Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern
On ViewThe Clark Art Institute
Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern
June 18 – September 18, 2022
At the Clark’s richly attended Rodin exhibition this summer, it might seem incredible that despite having been the most celebrated artist on earth at his death in 1917, Rodin’s reputation dimmed to vanishing between the wars in the heroic phase of twentieth-century Modernism. Our Rodin might not have been—it was only his parting gift, the Musée Rodin that made the difference. Postwar, the Louvre’s 1962 Rodin Inconnu exhibition, followed shortly by Albert Elsen’s Rodin retrospective at MoMA and Leo Steinberg’s watershed essay (1963), posited a second-look Rodin as a precursor of modernism.
He was back, but his revival became by short stages so acritical that we now take Rodin for both the exemplary nineteenth-century sculptor and a titanic pathfinder of the modern era. Confronting the Modern begs a question the exhibition does not mean to ask: just what is Rodin’s modernity? Which comes down to who was Auguste Rodin, really?
The exhibition includes nearly thirty bronzes, eight marbles, thirteen plasters and 48 drawings: a quasi-survey, occupying a vast space below grade, reached by an entry pavilion. There, above ground, only the MoMA Balzac (1897, cast 1954) is visible—the piece he called “the sum of my whole life,” standing pedestal-less, alone in a glass box that might have been built just for it (though at furthest remove from Rodin’s own taste: he favored Rococo and the Gothic). Looming against the horizon of New England high summer all round, Balzac is back in his slippers, working late and loitering among us. That picture is rather like—and second only to—Steichen’s moonlit shots of the piece in Rodin’s garden at Meudon in 1908. One would gladly remember the piece this way ever after.
This massively incorrect thing (to recall Rilke’s sense of the word, in his seminal Rodin essay)—a towering, rough-headed phallus holding its own, is an outlier within Rodin’s work, as it was a breathtaking affront to contemporary society, then as now. The ostensible portrait is an outrageously egoistic manifestation of its author, whose own achievement was a matter of won’t-back-down interiority, thrown at the world by an otherwise mostly timid, and congenitally lonely man. Rodin made of Balzac the creator-monster he aspired to be but was not. He, unlike his Balzac, cared a great deal what people thought.
Maybe no artist, Balzac included, could play himself in society, straight. It would seem that Rodin, whom every memoirist claims was the simplest of men, knew he was Rodin, but in his public face, wanted something more. In polite company, or in front of a camera, the artist retreated in favor of his workaround personas. Out of our sight, at work, he is evident in what he made—by his own hand.
A factual Rodin persists, like a fingerprint, in his terracottas and plaster—much as Steinberg said and the Musée had implied (Rodin Inconnu was sketch and study-rich)—not in the marbles certainly—he never touched them, or a whole lot of bronzes, so many of which are gratuitous and redundant works, unlike, say, each of Brancusi’s birds. He is absent in most of what we know him by and his American collectors, many of whom “knew” the artist, were charmed by a man playing a part. They came for fellowship to greatness, and great works, and were not introduced to a workman (his word) in a white smock, hands wet with clay—the role he treasured above all others. They brought “Rodin” to America, but there is just one terracotta downstairs.
That bust, purchased by the Metropolitan in 1912 (modeled 1891), happens to be one of the shortest-list great heads ever made—Rodin was that kind of phenomenon. Rather an impolite fragment, it is casually sliced away at the neck and flat at the back of the head, where it lay while the artist worked, looking down. This is a creature of the studio, derived by numerous stages from a life casting of an omnibus conductor from Tours, Balzac’s home province.
Rodin went there in search of Balzac’s type and retrieved one M. Estager, of whom a contemporary photograph survives. He was no Balzac, but Rodin made of him an inexhaustible chimera-Balzac we could gladly prefer to any picture of the real man. All this fellow’s lush jowly flesh is boarishly alert, and he enjoys some evident spectacle keenly, eyes narrowed, whiskers cocked upward, mouth parted, lips glistening—what else could one want, in likeness of the author of the Comédie humaine? But with the infamous statue another seven years away, Rodin was then only just getting started.
The exhibition’s third must-see item is another superlative head, from the Philadelphia Rodin Museum, a translucent glass-paste casting, barely tinted to something like makeup foundation. This portrait of Rose Beuret, Rodin’s common-law wife was cast in 1911 from a plaster state modelled at the outset of his affair with Camille Claudel. She was then 19, Rose was 39, and Rodin 43. Their triangle is visible in the glass.
Rose is a fragment as well, but not of the sliced or broken-off kind. She is a glimpse, stolen from the body of time and myopically close personal experience, rather too intimate for witness: a kind of pillow talk that had been no part of sculpture before. Rodin (who was in fact terribly near-sighted) was a first poet of immanence, but only securely engaged and eloquent on conditions of intimacy, in a closeup world he brought to sculpture almost single-handed.
That territory fell to assault. Unlike Houdon, whom he considered his precursor, Rodin didn’t have an urbane bone in his body. Anna de Noailles, poet, a favorite sitter, said she had to contend all the sitting hour against what she called “his hunter’s gaze.” Others simply left the room. Houdon, and Rodin’s colleague Carpeaux (see his superb Alexandre Dumas just next door at the Clark), would seem to tell all, even while they upheld tacit understandings of distance between artist and sitter that Rodin did not, or would not, notice. Their courtesies would have barred his way. Rodin, a tentative Modern, felt his way toward a sculpture he did not seek, and never saw. Giacometti, round a corner, would be his heir inapparent.
Rodin Intime was foundational, yet hardly figures in the artist we take him for. Our Rodin still leaves so much out. To “rediscover” him yet again, one might go back to his things at their earliest inception, leaving aside reception, reputation, context, persona, and “close-reading.” Better to go to the core of Rodin’s 1916 donation—the body of seven-hundred-some silent terracottas, snap-shot by the kiln exactly as he left them himself, and parse the autograph works in their own language: manual operation by operation, pellet by smear by join by slice. There really is no alternative. The terra cottas are the one and only mirror in which Rodin will ever again appear for himself.
Jacques Lipchitz, whose early work old Rodin saw and liked, much to the budding modernist’s chagrin, said in 1954 that Auguste Rodin “is still an unknown man.” Today, thanks to his own best efforts, and the no-small love of his friends, the whole world can say the same.