Rodin's works are known around the world: "The Kiss," The Thinker," "The Gates of Hell." One hundred years after his death, the sculptor who took on the modern world continues to enthrall art lovers around the world.
German artist Markus Lüpertz revered Auguste Rodin from an early age. Indeed, the latter's 1877 sculpture "The Walking Man" so impressed Lüpertz as a teenager that he never forgot it. Many artists have had similar first encounters with the world of Rodin.
The melancholy, the imperfection, the worldliness and the erotic effect of Rodin's sculptures and drawings have a way of drilling into one's consciousness. Case in point: Lüpertz's sculpture "Der Morgen oder Hölderlin" shows a head hidden behind a mask, the limbs chunky, the legs spread apart. The resemblance to Rodin's "The Walking Man" is undeniable.
An exhibition earlier this year at the Grand Palais in Paris was more than a classic retrospective marking the centenary of Rodin's death on November 17, 1917, in Meudon, southwest of Paris. This is partly because the artist's work can be seen year-round in the Musée Rodin on the left bank of the Seine, just two metro stations away from the Grand Palais.
Catherine Chevillot, director of the Musée Rodin and curator of the Grand Palais' exhibition, said the artist was not a typical avant-gardist but one who paved the way for others. His innovations were embraced and furthered by myriad artists.
The curators of the retrospective instead asked: how has Rodin's work been received and reinterpreted by subsequent artists, the public and collectors? How alive is Rodin's work today, 100 years after his death?
What was so special?
Much has been said about how Rodin's work dealt with the crises and new challenges facing the modern world in the late 19th and early 20th century. He represented the tumultuous times through anatomically incomplete figures, such as the fragments of a torso, or sculptures lacking heads, arms and legs. They were not studies but finished works that became Rodin's trademark.
Did Rodin, who was born in 1840, also take part in the contemporary fascination with the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud? Not necessarily, said Chevillot. According to the curator, Rodin was not an intellectual and did not read a great deal. His true interest was the investigation of form and matter.
With his twisted bodies and plaster castings of feet, heads and screaming or distorted mouths, Rodin became a key sculptor of the "fin de siècle" era — the end of the 19th century — and perhaps the most radical artist of his time.
The "Exposition Universelle," a world's fair held in Paris in 1900, was the turning point in Rodin's career. He sold 150 works in his own pavilion at the Place de l'Alma; his commissioned sculptures alone earned him huge profits. Indeed, artists and collectors came to Paris because of Rodin. Young modernists also began to study and emulate his work.
Influence on the 20th century
Countless colleagues visited his studio in the following years, including the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who worked as Rodin's secretary. The writer penned a monograph in 1903 in which he idealized the artist as the father figure of modernity.
Between the two world wars, figurative sculptures began to be considered old-fashioned, causing the now-deceased Rodin to fall into obscurity. But in the immediate aftermath of World War II, an intensive examination and rediscovery of the art form was led by artists like Germaine Richier, Henry Moore and Per Kirkeby. Each created torsos or installations with feet, arms or heads that drew on Rodin.
Rodin's special way of breathing life into sculptures also reverberated with Alberto Giacometti, who created his own long-legged version of the "Walking Man" with "L'Homme qui marche" in the 1960s.
Rodin's work has influenced artists, including Alberto Giacometti and his "L'Homme qui marche" (left)
A visit to the Musée Rodin is proof of continuing interest in the sculptor. In conjunction with the 100-year anniversary, the museum showcased German artist Anselm Kiefer's own presentation on the modernity of Rodin. Kiefer, who lives in southern France, visited Rodin's studio in Meudon for the first time in 2013. There, the German learned of the existence of the book "The Cathedrals of France" that Rodin wrote and illustrated in 1914.
At the museum's request, Kiefer worked with the little-known manuscript to create his own artist's book showcasing Rodin's fascination for architecture. While the two artists are very different, they each create a relationship between tradition and modernity, experimenting with materials and looking for a new artistic language.
One hundred years after the death of Rodin, fascination with the sculptor continues unabated.