San Francisco

Auguste Rodin

California Palace of the Legion of Honor

The Museum of Modern Art and the Legion of Honor co-sponsor this belated tribute to Rodin, which was shown in New York during the summer. San Francisco extends the New York exhibit with the addition of its famous Spreckles Collection, some of which was loaned for the East Coast showing. There are now more than 100 works displayed, and while the extension does increase the range as well as the numbers of the New York exhibition, some omissions are to be noted, most significant of which is the big bronze of “The Burghers of Calais.”

When Rodin died in 1917, aged 77, he was probably the most famous artist of his time. His works were internationally acclaimed; he was honored by artists, connoisseurs and laymen alike. His sculpture had been shown in America for years; the Metropolitan Museum of Art had established a Rodin collection and made the artist an honorary fellow for life. On the West Coast, his greatest single patron, Mrs. Adolph B. Spreckles, was so impressed by his showing at the Panama-Pacific Exposition (San Francisco, 1915) that she pawned her jewels to put together one of the three most important Rodin collections in the world.

One wonders, then, why his work fell into such eclipse during the 1930s and ’40s, when only an occasional nod was made in his direction as the “originator of modern sculpture.” The history of art is full of such vagaries. Whistler and Sargent, both of whom enjoyed great popularity during their lifetime, suffered similar fates. Reaction to extravagant acclaim, and rejection in an effort to break the domination of French art (notable in the ’30s) could have been causative factors.

This revival show points out, in both special pieces and general tone, that Rodin was an artist well ahead of his time. His first major work, “The Age of Bronze,” was termed a fraud when exhibited in 1867, and the artist accused of working from a cast of the live model. This accusation, even if true, would hardly raise an eyebrow in today’s art world, when objects are often used in direct casting. Even more startling are two versions of the armless, headless torso, “Walking Man,” which, while the very antithesis of 19th-century statuary, are very much in the trend of today’s understated sculptures of action poses. Here Rodin stated the simple action of walking as a distinctly dramatic event. It was this ability to grasp the immediate individual action and transpose it into a universal truth that gives the effect of notation to Rodin’s work. He caught the gesture. It was his greatest strength.

Those pieces created for or derived from the unfinished portal, “The Gates of Hell,” ranging from small terra cotta pieces to the celebrated bronzes, “The Kiss,” “The Thinker,” and “The Three Shades,” give some indication of the enormous risks Rodin was willing to take in his concern with assemblage. Each work is actually an individual notation. He often left work unfinished, but every piece of this series is completed, although their assemblage is sometimes unresolved.

One of the best known of this group, “The Three Shades,” was originally designed to top “The Gates of Hell.” The only known cast of it now stands by the pool in front of the Legion of Honor as a memorial to San Francisco’s Raphael Weill. One of several assemblages in which a detail or a figure is duplicated, it is a symphonic arrangement of the same figure, repeated three times, set at different angles. The effect is one of inconsolable grief.

Rodin’s first major public commission, the wonderfully plastic “Burghers of Calais,” brings to mind his persistent struggle to preserve the artist’s individuality. He would not even permit his plaster-caster to tamper with the surface of the cast, and while he often carried this fight to extremes, he set the goal finally reached by contemporary sculptors, who do their own casting. The Legion has substituted its own small version (Spreckles Collection) of this famous group of martyrs for the Philadelphia bronze.

While much of Rodin’s larger work was inspired by Michelangelo, this show points up that his most important works were not dominated by that influence. He was prophet to 20th-century sculptors, whose understatement, dramatic gesture, and even whose use of mixed media he anticipated.

E. M. Polley