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Auguste Rodin enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with Great Britain, relishing the company of admiring patrons and fellow artists and exhibiting his work to laudatory reviews. Shortly before his death, he donated eighteen sculptures to the state—the only such donation he made during his lifetime. It comes as no surprise, then, that the British have honored his work in grand retrospectives, including two organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain at the Hayward Gallery in 1970 and 1986. In the fall of 2006, the Royal Academy of Arts continued the British romance with Rodin, mounting a new comprehensive exhibition. It was a fitting venue for such a show, since the Royal Academy recognized Rodin’s talent early in his career—in 1882 it became one of the first institutions to show his work. Collaborating with the Musée Rodin in Paris and the Kunsthaus Zürich, which hosted the exhibition in the spring of 2007, the Royal Academy displayed an impressive array of the artist’s work in various media.1 Curators and distinguished Rodin scholars Antoinette Le Normand-Romain and Catherine Lampert wove a unique curatorial thread through the exhibition by giving special attention to the sculptor’s relationship with Britain; according to the exhibition catalogue, this conceit “guided the selection of works” (9) and distinguished this Rodin retrospective from myriad others that have preceded it.
The exhibition began outside the museum in the Annenberg Courtyard, where the Kunsthaus Zürich’s cast of the monumental Gates of Hell (no. 95) announced the curators’ grand ambitions. Its placement in the courtyard, with Burlington House as a backdrop, proved a magnificent mise-en-scène for Rodin’s most significant work, which had never before been seen in the United Kingdom. The exhibition continued in a suite of eleven rooms on the second floor of the Royal Academy, loosely charting the chronology of Rodin’s oeuvre. Diversions on various themes, such as his relationship with antiquity and the Symbolist interpretations of his sculpture that were common at the turn of the century, helped to contextualize his work. The galleries ranged from large, airy, and bright spaces to smaller, moodier rooms, resulting in a shifting sensory journey for visitors walking through the show.
In the first gallery, which showcased Rodin’s most celebrated early sculptures The Age of Bronze (no. 11) and Saint John the Baptist (no. 12), the curators introduced some of the artist’s formal innovations and presented less familiar works. For example, three versions of the Man with the Broken Nose (nos. 4, 5, and 7), one of which was shown in London in 1882 and bought the same year by London banker Constantine Ionides (205), familiarized the visitor with Rodin’s revolutionary use of the casting process to create and manipulate multiples. Also in this gallery stood the lesser known Idylle d’Ixelles (no. 30), a bronze pair of embracing putti that was rejected from an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1886 because, according to the catalogue, Neoclassicism continued to hold sway with the previous generation of British sculptors (211). One of the greatest pleasures of the exhibition was to see works that are rarely on view: the strange and powerful early terracotta version of the Head of Jacques de Wissant (no. 129), with its grotesquely exaggerated features and a skull-like mien, for example, was located in a vast room devoted to studies for the Burghers of Calais (nos. 123–141) and the monument to Balzac (nos. 142–147). The Burghers in particular should be familiar to a London audience, as a bronze cast has stood almost continuously in the Victoria Embankment Gardens to the south of the Houses of Parliament since its purchase by the National Arts Collections Fund in 1915.
The second gallery of the exhibition offered a rare glimpse at some of the sculptor’s earliest student drawings after works in the Louvre (no. 1); Assyrian and Egyptian antiquities from the British Museum quickly sketched on hotel letterhead and on the back of an envelope (nos. 40 and 42); imaginative musings on Dante’s Inferno in the so-called “black drawings” (nos. 61–62, 64); and stunning etchings of Victor Hugo (nos. 21–23) that display Rodin’s astonishing skill as a draftsman, done in a medium he had been taught by French expatriate Alphonse Legros on his first trip to London only a few years before. A later gallery displayed some of the drawings that have received recent attention—nervous lines defining onanistic women and lesbian couples, intense and brightly hued color seeping into the paper around schematically sketched nudes, acrobatic gestures depicted in sfumato stumping and sure strokes, and detailed renderings of French architectural sites. This room also held seven elegant graphite and watercolor drawings depicting the same standing woman in an open brown “pyjama top” (nos. 268–274); the model’s shifting gesture and the artist’s series of subtly rotating viewpoints create a striking, almost cinematic effect.
One airy gallery summarily chronicled Rodin’s attempt to create a monument to the late painter James McNeill Whistler, commissioned by a committee of the British artist’s friends. The young and obsessive Gwen John, elder sister of painter Augustus John, served as the model for the monument’s Muse and seems to have become Rodin’s mistress. A delicate self-portrait drawing (no. 235) sent by John to Rodin demonstrates her fascination with the sculptor thirty-six years her senior. Here John appears gaunt, clutching a letter to her chest—she had reason to be upset: while only sixty-nine letters from Rodin to her survive, she sent more than one thousand to him during their decade-long relationship (264). The gallery was dominated by the ungainly monumental figure of the Muse in plaster (no. 231), with ethereal marble busts of John (nos. 224–226) and small marionette-like figures and assemblages (nos. 232–234) inspired by her in the accompanying vitrines. This room exemplified the curators’ exhibition strategy—disciplined and thoughtful choices minimized the visual clutter, allowing the works to be widely spaced, which in turn enabled visitors to contemplate each work on view, move easily between them, and take in both the studies and the more finished sculpture in one sustained look.
The exhibition’s final room, a darkly painted octagonal hall, showcased a colossal patinated plaster Thinker (no. 77) encircled by some of the most unfamiliar works held by the Musée Rodin: enigmatic photographs of Rodin’s sculptures by Pictorialists Stephen Haweis and Henry Coles. Over a period of approximately sixteen months, these British photographers took over two hundred images of Rodin’s oeuvre; at the time, the public often mistook the grainy and moody prints for engravings or drawings (278). The works in this room constituted a grand and inspired ending for the exhibition: the juxtaposition of Rodin’s best-known sculpture, exhibited in both London and Paris in 1904 (225), with the more obscure and atmospheric photographs of Haweis and Coles was a testament to the wealth of possibilities for original Rodin scholarship.
An exhibition catalogue is by nature better suited to curatorial tasks such as contextualization, and the authors of the Rodin catalogue have done an excellent job of situating Rodin’s oeuvre in a specifically British context. While the exhibition offered a portrait gallery of Rodin’s British society patrons, including Mary Hunter, Eve Fairfax, Lady Sackville, Lord Howard de Walden, George Wyndham, and George Bernard Shaw, the catalogue illuminated Rodin’s relationships with the personalities with whom he had contact in England. For example, the catalogue recounts that William Ernest Henley, editor-in-chief of the Magazine of Art and one of Rodin’s earliest British supporters, published an essay in 1882 in which Rodin was described as “perhaps the greatest of living sculptors” (Anonymous, “Art Notes,” Magazine of Art 5 (1882): 1; cited on 29)—a photograph by Jean Limet from ca. 1907 shows us Rodin’s bust of Henley in a carved niche (no. 364), the same year it was inaugurated in St. Paul’s Cathedral (31). Ionides was an early collector of Rodin’s sculpture; the catalogue illustrates two photos from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum showing Rodin’s work at Ionides’s gallery and home, where the Man with the Broken Nose sat above a mantel replete with bibelots (figs. 13 and 14). The authors also note Rodin’s long and complicated relationship with his student Jessie Lipscomb, who also served as an intermediary with sculptor Camille Claudel, Rodin’s lover for almost a decade; photographs taken by Lipscomb’s fiancé William Elborne on their visit to Rodin’s studio in 1887 provide valuable insights into the progress of the Gates of Hell and include one of the most striking and enigmatic photographic portraits of Rodin (no. 108).2 We are also informed that even King Edward VII made a pilgrimage to Rodin’s suburban villa in Meudon in 1908 (125).
Lampert’s introduction to the handsomely illustrated catalogue delineates the historiography of Rodin’s work, while the second chapter, by Le Normand-Romain, summarizes the artist’s biography up to the first years of the twentieth century and recounts the highlights of his reception in the United Kingdom. Le Normand-Romain discusses in the third essay the conception and reception of the Gates of Hell, and notes the influence not only of Michelangelo but also of the works of other Renaissance artists in British museums. Rodin’s Meditation (no. 205), for example, was compared at the time to the Michelangelo Slave in red wax on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum—Rodin had supposedly requested that “a prayer stool” be placed before the work so that he could study it in comfort (58).
In the fourth essay, Lampert relates the history of the commissions for the monuments to Balzac and the Burghers of Calais, describing how a cast of the latter was brought to London. This sculpture in particular would later take on associations with contemporary significance: during World War I, Lord Beauchamp, the First Commissioner of Works, wanted the work boarded up until the Germans were expelled from France because of its potential to conjure “abjection and defeat” (99). Lampert brings this view up to date with an odd but compelling comparison of expressions on the Burghers’ faces with those that “appear in video images of Western hostages held by terrorist groups” (98).
The fifth essay articulates the attraction of Rodin’s work to the British, an audience that was particularly attuned to Symbolist imagery. Le Normand-Romain here makes clear, however, that Rodin was very aware of market forces, raising his prices precipitously in order to discourage portrait sitters—to no avail (127)—and recommending to British clients a green patina for new casts because it was supposedly “the most suited to the English climate” (letter from More Adey of the Carfax Gallery to Rodin, July 16 and November 4, 1901; cited on 125). The sixth essay, by Lampert, focuses on works from the last two decades of the artist’s life, including the commissions for the monuments to Victor Hugo and Whistler.
Unfortunately, amid the catalogue’s wealth of information, time-worn clichés about the artist abound. Rodin is compared to a “prophet” (120); the Thinker is described as a self-portrait (225); Rodin’s “uncontrollable libido” (16) is repeatedly brought up, although this persistent trope about the artist was convincingly problematized by Anne Wagner in her 1991 essay “Rodin’s Reputation” (in Eroticism and the Body Politic, ed. Lynn Hunt, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, 191–242). One of Lampert’s essays also contains a surprisingly naive comment suggesting that Rodin’s masturbating models experienced a “magical, suspended time” in the artist’s company, with a “shy but world-famous man issuing a litany of compliments, the warm room, and relief from the demands of lovers and more cynical employers” (159). The catalogue would also have benefited from careful editing—there are numerous misspellings, which extend from the names of Musée Rodin staff in the acknowledgements (11) to those of scholars cited in the catalogue entries and bibliography (including “Arthur [sic] Elsen,” p. 238).
The checklist, which illustrates most of the objects in the exhibition, includes summations of the current Rodin scholarship and a helpful listing of selected exhibitions and references for each work. Sidebars by other contributors—primarily curators at the Musée Rodin, including Hélène Pinet and Christina Buley-Uribe—provide in-depth looks at topics as varied as “Rodin and Assyria” (214), his collection of antiquities (250), his relationship with photographers Haweis and Coles (278), and the contents of the archives of the Musée Rodin (290). Unfortunately, this section lacks the elegance in design and presentation befitting its subject and its publisher. The checklist is not uniformly illustrated: the sculptures are presented against backgrounds that vary distractingly and needlessly from dark to light, while some are simply silhouetted against the white of the page or jarringly cut off by its edge. The catalogue’s bibliography and list of exhibitions are thorough, and there is a useful directory of Rodin’s British contacts (291–297).
On sale in the Royal Academy’s gift shop during the exhibition was Rodin: Drawings and Watercolors, which is authored by two of the contributors to the catalogue: Le Normand-Romain and Buley-Uribe. The majority of the pages in this volume are filled with lush plates—over 370 in all—with perhaps a fifth of the book devoted to the two essays that utilize both “chronological and stylistic criteria” (65) to describe Rodin’s works on paper and his varied working methods. The authors argue rightly that although Rodin rarely drew preparatory studies for sculpture—on the contrary, he frequently made drawings after his own sculpture—the practice of drafting was essential to his creative process.
The book is not meant as an exhaustive and scholarly study; it is an overview of this rich and relatively unfamiliar aspect of Rodin’s oeuvre, and intended for a general audience. Le Normand-Romain describes Rodin’s early years and his important trip to Italy to see Renaissance sculpture before launching into an extended discussion of his “black drawings”; this essay serves as a supplement to her discussion of the Gates of Hell in the Rodin exhibition catalogue. Buley-Uribe picks up the story of Rodin’s complicated relationship with drawing in the late 1880s and describes the changes in this aspect of his oeuvre, emphasizing his evolving technique and formal experiments.
Buley-Uribe clearly builds her essay on the groundbreaking study of Rodin’s drawings by Kirk Varnedoe, whose dissertation and subsequent book (co-written with Albert Elsen, with contributions by Victoria Thorson and Elisabeth Chase Geissbuhler, The Drawings of Rodin, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971) established a chronology for these works. The authors distinguish their study from Varnedoe’s “standard work” (36), however: instead of taking a biographical approach, they choose to look at the “drawings’ inherent qualities” in order to “try to make the nature and motivations of Rodin’s experimentations understandable” (65).
The stunning color plates—all of works housed in the Musée Rodin—richly illustrate the chronology and themes discussed by the two authors and demonstrate the range of Rodin’s draftsmanship: delicate stumping paired with thick, rough hatchmarks; vivid watercolor emphasizing shapes or creating contexts; unsteady outlines of figures drawn without the artist glancing at the page (Rainer Maria Rilke called them “strange documents of the instantaneous” [Auguste Rodin, Première Partie (1902), Paris: Gallimard, 1993; cited on 41]). The cut-outs, whether left isolated or paired with others to create new compositions and erotic designs, are among the most striking works included in the book. They illustrate the paradigms delineated in Leo Steinberg’s seminal essay on Rodin of more than forty years ago (“Rodin,” Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, New York: Oxford University Press, 1972, 322–403) and reveal that the same processes that nourished Rodin’s sculpture also fed his drawing: he exploited chance and the accidental (19); he “trac[ed] old drawings and rework[ed] them” (28); he excised figures from the page, pasting them alone or with others, creating two-dimensional assemblages. Ultimately, Le Normand-Romain and Buley-Uribe demonstrate that Rodin truly did see sculpture and drawing as analogous activities and that he was not exaggerating when he said that his sculpture was “merely drawing in all its dimensions” (Gil Blas, Salons, 1910; quoted on 27). They convincingly assert that the drawings “signify nothing but themselves” (66).
Taken as a whole, the exhibition, its accompanying catalogue, and the book on the drawings and watercolors make 2006 a banner year for Rodin. They present a comprehensive view of Rodin’s oeuvre, the idiosyncrasies of his working process, and the reception of his often difficult work. For an audience only familiar with Rodin’s most famous sculptures, the exhibition and the two volumes are eye-opening: they present a panorama of significant experimentation, intense study, and relentless challenging of the conventions of various media. For those especially interested in Rodin’s relationship to Great Britain, the exhibition catalogue in particular is a treasure trove of information. Those already well acquainted with Rodin’s work will have the pleasure of reexamining this material in a condensed form, but are likely to be left longing for more daring scholarship.3
The exhibition and both books make evident that Rodin’s creative process continued to evolve throughout his life. “Drawing, like sculpture, was a vehicle for experimentation,” writes Buley-Uribe (Rodin: Drawings and Watercolors, 24), and it is those bold and often prescient experiments that are on display in all of his works. Lampert writes that “the material [in the Musée Rodin] remains (thankfully) beyond the lifetime scrutiny or analysis of any individual” (17). Likewise, it eludes the scope of any one retrospective exhibition or book, which can only whet the appetite for fresh interpretations and future discoveries.
Senior Lecturer, School of Philosophy and Art History, University of Essex
1 Details provided in the catalogue checklist appear to indicate that a much-diminished version of the show traveled to Zurich.
fn2. This same photograph is reproduced in Rodin: Drawings and Watercolors, where it is erroneously credited to Jessie Lipscomb (7).
fn3. Rodin scholarship has too long been plagued by strictly formalist and biographical interpretations. It would benefit from the kinds of methodological variety one finds in art-historical studies of nineteenth-century painting.
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