Confronting the Modern – The Brooklyn Rail

In view

The Clark Art Institute
Rodin in the United States: Facing the Modern
June 18 – September 18, 2022
Williamstown, MA

At Clark’s lavishly attended Rodin exhibition this summer, it may seem unbelievable that despite having been the world’s most famous artist when he died in 1917, Rodin’s reputation has faded to disappear between wars in the heroic phase of 20th century modernism. Our Rodin may not have been, it was only his farewell gift, the Rodin Museum, that made the difference. Post-war, the 1962 of the Louvre Rodin Unknown The exhibition, followed soon after by Albert Elsen’s Rodin retrospective at MoMA and Leo Steinberg’s landmark essay (1963), postulates a second look at Rodin as a precursor to modernism.

He was back, but his revival has become so uncritical in stages that Rodin is now taken both for the exemplary sculptor of the 19th century and for a titanic pioneer of the modern era. Faced with modernity asks a question that the exhibition does not want to ask: what is Rodin’s modernity? What amounts to who really was Auguste Rodin?

The exhibition includes nearly thirty bronzes, eight marbles, thirteen plasters and 48 drawings: a quasi-investigation, occupying a vast space in the basement, which is accessed by an entrance pavilion. There, above the ground, only the MoMA Balzac (1897, cast 1954) can be seen – the piece he called “the sum of my whole life”, standing without a plinth, alone in a glass box that might have been built just for it (although it is furthest from Rodin’s taste: he favored Rococo and Gothic). Appearing on New England’s midsummer horizon, Balzac is back in his slippers, working late and hanging out among us. This image rather resembles – and just after – Steichen’s moonlight shots of Rodin’s play in the garden at Meudon in 1908. The play would gladly be remembered that way forever.

This massively incorrect thing (to recall Rilke’s meaning of the word, in his seminal essay on Rodin) – a towering, rough-headed phallus that holds firm, is an outlier in Rodin’s work, for it was a breathtaking affront to contemporary society, then as now. The ostensible portrait is an outrageously selfish manifestation of its author, whose own realization was a matter of unwavering interiority, thrown into the world by an otherwise rather shy and congenitally solitary man. Rodin made Balzac the creator-monster he aspired to be but was not. He, unlike his Balzaccared a lot about what people thought.

Perhaps no artist, including Balzac, could play straight in society. It would seem that Rodin, whom all memoirists claim to be the simplest of men, knew he was Rodin, but in his public face, wanted something more. In good company, or in front of a camera, the artist retreated in favor of his bypass characters. Out of our sight, at work, it is evident in what he has done – with his own hand.

A factual Rodin persists, like a fingerprint, in his terracottas and his plaster – as Steinberg said and the Museum had hinted (Rodin Unknown was rich in sketches and studies)—not certainly in the marbles – he never touched them, nor in a whole heap of bronzes, so many of which are gratuitous and redundant works, unlike, say, each of Brancusi’s birds. He is absent from most of what we know of him, and his American collectors, many of whom “knew” the artist, were charmed by a man playing a role. They have come to commune with greatness and great works, and have not been initiated into a worker (his word) in a white coat, his hands wet with clay – the role he cherished above all else. They brought “Rodin” to America, but there’s just a terracotta below.

This bust, purchased by the Metropolitan in 1912 (modeled in 1891), happens to be one of the shortest large heads ever made – Rodin was such a phenomenon. Rather a rude fragment, it is cut casually at the neck and flat at the back of the head, where it rested as the artist worked, looking down. It is a creature of the workshop, derived by many stages from a life casting of an omnibus conductor from Tours, Balzac’s native province.

Rodin went there in search of Balzac’s type and recovered a M. Estager, of which there remains a contemporary photograph. It wasn’t Balzac, but Rodin made an inexhaustible chimera of him – Balzac whom we would happily prefer to any image of the real man. All of this guy’s jowly lush flesh is bloody alert, and he keenly enjoys an obvious sight, eyes squinting, whiskers sticking up, mouth parted, lips glistening – what else could one want , like the author of human comedy? But with the infamous statue seven years away, Rodin was just getting started.

The third must-have item in the exhibit is another superlative head, from the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, a translucent glass paste cast, barely tinted into something like a foundation. This portrait of Rose Beuret, Rodin’s concubine was cast in 1911 from plaster modeled at the start of his affair with Camille Claudel. She was then 19 years old, Rose 39 and Rodin 43. Their triangle is visible in the glass.

Pink is also a fragment, but not of the sliced ​​or broken kind. She is a glimpse, stolen from the body of time and from a near myopic personal experience, rather too intimate to witness: a kind of pillow talk that had not been part of the sculpture before. Rodin (who was in fact terribly short-sighted) was a first poet of immanence, but solidly engaged and eloquent only on condition of intimacy, in a close world that he brought almost alone to sculpture.

This territory fell by storm. Unlike Houdon, whom he considered his forerunner, Rodin did not have a courtly bone in his body. Anna de Noailles, poetess, favorite seat, said that she had to fight the whole hour of the session against what she called “her hunter’s gaze”. Others simply left the room. Houdon, and Rodin’s colleague Carpeaux (see his superb Alexandre Dumas next door at the Clark), would seem to say it all, even if they supported tacit understandings of distance between artist and model that Rodin does not have. or wouldn’t notice. Their courtesies would have blocked his way. Rodin, a hesitant modern, made his way to a sculpture that he did not seek and that he never saw. Giacometti, around the corner, would be his unapparent heir.

Intimate Rodin was fundamental, but barely figures in the artist for whom it is taken. Our Rodin leaves again then a lot outside. To “rediscover” it once again, one could go back to its very beginning, leaving aside reception, reputation, context, personality and “close reading”. Better to go to the heart of the Rodin donation of 1916 – the body of seven hundred silent terracottas, instant in the oven exactly as he left them himself, and breaking down the autograph works in their own language: manual operation by operation, pellet by smearing by joint by slice. There really is no alternative. Terracottas are the one and only mirror in which Rodin will never again appear for himself.

Jacques Lipchitz, whose early works old Rodin saw and loved, much to the annoyance of the budding modernist, said in 1954 that Auguste Rodin “is still an unknown man”. Today, thanks to his own efforts and the considerable love of his friends, the whole world can say the same.

About Norma Wade

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