“Pure Sculptural Energy”: Seeing Rodin, Reading Steinberg
Rodin at the Met
September 16, 2017 to January 15, 2018
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York City, metmuseum.org
On November 17, 1917, France lost Auguste Rodin, a titanic sculptor and by some lights France’s last. By 77, after youthful failures (thrice rejected by the École des Beaux Arts), recurrent bouts of self-doubt, misprizal, and neglect, miseries more than matched by dogged perseverance and unshakable dedication to an artistic quest that he abandoned only once to a brief stay in a monastery after his sister’s death, Auguste Rodin had achieved international distinction. His centenary is being celebrated this year in the form of major museum exhibits worldwide as well as by programs, books, articles, and a dedicated website in his honor, a movie. Among these, an exquisite display has just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that will remain a permanent installation there (the adjacent gallery with works on paper and Steichen’s photographs of the Balzac adhere to the exhibition dates). Comprised mainly of the Cantor Collection, the display greets visitors entering from the east end with two monumental figures turned away from them. To the right is Eve, banished and crushed with remorse. To the left is Adam, his head pendant, an image that will be tripled on the Gates of Hell. In the center of the space, mounted on a four foot high pedestal, sits The Thinker in a bronze casting of no more than two feet. Three backs greet us: three works of art seen from behind, works by an artist who asks us not to stand still but to move, to change position, to keep looking, asking, and reflecting. This installation of Rodin’s work by the distinguished sculpture curator Denise Allen serves as a supreme aesthetic tribute to its restless master.
Dwelling all summer in Paris “with” the artist, so to speak, contemplating his Burghers in differing light and weather, poring over Ruth Butler’s riveting biographical pages among others, strolling the streets of the various arrondissements where he worked—at first in cold ateliers shivering while wrapping his clay to keep it moist and later surrounded by students, including Camille Claudel, acolytes, and skilled assistants—I introduced his sculptures to students abroad, both at the Musée Rodin and the centennial exhibition taking place at the Grand Palais, and dreamt about him by night. Increasingly, it became evident to me that Rodin was au fond a compulsive modeler, never a carver: it felt right to flee his famous marbles (the emblematic stone Kiss, Hand of God, Cathedral) for his bronzes, his waxes and terra cottas, his fragments, cropped bodies, accidents cast as such, plasters with their rods left in, and crude small works. In my quest for confirmation of this hunch—that Rodin’s genius is found in his fingers—I suddenly recalled Leo Steinberg.
The great art historian’s stunning 1963 essay on Rodin (augmented in 1971 as the last chapter of Other Criteria) has never been surpassed on its subject. Steinberg’s insights richly reward re-reading in this commemorative year. They supply conceptual ties, moreover, between Rodin’s art and much sculptural work that followed in the twentieth century. Steinberg recounts his lifelong fascination with Rodin, starting when he was ten years old and saw the iconic marbles in sepia reproduction on the pages of Rilke’s 1903-07 meditations on the artist when serving as his secretary in Paris. Then as modern art flourished and Rodin’s oeuvre went into eclipse, Steinberg too suffered a predictable disenchantment with it. But subsequently, this being the core of his essay, he awakened to a new comprehension of Rodin: Rodin as, beyond all else, an incessant modeler (rather than a carver) whose “real self had gone underground.” It is Rodin’s full oeuvre that must be engaged, especially his multiple smaller works, which demand being brought into focus and examined with care. They are what matter most. Not the world-famous stone pieces and monuments, wrought by others albeit under Rodin’s aegis, for in them the exploratory touch goes missing—that burst of energy which makes and unmakes form in flurries of protean ambiguity—an ambiguity forever denied to the unforgiving mallet and chisel. To mount a case for Rodin, an artist often misunderstood, as a harbinger of modern art, one can do no better than take Steinberg for one’s guide. In what follows, I shall do just that. Steinberg’s eagle eye, his erudition, and his own direct studio experience equip him to reveal just how, in this case, modeling prefigures modernity.
It has long been recognized, ever since Rodin’s first rejection by the Salon in 1865 (for his mask of the Man with the Broken Nose), that he breaks ground with academic norms by erupting with those modeling hands of his right up to the final stages of his art. We intuit his fingers in each bump, groove, rough and savage texture, each harsh or delicate correction. Rodin’s refusal of closure compels us toward co-creation of our own as we look on. He plies his art moreover with an openness that extends to theme as well as form. Take the Burghers of Calais. Anathema at first to patrons because they saw it as diverging from prevailing academic norms for public monuments, Rodin meant it to incarnate the duality of ignominious defeat and raw courage in the face of enmity. While subsequent scholarship has altered the historical record (Jean-Marie Moeglin, a scholar at Paris XII, writing in The Guardian, 8/14/ 2002, argues that the events in Calais were neither as unusual, heroic, or sacrificial as was previously thought), Rodin’s masterpiece stands. Obsessively re-working it, figure by figure, its heads, arms, and hands, limb by limb, he strives to embody the fundament of human tragedy, the ground of this 14th-century legend of six brave men striding forth together from a besieged French town, ready to die to save their fellow citizens. From brute matter, he wrests a wrenching tribute that eclipses all narrative revision. Steinberg, writing on the magnificent figure of Jean d’Aire, one of the six, speaks of “how desperately these statues act out the drama of powerful bodies giving their whole strength to the labor of holding on.” And this, Steinberg adds, is what is necessary to be a man.
But holding on also matters in reverse for Rodin, who is equally obsessed with the “threat of imbalance which serves like a passport to the age of anxiety.” Think of the precariousness of Icarus, and recall the Prodigal Son whose outsized arms, raised wildly aloft, threaten to capsize him backwards. Bastien Lepage balances dangerously on his pedestal, palette in hand, and what about Falling Man on the Gates of Hell? Steinberg points to a “hovering” aspect inherent in so many of Rodin’s works, an unstable relation to any ground. Interpreting this with him as a symbol of the anxiety that will come tearing in with the advent of modernism, I wonder whether it might also serve as an analogue of the modeling process per se—which goes on and on, unlike carving, and never reaches the terra firma of certainty.
What about replication? Rodin reuses figures. And fragments. He reiterates them, adds to them, transports them from one site of aesthetic or semantic significance to another: Think of Paola and Francesca on the Gates of Hell and of Fugit Amor, or the Prodigal Son, who morph and reappear in the former work. Such re-visionings point backward in time perchance to the pounding hoof-beats of multiple horses profiled on the Parthenon frieze and simultaneously they prefigure incredible repetitions in modernity as detailed by Walter Benjamin in his classic 1935 essay—the work of art as infinitely replicable by mechanical and now digital technology. The repetition also figures an inner obsession, a mental perseveration. Steinberg points to Rodin’s “cross-breeding” of forms, his borrowing of figures and body parts and re-assigning them: how the exquisite Torse d’Adèle reappears both in Eternal Spring and on the Gates. No Rodin work is known, Steinberg avers, until it is beheld in all its adaptability, until the body is understood not as an integral whole but as imperfect, as fissured, cracked, distorted according to its momentary purpose: this, he implies in his reading of Rodin, is the human body’s greatest truth. But something deeper than momentary impression matters here: an expression of force that dwells in the act and therein finds its authenticity. Think of the small bronze and terra cotta dancers in the Musée Rodin, those coils of clay simply bent and twisted into miracles of exertion and intense extension.
Steinberg speaks of Rodin’s art in terms of what he calls “pure sculptural energy.” In so doing, he cites the bronze Figure volante of 1890 as an example of directional motion foreshadowing the pure abstraction of Brancusi’s 1923 Bird in Space. Rodin’s art is an art that cannot be finished but only abandoned or reworked, he states, and he imagines a secret dream on Rodin’s part of keeping each work ongoing forever. Above all, Steinberg shows how energy, inert matter, and time make of the part a whole, “wholeness wholly immanent in the fragment.” This is modernity tout court and, with it, we can better parse the ways in which later artists have and will continue to draw upon Rodin.