David J. Getsy’s new book on Auguste Rodin seeks to address the sculptor’s association with sex, and what that relationship means for his place in modern art. Instead of discussing specific iconic works, Getsy focuses on Rodin’s sculptural practice, arguing that his fame came from his ability to convey a sexual persona through the objects that he created.
Getsy’s thesis essentially states that the characterization of Rodin as a modern “genius” relied on and was consistently maintained through a screen of virility and sexual conquest. He believes that many scholars have dismissed or inadequately investigated this connection, although the two moments in Rodin’s development that he chooses to investigate are considered by most scholars to be the major turning points in the artist’s career.
The first pivotal moment according to Getsy is Rodin’s 1876 trip to Florence to see Michelangelo’s works. Rather than contending with the major work that Rodin completed that year, The Age of Bronze, Getsy instead analyzes a small group of studies made after Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel figures. He closely compares Rodin’s nudes to the Italian master’s originals and notes that Rodin seemed to be “struggling” with Michelangelo’s idiosyncratic (and masculinized) rendering of the female body. Getsy admits that the drawings offer “subtle evidence at best,” and his argument stalls a bit as he reaches for meaning in Rodin’s more feminized renderings. He concludes, however, that Rodin’s reconfiguring of the female figures was a critical early instance of the artist “infusing the tradition of the nude with the desire of the sculptor.”
Getsy’s second critical moment comes in 1900, during the solo exhibition in which Rodin exhibited the never-finished The Gates of Hell for the first and last time in his life. Sparsely populated, lacking many of the figures that later infused its surface, this early version fuels Getsy’s conclusion that “the perpetual incompletion of The Gates was a symptom of the larger strategies of Rodin’s approach to sculpture.”
Getsy quotes other scholars and contemporary commentators, noting their emphasis on Rodin’s touch—the gestural marks and almost “unfinished” character of many key works—concluding that Rodin intended these residual traces of his hand to direct attention to the sculptural process, and by extension, back to the sculptor himself. Getsy then points to contemporary accounts mythologizing Rodin as a wildly sexual person, including titillating, often embellished accounts of his studio teeming with comely models. The enduring images of Rodin, Getsy says, are of his hands, personally and passionately handling and kneading the raw materials that became his masterpieces. That this image belies reality—Rodin relied on assistants who often carved his works in marble or cast them in metal—is no coincidence. Getsy believes that Rodin was not misrepresenting himself but “performing” in a way that enhanced the viewer’s experience. Built into his process, then, was the appearance of spontaneity, and his touch becomes a means to reveal the physical process of art-making, thereby affecting what viewers see when they look at a Rodin figure.
With its narrow focus, Getsy’s book is structured, and reads like, an extended essay. He assumes that readers are already familiar with Rodin’s work and come prepared with textbook accounts of the artist’s career and life already in mind, providing little in the way of biography or background. His is a specialized dialogue conducted with other scholars past and present, an art historical discussion that occasionally causes the book to falter—it can become difficult to distinguish what new arguments Getsy is making and what has been argued and concluded before.
More significantly, despite its strongly worded title, Sex and the Making of Modern Sculpture suffers at times from an overly cautious approach, which reduces some arguments, particularly the significance of the 1876 Michelangelo studies, to rather hesitant suggestions. The second half of the book, however, contains the stronger, more interesting line of thought, and Getsy’s frequent use of primary sources, including gossip from Rodin’s contemporaries, bolsters and adds vigor to his points. The book is generously illustrated, with color and black and white photographs of the artist and his works, as well as particularly wonderful details of The Gates of Hell. Though it’s not a uniformly strong effort, the book is worth reading for its discussion of Rodin’s sculptural practice and its examination of the creative mind behind the statement, “Art is only a kind of love. I know quite well that bashful moralists will stop up their ears. But what! I express in a loud voice what all artists think. Desire! Desire! What a formidable stimulant.”
Rodin: Sex and the Making of Modern Sculpture by David J. Getsy
Yale University Press: 2010
Hardcover, 240 pages, $45.00