TDaylight streamed in through the large windows of the Tate Modern, illuminating the novelist Balzac perfectly. Her face is angry and stern, her body wrapped in a massive, shapeless dress. This lack of definite form is exactly what horrified Parisians when Rodin’s full-size plaster cast was unveiled for a monument in 1898.
For the novelist and art critic Émile Zola, Rodin was the perfect artist to make a monument to the sprawling chronicler of politics and modern life, and helped him secure this prestigious commission. But when Rodin exhibited the model, all hell broke loose. Looking at his strange presence, I see why Rodin can be considered the founder of modern sculpture.
Before 1898, the art of sculpture consisted in representing the human body. Since Greek antiquity, European artists had studied anatomy and sought to show the muscles and movements of precise human forms. But Balzac has no body. Instead, he has a giant robe. To underline how strange its inflated balloon structure is, this show includes a study in which Rodin has literally made a statue of an empty, headless robe, with feet to stand on. Rodin’s Balzac is a surreal statue, 36 years before the movement’s manifesto. His mysterious concealment of the writer’s flesh under a garment, causing him to become a ghost in his own clothes, anticipates Man Ray. The enigma of Isidore Ducasse – a sewing machine wrapped in a blanket and tied with a string.
That is the argument of this exhibition, in short a bit pretentious. Rodin, he insists, is an artist who belongs here at Tate Modern. He is the ancestor of Duchamp and Warhol, obsessed with “the fragment”, the “appropriation” and the “repetition”. To clarify this point, curators have ransacked the Rodin Museum in Paris in search of his strangest and strangest relics, mostly plaster casts, including an amputated foot on a pedestal, disembodied hands, and a series of fancy flights in those that Rodin places small nudes inside. ancient ceramic pots as if they were bathing.
Rodin took a while to find fame and success. Born into poverty in 1840, he failed to enter the École des Beaux-Arts and instead learned his skills by working as an assistant in workshops in France and Belgium. His male nude The Age of Bronze, which opens Tate Modern’s beautiful yet intellectually confusing show, became famous but also caused controversy. It was so real that he was accused of choosing it from his model instead of using artistic talent.
In 1880 he began The Gates of Hell, a cascading vision of Dante’s tormented sinners from Hell, for which he devised many of his most iconic forms, including The Thinker, of which this show has a terrific cast. Upon entering the exhibition, he comes across his marble statue The Kiss, a Tate treasure that began as a portrait of adulterers in Hell.
But the very things this show claims to be more of the 20th or 21st century about Rodin are typical of his own time. The factory-like system he employed to produce plaster casts and bronze casts of his designs was not a radical anticipation of today’s “manifold.” It was very Victorian. In an age when no middle-class home was complete without busts of famous people on the mantel, mass-produced statues were popular. There is a vivid account of such workshops in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Rodin, with his experience in artisan workshops, conceived sculpture as a kind of industry. It doesn’t make him Jeff Koons. Rodin liked to sculpt in clay, molding shapes in his hands. From those clay originals, everything else flowed. Trained employees helped him create plaster models, and a device called a pantograph allowed him to calculate the dimensions of dramatically reduced or enlarged models. A dreamlike example here is a colossally enlarged head of one of the burghers of Calais. Then he commissioned the carvers to reproduce them in marble and the founders to cast them in bronze.
Unfortunately, the exhibition does not explore this complex process. Instead, he becomes obsessed with plaster casts. It is best enjoyed in a purely aesthetic way, as any attempt to compromise with its arguments is futile. However, theory cannot stifle its genius. The ways in which he played with reproduction to convey his ideas are not the goal of his art, what matters is the expressiveness of his vision. Rodin shows it everywhere. His imagination is so daring, so daring. An included piece of marble depicts two nymphs making love. Beside him are steaming watercolors of women bathing in blue water.
You have to give it to the stewards. They do not stop. Yet Rodin the modernist continues to confront Rodin the medievalist. The problem with removing biographical context or iconographic meaning, and simply giving us an aesthetic waste of strange plaster casts, is that it can seriously misrepresent your art. A group of writhing figures frolic in agony on a Renaissance-style pedestal. Is this a bit of sadomasochism? No, it is an attempt to visualize the most harrowing story of Dante’s Inferno, that of Count Ugolino and his sons, who starved to death in a dungeon.
Without that history, Rodin’s sculpture loses its purpose. In the same way, we see fragments of The Burghers of Calais, a giant head, a twisted hand, turned into curiosities. But they are just hands-on studies and seem trivial compared to the full-size plaster cast from The Burghers. Here is a monument to a group of 14th century volunteers who were willing to sacrifice to the English to save their city.
Those hands, those heads, move in passionate synchrony, in a sculpture that is like a requiem mass. Rodin is neither modern nor old. It is eloquent, direct and simple.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism