A centenary exhibition in Paris' Grand Palais explores the broader legacy of French sculptor Auguste Rodin 100 years after his death.
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. This is evident in a final section of the exhibition at the Grand Palais, where Lüpertz's sculpture "Der Morgen oder Hölderlin" (2011) shows a head hidden behind a mask. The limbs on the body are chunky, the legs spread apart. The resemblance to Rodin's "The Walking Man" is undeniable.
The exhibition at the Grand Palais is not a classic retrospective of the centenary of Rodin’s death in Meudon, southwest of Paris, on November 17, 1917. This is partly because the work of the artist who was born in Paris in 1840 can be seen year-round in the Musée Rodin on the left bank of the Seine, just two metro stations away. The curators for this exhibition instead ask: 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?
Rodin was not a typical avant-garde artist, but one who paved the way for others, says the director of the Musée Rodin and curator of the exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, Catherine Chevillot. His innovations have been embraced and furthered by myriad artists.
Rodin's "The Walking Man" - displayed towards the end of the exhibition - is a striking giant bronze figure surrounded by art works that either allude to the masterpiece or are directly influenced by it. Created in the style of classical Greek or Roman statues, most especially "Venus de Milo," the sculpture shows the decapitated figure of John the Baptist who is also mutilated, with Rodin leaving off his arms.
What was so special?
Much has been said about how Rodin’s work deals with the crises and new challenges facing the modern world in the late 19th and early 20th century. The conflicting times were represented by anatomically incomplete figures, such as the fragments of a torso, sculptures lacking heads, arms and legs. They were not studies but finished works that became Rodin's trademark.
Rodin also explored contemporary fascination with the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, for instance. But according to Chevillot he was not an intellectual and did not read a great deal. His true interest was the investigation of form and matter.
Spread out over 14 halls on two floors at the Grand Palais and divided into three sections - the 'expressionistic,' the 'shocking' and the 'experimental' Rodin - the exhibition shows how Rodin’s curiosity and enthusiasm for experimentation greatly influenced contemporaries and subsequent artists. With his twisted bodies and plaster castings of feet, heads and screaming or distorted mouths, Rodin grew into a fin de siècle artist and perhaps the most radical artist of his time.
Separation from Camille Claudel
Surprisingly, only one work from Rodin’s longtime lover, Camille Claudel, is on display. "She was a great sculptor, but Rodin was the genius," says the art historian and co-curator Antoinette Le Normand-Romain. "They were passionately united, and Claudel assisted him on some of his most famous works, like the 'Gates of Hell' or 'Citizens of Calais,' but not more," Chevillot explains. Claudel modeled hands, heads and feet. Both of them had suffered severely after their separation. "Rodin was depressed for two years," says Chevillot.
The Paris World Fair of 1900 was the turning point in Rodin's career. He sold 150 works in his own pavilion at the Place de l'Alma; his sculptures alone fetched 200,000 francs. Indeed, artists and collectors came to Paris because of Rodin. Young modernists also began to study and emulate his work.
Rodin's Influence on the 20th Century
Enthusiasm for Rodin peaked around the turn of the century. Countless colleagues visited his studio at the time, including the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who worked as Rodin’s secretary and wrote a monograph in 1903 in which he idealized the artist as the father figure of modernity.
Between the two world wars, Rodin fell out of favor as figurative sculptures were considered old-fashioned. But in the immediate postwar period, 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 "Walking Man" with "Homme qui marche" (1960).
Kiefer - Rodin dialogue
A visit to the Musée Rodin is proof of the continuing interest in the sculptor, with the museum showcasing German artist Anselm Kiefer's presentation on the modernity of Rodin. Kiefer, who lives in southern France, visited Rodin's studio in Meudon for the first time in 2013, where he also learned of the existence of the book, "The Cathedrals of France," which Rodin wrote and illustrated in 1914 and shows his fascination for architecture. At the request of the Musée Rodin, Kiefer worked with the little-known manuscript to create his own artist's book, which already had some architectural features. 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 remains undaunted.