PRINT December 1963

Rodin’s Modernity

THERE IS IRONY IN THE FACT that Rodin’s modernity becomes more apparent with the passing of time. His most famous, but by no means best works, such as The Kiss and The Thinker, have diminished in artistic importance and now seem dated. While alive the sculptor resisted the nomination of revolu­tionary, claiming that he was merely a worker who continued the great traditions of the past by stead­fastly imitating nature. He never forsook naturalism, as was done by the vanguard beginning in the 1880’s and continuing into this century. As a consequence he founded no important movement; on the contrary, the best sculpture of the early 20th century was made in spite of Rodin and was strongly under the influence of advanced painting. Even his personal image seems at first to resist the public myths of the modern artist. He was enormously successful financially. He was internationally honored, and would-be patrons from many nations competed for his talents. He had a small corps of assistants, and many marbles never knew his personal touch. Literature, myth and history served him for titles, and museum art provided his paradigms of excellence. It seems in many ways that Rodin has backed into this century with his eyes focused on the past.

With the formation and circulation this past year of several large and important Rodin exhibitions in France, Canada and this country, much has been done to counter or dissipate conventional and often un­sympathetic images of Rodin, and to excite artists as well as critics and the public by making possible discovery of much that was unknown in his art and which seems startlingly fresh and meaningful today. Rodin’s contradictory and unpredictable taste and nature do not, however, lessen his claims to modern­ity. The passage of time has also given us new per­spectives on the meaning of modernity itself. While such writers as Harold Rosenberg discount the pres­ent value of the words “modern” and “art,” the past 100 years have revealed not chaos but a meaningful variety of characteristics which, as an aggregate, do distinguish the art of this period from that of the past. As in the use of the words “renaissance” or “baroque,” we may still use the adjective “modern” not in a descriptive way, but as an historical handle, label, or covering word to which important associa­tions have accrued.

Since Courbet, Manet and Degas, modern art recognizes no one style, no perpetual revolution and re­newal. Yesterday’s revolutionary may become today’s academician, and there has been important art result­ing from one artist’s working out of one idea for many years. There is a continual oscillation between new and traditional forms in the work of individuals and groups. We have seen that new media do not auto­matically mean new forms. Modernity has come to mean the search for a personal rather than a col­lective style. In turn, this style may be composed of many modes or only one. Rodin’s first 20 years as a sculptor, down to about 1882, involved training him­self to make sculpture that had the look of another time and place. He was the last of the great sculptors who were professionals in the traditional sense. Be­ing a professional decorator working on commission, he could model in the style of past epochs, work in many media, and utilize reportorial subject matter. After 1882, for economic reasons, he was free to develop completely according to his own needs. His style was no longer the container of content, but as we see in the Gates of Hell, became indistinguish­able from it. Until his death in 1917, he proceeded from a single simple obsession: the capturing of the unstylized and non-reportorial in life—in short, the natural. This demanded a style that seemed lacking in style, one whose modalities were determined by the model rather than the artist.

In turning his back upon traditional concepts of style, Rodin was to embrace the enduring ethic of modern artists since Courbet, namely, fidelity to one’s own experience and constant empirical search for equivalents in art to the life of the senses, in­tellect and feeling.

As Ad Reinhardt has recently reminded us, for the last one hundred years the content of modern art has been art itself—persistent inquiry into its char­acter, means and processes. Rodin’s unprecedented and sincere re-examination of the basis of sculpture, while differing in its conclusions from those of later, younger vanguard artists, was itself an act of modern­ity. He had learned to make sculpture from sculpture. But beginning with his Man With the Broken Nose, he realized increasingly that the living human being provided a more truthful, thorough, inexhaustible and exciting basis for good sculpture. Rodin was neither the first nor last modern artist to believe that the visible world was not alien but essential to art.

He saw the human body as consisting of masses, surfaces and profiles. These were the ingredients of his sculpture. The body was a marvelous organism with its own logic and laws. Its numerous parts always fitted and worked together and conveyed the human spirit to eyes and hands attuned to the evi­dence of the flesh. The model’s surface inflections were not reducible to predictable series but pro­vided the sculptor who worked with elevations and depressions with endless ideas for sculpture. The variability and unbroken continuum of the body was imparted by Rodin to his sculptural surfaces. No two models presented him with the same form or char­acter. Each new sculpture meant the excitement of discovering ideas appropriate to modeling. To stylize the body or follow academic rules meant making art that was less than life, incapable of its equivalence in visual richness and mystery. Still today his works challenge the eye to comprehend the density of visual and tactile ideas he could elicit from a surface. Conscious of the fact that others would misinterpret his ideal of working from the model, Rodin pointed out that there was a crucial difference between me­chanical copying of the model and the results achieved by the eye and hand. One was transposition, the other transformation. In the case of the former the result was a dry, visually fatiguing effigy with no returns to the senses or feelings. He called the mind “the most certain of calculators,” and ardently be­lieved that his thoughts, emotions and sensibilities influenced the activity of his hand as he worked, al­though as an unself-conscious influence.

So much was love of craft the bedrock and impetus of Rodin’s life work that he came to cherish the making more than the completion of art. (“Make something and the idea will come.”) His concern was not with the limits of clay, but with the constant extension of its possibilities until clay sketches done forty years apart appear scarcely the work of the same man. Contrary to the practice of academic art and prophetic of later sculptors, he would work through an idea in countless figures, none of which could be said to realize completely his thought or feeling. As with painters since Courbet, Rodin alone could judge whether or not a work was completed, what completed meant, or if the work was right. The risks he took became even greater risks for his audience. The test that he used to judge a work’s success was time. When it withstood months or years of study it would survive; otherwise it might be destroyed or dissected with only the promising parts preserved. Few con­temporary sculptures can withstand such long and searching looking, or have a comparable memorabil­ity of individual forms.

Rodin’s challenge of accepted notions of art lead to the death of the statue and monument. Instead of forcing his models into the postures of statuary and staid heroism, he pushed sculpture into the direction of living movement. With his insistence upon sincere expression of genuine sentiments, the frank dis­closure of human struggle with weakness, and the necessity of finding form that preserved natural movement, figures such as The Burghers of Calais ex­posed the unreality and impoverishment of public statuary. (The Palace of the Legion of Honor demon­strated the lack of comprehension the Burghers have experienced by exhibiting the five small freestanding Burghers in a pyramidal composition, against which the sculptor specifically inveighed.)

Reading Rodin’s statements on art made after 1900 and seeing his sculpture are two different and often conflicting experiences. Publicly he championed to the end the conventional purposes of sculpture, which were to instruct, ennoble and edify the public. But the words of his lips were belied by the creations of his hands. There is nothing didactic or moralizing about The Walking Man or his Dance Movement series. To understand Rodin’s work during his life­time meant the same sacrifices demanded by the most advanced painting then and now. The beholder, in Zola’s words, “had to forget a thousand things about art.” Rodin’s clay and pencil sketches de­manded that his viewers forget the history of art as his fingers had forgotten it in their making of sculp­ture. He loved the imprecision of clay studies or drawings for it seemed closer to the model’s action. The sketch gave freedom with little effort, to render forcibly and summarily the fugitive thought. Although he once said that the viewer’s imagination could com­plete what the artist was searching for, we now feel that to do so would not be art, and would make us lose contact with the artist’s thought processes and what was actually done!

Rodin tested the elasticity of the word “art” when he chose not to anchor many of his small torsos and hands to permanent bases so that they could be continually fondled or disposed on a table, shelf or floor according to his whim. The sculptures thus had no single irrevocable visual axis and permanent surrender to gravity. As the position was changed or the figure was coupled with others or with duplicates of itself, unexpected formal and emotional situations would spontaneously arise, like the dramatic con­frontation of a second self. Few today realize that the Three Shades are the same figure, or observe the wonderful rhythms and shapes of the intervals between the identical bodies.

Associated with modern art is the expectation that the artist will take risks in seeking his own ideal of perfection and that such ventures will proceed from what is currently described as “anguish.” (This last is not always explicit.) The creation of the Mon­ument to Balzac had all of these ingredients. No artist before or since agonized more over the making and reception of his art than did Rodin in the long years before and after 1898, when the colossal figure confronted the public. During its gestation, the proj­ect came to mean not only regaining the appearance of a man the sculptor had never seen, but also the poetic evocation of the writer’s imaginative fertility. (The accusation that he had literally smeared Balzac’s brain over his face was not the worst Rodin received.) It took years to find the “great lines” that made the sculpture right as sculpture in the artist’s eyes.

When Rodin cut off a head or limb from a full figure he seemed to the public to have severed his connection with art. For the artist this practice, which became prevalent in the ’90s and thereafter, was a test of the essential or irreducible expressiveness of his modeling as well as a demonstration of perfection in a fragment. This willful segmentation of his sculp­ture also meant that he could eliminate those fea­tures, the head and hands, most susceptible to affectation or stylization by his model, thus insuring only the natural in what remained. Perhaps today we can see that his step of considering portions of the human body as potentially extraneous to sculpture was in its own way as daring as Cubist sculpture.

Not the least of Rodin’s claims to modernity lies in his long but, until recently, little-known fascination with imperfection. While the public knows his patho­logically accurate but esthetically compelling Old Helmet Maker’s Wife, few realize that Rodin made studies of the diseased hands and legs of hospital patients. How plausible for an artist committed to life to be drawn to its decay! But Rodin’s curiosity with imperfection extended beyond the life process into that of sculpture itself. Rescued by recent exhi­bitions from the limbo of his Meudon studio and its basement are numerous terra-cottas and plaster casts in which the sculptor preserved the scars of casting and cutting, the untempered traces of fingerprints and facture. Never in his drawings are there erasures. Coexistent with his art of the natural there exist the signs of artifice, but in themselves they are the natural results of the making of art. No “truth to the medium” critic of Rodin during the past half­-century ever exceeded such unflinching, raw fidelity to his craft.

Characteristic of the content of modern art has been its intimate and direct relationship to the artist and his environment. If the present tests of modernity are, as Harold Rosenberg suggests in his Tradition of the New, those of psychological, ideological or esthetic relevance to our epoch, Rodin can now be understood as having applied the same measure to the art of his own time and found it wanting. Neither before nor since Rodin has any single sculptor created as extensive an image in sculpture of his society in terms of its states of feeling, or what Georg Sim­mel considered to be the response of the human spirit to modern life. His Gates of Hell, as an in­stance, are a spiritual panorama unrivaled even by the sculptural programs of the cathedrals. Baude­laire had said that there was a modern heroism to be found independently of official acts, and daily encountered in the private lives of anonymous indi­viduals. Rodin gives us the unheroic or pathetic hero. What allies his sculpture with Baudelaire’s sentiments and separates his art of the nude from that of the past is that he does not show us the body involved in stock beauty postures, official acts, productive enterprise or in muscular fashion surmounting tang­ible external obstacles as in past and present day academic sculpture. It is precisely because, by aca­demic standards, his bodies do nothing or have “no content” that they impart such a poetic character today. Rodin made the act of a man walking high sculptural drama. Causality and goals, so fundamental to academic art, were of little importance or concern to him. The act of being fired his wonder. That we live and breathe, instinctively resisting the earth’s pull were sufficient plots for his endless dramas and view of heroism. He created an art that emulated the flux of existence: phenomena rather than fixed states or an eternal intake of breath.

Rosenberg doesn’t specify who should decide rele­vance. But when an artist such as Rodin succeeds in imposing his vision upon us, the decision is made. That so many of his sculptures hold up so strongly certifies their esthetic and emotional durability and recalls Baudelaire’s complete requirement for mod­ernity, that not only should the artist capture the fugitive and contingent in his time, but also the poetical in the historical, the eternal, in the momen­tary.

Albert Elsen is a visiting Professor of Art History at Stanford University. He is the author of “Rodin,” pub­lished by the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with the Rodin exhibition which originated there and which is currently on exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.