Eros and anguish in Rodin’s ‘body’ of work

Auguste Rodin — whose 100th death anniversary is being commemorated by exhibits worldwide, including a show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art opening Sept. 16 — fashioned some of the most iconically sensuous bronze and marble nudes in the history of art:

“The Thinker” (1879-89), which gives us the poet Dante as brooding hunk; 

“The Kiss” (1889), with its lovers lost in the passion of their embrace — her right leg between his legs, his right arm on her left thigh;

 “The Age of Bronze” (1877), a male figure inspired by Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave,” whose upraised arms can convey exhaustion, defeat or a kind of languorous lust.

But Rodin (1840-1917) — a working-class Parisian who had spent part of his youth in the Roman Catholic Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, where the canny founder and future saint, Peter Julian Eymard recognized that the young man’s calling lay in the aesthetic not the ascetic; and who had once designed decorative porcelains for Sèvres — was not interested in merely idealizing the body. For him, the physical was the path to understanding a man’s nature and human nature. Working from nude models, whom the acutely near-sighted sculptor would observe closely from all angles, Rodin would mold their features into clay that was later refined and cast in plaster and, ultimately, bronze or carved into marble, using texture and pose to crystallize the subject’s psychological essence.

“What makes my ‘Thinker’ think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips,” Rodin once observed, “but with every muscle of his arms, back and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”

His “St. John the Baptist Preaching” (1878), modeled after an Italian peasant, appears to be walking, talking and gesturing, somewhat awkwardly. His “Balzac” (1891-98) casts the doughy novelist as a stout and stout-hearted, cloaked figure, his sunken eyes in his oversized head blazing toward the future. And his “The Burghers of Calais” (1889) slump, slouch or look toward their self-sacrifice.

Later in life, Rodin moved from the sensuous to the sensual, creating erotic drawings of the female nude — he excelled in two-dimensional as well as three-dimensional works — as well as studies of dancers, including Isadora Duncan, on whom he had amorous designs. By then, the 20th century’s dawn, Rodin was emerging from a romantic triangle that, along with the push-pull of the beautiful and the brutal, the idealistic and the realistic, would enable him to find pain as well as pleasure in his depictions of love.

In 1883, Rodin was substitute-teaching when he met sculpture student Camille Claudel, 24 years his junior. He was already devoted — in his fashion — to Rose Beuret, the seamstress he had taken up with almost 20 years earlier, though far less so to their son, also named Auguste. (Rodin and Beuret would ultimately marry — in the year they both died, 1917.)

Nevertheless, Rodin and Claudel spoke the same aesthetic language. She posed for him, assisted on his commissions and did her own wonderful work, including an 1892 bronze bust of Rodin noteworthy for its textured Rodin-like character.

It could not, would not, end well, however. Claudel and Rodin split in 1898 and, after her nervous breakdown, her embittered, negligent family confined her to an institution where she lived until her death in 1940. Claudel’s relationship with Rodin became the subject of the 1988 film “Camille Claudel,” a post-feminist cautionary tale about what happens to a woman who subjugates her life and her art to a man.

It’s temptingly easy to see biography in art, to locate Rodin’s ambivalent romantic figures in his relationship with Claudel — even though the troubled lovers of some of his best-known works (“The Kiss,” “Fugit Amor”) began three years prior as designs for “The Gates of Hell,” a door depicting Dante’s “Inferno” in relief for a Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris that was never built.

Still, the rapture and despair of love is ever-present in his works at museums like The Met, whose Rodin exhibit will contain a permanent show with rotating elements of almost 50 marbles, bronzes, plasters and terra-cottas, along with complementary paintings by admired contemporaries and friends like Claude Monet, in the newly installed and refurbished Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Sculpture Gallery. (An adjacent gallery will feature an exhibit of related material through Jan. 15.)

Here Cupid tries to flee Psyche, his wings high and taut as he remains bound by her straining embrace. Orpheus covers his eyes so as not to glimpse and thus lose Eurydice as he leads her from Hell while she, uncomprehending, whispers in his ear. And the Adam and Eve who nestle like innocent babes in the marble womb that is “The Hand of God” become the separate, monumental bronze figures who hang their heads in shame. (There is another cast of this Eve at the Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens at PepsiCo in Purchase.)

Even “The Kiss” — a bronze cast of which is part of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich — seems less a tribute to the harmony in romantic love when you consider that it represents the adulterous Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta, who wind up in Dante’s “Inferno.”

“The course of true love never did run smooth,” Shakespeare observed. But in the hands of a master like Rodin, its bramble path has made for great art.

For more, visit metmuseum.org, brucemuseum.org and pepsico.com/sculpture-gardens. And for more on Rodin celebrations in other museums in the United States and Europe, visit rodin100.org/en.

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