I have had the good fortune of being able to see the impressive exhibition in Paris commemorating the Centenary of the passing of the great Auguste Rodin at the Grand Palais. It is but one of the many exhibitions of his marble and bronze sculptures to be shown around the world. This one, however, went one step further by also presenting a large number of sculptures created by those who purportedly followed in his foot-steps.
The beauty of Rodin’s early works is most heartening. For the beauty of the human body was central to what Rodin achieved and tried to perfect. It must be remembered that one of his first acclaimed works in marble was that of an expertly presented naked man which was first acclaimed by the art academicians in Paris and then swiftly rejected because they claimed he must have cheated by making a cast from the body of the model. Infuriated, Rodin swiftly made another marble of the model a half size larger and just as perfect. This time the experts had to accept the artist’s remarkable talent and Rodin’s fame as the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo was in the making.
Beauty was at the center of Rodin’s work. “To tell the truth, every human type, every race has its beauty. The thing is to discover it,” he told his friend Paul Gsell.1 “Beauty is everywhere. It is not she that is lacking to our eye, but our eyes which fail to perceive her.” Character and expression, he claimed, were at the basis of beauty. “There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say, that which offers no outer or inner truth.”
Following the traditions of the greatest Greek sculptors, Rodin said that “The artists in those days had eyes to see, while those of today are blind; that is all the difference. The Greek women were beautiful, but their beauty lived above all in the minds of the sculptors who carved them.” These pronouncements by the master were in my mind when the show in the Grand Palais shifted to the marbles and bronzes of his followers such as: Cesar Baldaccini, Germaine Richier, and Barry Flanagan. What struck me with the large selection of these works was that they no longer were concerned with beauty. They were meant to impress by their horror, brute power, vacuity, the existential pain of being human, and even our humor.
In his later period Rodin became more experimental, trying to catch the dynamics of movement in his sculptures. His statue of a dancing Nijinski climaxed this period. Rodin also started to focus on fragments of the human body before assembling such parts. The way he studied the power and effectiveness of the human hand, and he collected thousands of plaster hands, was most revealing. No sculptor ever focused as acutely on hands and feet as Rodin. Altogether his later more random approach to the presentation of the human form was to be a prelude to sculpture in the 20th century.
Rodin, however, held a deep respect for the materials he worked in, beginning with clay and progressing with plaster and then bronze or marble. Many of his successors mistreated their materials- ripping, stretching, distorting, or compacting the forms. The results ultimately proved provocative but were unrelated, in fact opposed, to the classical school. I found the comparison between Rodin’s famous “The Thinker” and Georg Baselitz’s interpretation of this masterpiece in a huge brutalized and primitively carved “Zero” most painful. Perhaps it was intended to emphasize the collapse of our
humanity following the horrors of World Wars I and II.
Claudia Schmuckli, the curator in charge of Contemporary Art and Programming for the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco, who has put together a large collection of Rodins at the Legion of Honor Museum, said that “Rodin’s naturalist conception of the body and his embrace of the fragment as a motif in its own right deeply influenced the trajectory of modern sculpture.” Then she announced being thrilled that Sarah Lucas and Urs Fisher had “agreed to consider their work in this context and bring a contemporary perspective to our understanding of Rodin’s work and legacy.”
Now it must be conceded that Lucas and Rodin both had powerful sexual drives but when it came to transferring these into a solid, like bronze, marble or wood, Lucas descended into creating inflatable plastics, immortalized by the huge and hideous yellow plastic penis she produced for the her show where she was representing the UK at the Venice Biennale in 2015. Lucas also plaster cast her bottom half and then later on inserted a cigarette poking out of her now inflatable plastic vagina. To be fair, she also cast the penis of her boyfriend, the composer Julian Simmons, over and over again to make a series called “Penetralia.”2 What I have seen of her attempts at sculpture are unsavory perversions of what art, such as Rodin created, can achieve.3 Lucas may have a sense of humor but her lack of talent, in my mind, blocks any imaginable connection to Auguste Rodin.
Rodin was followed by such great sculptors as Arp, Archipenko, Boccioni, Duchamp-Villon, and Zadkine — all of whose works integrated their powerful artistic forms of expression with their own individual character. All of these sculptors were concerned with the beauty of their creations, much like Rodin, but today “beauty” is generally dismissed as a standard.
Today’s eager art lovers use the hashtag #Rodin100 just to keep track of the host of art museums large and small around the world, with the Rodin Museum in Paris at the center, all of whom are or will be celebrating the works of the greatest of 19th century sculptors. In turn, I find it hard to imagine what standards the 21st century sculptors will produce?
1 Auguste Rodin, Rodin on Art and Artists (with conversations with Paul Gsell). (1983), p. 20
2 Charlotte Higgins, “Sarah Lucas: ‘I have several penises, actually’” The Guardian, May 6, 2015
3 Also to be shown at the American Legion Museum will be “Concrete Boots,” “Nice Tits” and “Hoolian” by Sarah Lucas, one of the over-celebrated ‘Young British Artists.’