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Rodin: In His Own Words

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Rodin: In His Own Words

At the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham August 27 - December 10, 2006

by Regina Hackett

Time hasn't been kind to Auguste Rodin, who was born in France in 1840 and died there 77 years later, much honored as the father of modern sculpture. Starting soon after his death but gaining real momentum in the second half of the 20th Century, Rodin's light began to dim. Some say his best work is bombastic and his worst corny. They want to nominate Degas as modernist sculpture's big daddy, but the honor is still Rodin's in a walk.

Like Rodin, Degas was interested in the range of a figure's possible motions ("Movement consoles me," Degas famously said), but Rodin took the exploration further and added the dimension of character. As he said, "I have always endeavored to express the inner feelings by the mobility of the muscles." For him, motion is the key to meaning. How we move or fail to move is who we are. Both artists rejected the Neo-Classicism and sentimental Naturalism of the French Academy. Degas was cool, however, and Rodin hot. Attempting less in sculpture, Degas failed less, but neither did he ever rise to Rodin's magisterial heights. Degas never challenged Rodin's right to the heights. No one would have been more startled than Degas to learn he'd one day be positioned to replace his friend. For Degas, painting was primary, while sculpture was a hobby and a tool. He used clay to sketch in volume the figures that appeared in his canvases. He cast in bronze only one sculpture in his lifetime -- Little Dancer -- and some dispute that he cast even that. He didn't bother to create armatures for the rest, which means of the 150 clay figures he left in this studio after his death, only 70 could be cast.

At its best, Rodin's sculpture has the depth and range of a great and vital tragedy. That's why it's nothing short of tragic that he's best known for his weakest work: The Kiss, sentimental as a Hallmark card; and The Thinker, which could be subtitled, Nude Philosopher on Steroids. Kissing and thinking Rodin-style are set ups for jokes, and they've been set up a lot, encasing the artist in clichés of his own making. That's why it's important to see a range of his production in its own context, letting light play across bronze surfaces so fierce and lovely they dazzle afresh, every time you see them.

"Rodin: In His Own Words" will be at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art in Bellingham Aug. 27 to Dec. 10, 2006. Thanks to the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, WA, Rodin isn't hard to find in the Northwest. Maryhill has a fine selection of Rodin's sculptures and a rare collection of his watercolors. But "Rodin: In His Own Words" comes from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, the largest private collection of Rodin's work in the world, and the 30 sculptures drawn from it are among the Cantor's finest. To see Rodin in greater depth, you have to go to the Musée Rodin in Paris.

In securing the Rodins, the Whatcom had an advantage over the Seattle Art Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum: The Cantor Foundation sought venues that were comparatively small, where, said Whatcom Museum director Tom Livesay, the show would have a "more direct community impact." Why a smaller museum has more impact than a larger one is a mystery, but the end result is that the Whatcom scored an important show.

Justifying the exhibit's title, wall labels will liberally quote from Rodin's letters and proclamations. It's a nice idea, but in Rodin's case, he'd be better served by quotes from his secretary, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Few artists have great poets as press agents, and Rilke didn't keep the job for more than a couple of years. Even so, the most perceptive things ever written about Rodin come from Rilke, 35 years the sculptor's junior and just getting started on his own work when he was pulled into Rodin's orbit. After watching Rodin work, Rilke wrote, "Works of art are indeed always products of having been in danger, of having gone to the very end in an experience, to where man can go no further."

Rodin: Spirit of War
Auguste Rodin, Spirit of War

Rodin: The Thinker
Auguste Rodin, The Thinker

Rodin: Head of Shade
Auguste Rodin, Head of Shade

Rodin's figures were so life-like, many thought they were plaster casts. To disabuse them of the idea, he made Walking Man, (1880), with a stride nobody could equal. Headless and armless with no pedestal save for a fluid base raising the feet off the ground. Walking Man appears to rise on the triangular thrust of legs and pelvis. Gouges and bumps track the violence of the artist's handling of the clay. Rodin once said, "The body is a temple that marches." Rilke wrote that Walking Man loped along "as if all the distance of the world were ahead of him, partitioning the world with his stride."

Rodin's studies for the uncompleted monument to Honore de Balzac count as among the most vigorous sculptures ever made. Head of Iris has a mouth that's a scar and eyes that are blind gouges. Art historian Peter Selz said that the back fell off of Man with a Broken Nose during the casting. Rodin liked it and left it that way. Without Walking Man and The Burgers of Calais to react to, would Giacometti have been able to make his figures at all? I doubt it.

Rodin repeated himself, went too far, became sentimental and wasn't exactly swell to his studio assistants. Brancusi lasted less than three months, staying, "Nothing grows under big trees." Too bad Camille Claudel didn't draw the same conclusion. Instead, she stayed for years and became Rodin's lover. He used her and her work before showing her the door. Ever after, when she made her own sculpture, critics said it looked like his. The reverse was true. She never recovered, and he seems to have done an excellent job of pretending not to notice.

Appreciating him as a person isn't essential, but appreciating what he made is crucial to understanding where we are and where we are going. He's both landmark and guide. Ignoring him is just not possible.

Regina Hackett is the art critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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