As Anne Wagner pointedly noted in 1991, “Rodin’s worldwide stature as the artistic genius of his age rested on, and was enabled by, responses to both his own sexuality and the sexual intensity of his art” (Anne E. Wagner, “Rodin’s Reputation,” Eroticism and the Body Politic, ed., Lynn Hunt, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, 191–242). David Getsy’s compelling, lavishly illustrated, and subtly polemical book, Rodin: Sex and the Making of Modern Sculpture, sets out to unpack the role and function of sexuality in Rodin’s work and legacy. Instead of focusing on Rodin’s erotic imagery, however, Getsy makes the overarching claim that “the sexual is key for understanding not just what Rodin depicted in his sculpture but also how he considered himself a sculptor and how he decided to make his works” (14–15). Getsy argues that Rodin’s modernity—encompassing his working methods, material practices, radical surfaces, expressive forms, and the presentation of his work—was inseparable from the creation and performance of his own sexual identity. The result is that Getsy, in perhaps the most challenging claim of his book, credits Rodin with almost single-handedly establishing the profoundly gendered and sexualized terms of modern sculpture that held sway through much of the twentieth century.
Warning that readers of this book “will not find in it a sketch of Parisian sexual life around the turn of the century,” Getsy largely eschews any social-historical framework for his analysis (26). Similarly, he makes no claim of providing a comprehensive account of Rodin’s life and work. Offering “a targeted analysis” (13), Getsy bases his argument on a close reading of Rodin’s individual sculptures and drawings, studio practice, and public reception at two pivotal moments in his career: Rodin’s 1876 trip to Florence, which Getsy characterizes as an effort to come to terms with the precedent of Michelangelo’s sculpture; and Rodin’s display of the unfinished Gates of Hell as the centerpiece of his exhibition held in conjunction with the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
In case there were any doubts about the extent of Rodin’s reputation for voracious heterosexual desire, Getsy early on presents an extended and very graphic account by the English sculptor Eric Gill of Rodin’s predatory studio behavior. His point, however, is not to track the stories, real or fictional, of Rodin’s boorish behavior. Rather, following a dynamic not unlike the phallic symbolism of the painter’s brush in accounts of modernist painting (cf., Carol Duncan’s “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Painting,” Artforum 12 [December 1973]: 30–39), Getsy aims to elaborate how Rodin carefully orchestrated—and continually reinforced—an analogy between the lover’s and the sculptor’s touch. Or, more precisely, Rodin’s performance of that touch, since the material production of sculpture near the turn of the twentieth century was often, as Getsy reminds us, a highly mediated and indirect practice.
In the first chapter, Getsy redirects the question of Michelangelo’s influence on Rodin away from issues of style. Focusing on Rodin’s studies after the figures in the Medici chapel, Getsy argues that Michelangelo’s greatest impact on Rodin was the powerful example he set for using sexual desire as the primary means of making the sculpted body “both universally expressive and deeply personal” (30). In a two-part argument, Getsy suggests that Rodin was deeply impressed by the sexual intensity of Michelangelo’s works and yet, in accord with Rodin’s own identity and the social norms of his late nineteenth-century cultural context, chose to emulate him while erasing all traces of homoeroticism or sexual ambiguity. Cautiously avoiding any direct discussion of Michelangelo’s sexual identity, Getsy writes that, “Michelangelo’s desires became both the impetus and the obstacle to Rodin’s own desire of making himself Michelangelo’s modern equivalent” (31). In other words, what Rodin learned from Michelangelo was the power of privileging an intense sexuality in his sculptural practice, even as, unlike Michelangelo, Rodin made the orientation of his sexual desire emphatically and abundantly clear.
Getsy makes his case through an impressive series of close visual analyses that cleverly point to the specific alterations Rodin made to Michelangelo’s figures and their markers of desire and sexual difference. Walking the reader through Rodin’s sketches after Michelangelo’s female figure of Night from the Medici Chapel (1521–34) for example, Getsy concludes that “in Rodin’s drawing the unconventionally muscular body of Night has been made more ‘female,’” and that through his treatment of the abdominal musculature, arms, and breasts, Rodin has “edited, in effect, the ambiguous sexual difference in Michelangelo’s sculpture and put the figure back in line with normative expectations of the female nude” (44). In the years following his trip to Florence, Rodin would develop the intensely personal sexuality he had first perceived in Michelangelo into the driving principle of his own work—but forcefully oriented toward heterosexual norms. Rodin did this not only through subject matter but also through the artistic persona he forged and, most profoundly, through his staging of the process of making sculpture, the subject of Getsy’s second chapter.
Focused on the Gates of Hell and Rodin’s 1900 exhibition outside of the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Getsy’s second and far longer chapter is concerned not simply with Rodin’s literal display of his works—although that certainly comes into play—but especially with the ways Rodin’s sculptures call attention to their own material surfaces and to the process of making sculpture. Getsy interprets Rodin’s noted self-referential attention to process and materiality as the artfully crafted and repeatedly staged performance of “Rodin’s touch” (12), something Getsy suggests is always linked, whether by form, presentation, or anecdote, to a sexual touch, “the evidence of his caress” (62).
The implication is that the primacy of the sexual in Rodin’s conception of his sculptural practice helped drive his formal innovations and, in turn, his subsequent influence on the history of modern sculpture. For example, Rodin’s radical emphasis of materiality and tactile surfaces prompted viewers to imagine the creation of each object in terms of Rodin’s touch and to interpret his works, almost regardless of the depicted subject, as relics of his scenes of (sexual) creation. Even when produced in multiple, differently sized versions in bronze and marble, copies that were often executed by assistants with little or no direct involvement by Rodin himself, Rodin’s sculptures were always encoded with the signs of Rodin’s hands working clay as if it were flesh.
One of the achievements of Getsy’s analysis is that he cleverly bypasses the now tired debates about Rodin’s lack of direct carving of his marbles and their concomitant lack of “authenticity.” Building on previous analyses of Rodin’s elaborate play with repetition and reproduction, particularly those by Leo Steinberg and Rosalind Krauss, Getsy suggests that what sometimes seems like the interchangeability of Rodin’s works is “precisely the point” (169). Rodin’s sculptures all stand in for each other and for the sculptor’s protean abilities because, Getsy argues, “Rodin’s practice insisted on a reference back to a mythologized origin in the sculptor’s hands” (169).
Ultimately, Getsy argues that Rodin’s rhetoric of materiality and caress laid the basis not only for the modernist interest in objecthood—a shift in the terms of sculpture “from image-making to object making” (169)—but also set the terms for the dominant masculinity of much twentieth-century sculpture. In that tradition, materiality and the very practice of sculpture (not just its imagery and subjects) became explicitly and overtly gendered. Elaborating on Rodin’s importance for redefining the contours of what it meant to be a modern sculptor, Getsy makes a compelling case that women had greater access to careers as sculptors in the second half of the nineteenth century—and also found a strong advocate in Rodin (Camille Claudel and Malvina Hoffman are discussed in particular). It was only later, he argues, in the wake of Rodin’s dominance that doors began to close to women as “sculpture’s physicality again became a primary issue and making sculpture was increasingly understood as a process tantamount to sexualized creation” (180).
Curiously, Getsy sidesteps any sustained feminist as well as queer- or gender-studies critiques of the sexual semantics that he argues are at the core of Rodin’s practice. Noting Rodin’s singular stature in the early twentieth century, he advances what seems to be a “great man” model of history by claiming that it is due specifically to Rodin’s influence that modern sculpture developed such a sexual and starkly gendered conception of sculpture. The extraordinary influence Getsy attributes to Rodin for having “fundamentally altered the terms under which modern sculpture was subsequently developed” (180) amounts to a striking rebuke of social art history and indeed almost any context-based explanatory model, of the sort offered for instance in Benjamin Buchloh’s 1983 essay “Michael Asher and the Conclusion of Modern Sculpture” (Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000, 1–39).
The shadow of Rodin’s sculptural output and artistic identity was unquestionably huge for many subsequent twentieth-century sculptors. But surely there is more to Brancusi’s obsessive repetitions and material recombinations, for instance, or to Minimalism’s “rhetoric of power,” to borrow from Anna Chave (“Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts Magazine 64, no. 5 [January 1990]: 44–63), than simply the legacy of Rodin’s sexual brutishness and the ingenious ways that he registered the sexual sculpturally. Nearly a generation ago in “Rodin’s Reputation,” Wagner commented provocatively that Rodin’s “art and sexuality (his own and that of his works) are still hopelessly commingled” (191). Getsy’s impressive book demonstrates how much that is still the case.