evocation of the sculptor’s creative process.

 

More than a century later, Druet’s photographs still look strange, for they have nothing in common with the usual reproductions of artworks. Their backgrounds, camera angles and framing, not to mention their lighting, find no equivalent in traditional photography. The critic Camille Mauclair understood that these images surrounded the sculptures with “the dreamy atmosphere they call for.” Rodin, who did not like overly sharp renderings, impersonal backgrounds, or artificial lighting, imposed his aesthetic vision on the photography of Druet.

 

A number of the prints show the special relationship of the two associates within the context of an “extended” studio in which photography played an integral role. Both men signed the glass negatives, indicating that Rodin approved—and therefore had control over—every shot. While some prints seem to have served as working tools for both artists, others that were mounted on paper appear to have been made for exhibition or sale, notably during the Pavillon de l’Alma exhibition in 1900.

 

The Musée Rodin’s collection now holds seven thousand images taken by various photographers. Thanks to the generosity of Sir Neil Shaw, in 2012 the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts acquired sixty-eight Druet prints, on view here for the very first time. This corpus, unique in North America due to its size, is the third largest in the world, after those in the Musée Rodin and the Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

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room 10 - Hannah and Arcand

Unwrapping Rodin

Referencing the photographic decompositions created in the late nineteenth century by Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, this series of photographs presents the unwrapping of a cast of the statue by Rodin of Pierre de Wissant. Documenting the gradual removal of wrapping materials used to ship the work, the photographs show actions frozen in time. The sequence unfolds in a single movement, during which the sculpture pushes out of its wrapping, as if it were a chrysalis, revealing its impenetrable bronze surface. The artist has chosen to use large-format prints so that the images occupy the space in the same way the sculpture does, in order to blur the distinction between the object and the photograph of the object.

 

 

Courtesy of Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain, Montreal, and Equinox Gallery, Vancouver.  

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The Burghers of Vancouver

This installation, created by artist Adad Hannah and filmmaker Denys Arcand, revisits the concept of the urban monument by recreating The Burghers of Calais (1885) using present-day models. The work tells the story of six people hired temporarily by a mysterious patron to enact Rodin’s famous sculptural ensemble as a tableau vivant in downtown Vancouver. A nameless poet, an older Korean woman who only speaks in her native language, a fraud artist, a ski bum, a laid-off worker and an ex-junkie meet every day, don their costumes, assume their roles on the square in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, and then go home at the end of the day. They each take the pose of one of the six figures making up the Rodin sculpture and recount what led them to accept this work and how they are experiencing this remarkable project, which seems to take place without any notice from passers-by.

 

Produced with the support of the Musée Rodin, Paris, and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.

Courtesy of Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain, Montreal, and Equinox Gallery, Vancouver. 

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Security Passing

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