The new Musée Rodin book does an excellent job of framing Rodin’s multi-faceted legacy. It covers the artist’s beginnings, historical contexts, studio practice, and artistic achievements, including the surprising fact that Rodin failed the École des Beaux-Arts sculpture admissions test three times and largely developed his sculpture practice on his own. Due to space limitations, my review will address three facets not fully fleshed out in this well-illustrated volume: why Camille Claudel’s role is still under-explored; how Rodin enlarged the platform for sculpture and public art as he ushered in subjects lacking conventional beauty and frontal male nudity; and how his erotic art challenged the sexual taboos of his era (and even our own).
Rodin, born in 1840, sculpted heads that brought him recognition by 1880. The Man with a Broken Nose has a prominent physical flaw. A damaged clay version was rejected by the Salon in 1865; a marble version executed by Léon Fourquet was shown at the Salon of 1875. This demonstrates Rodin’s practice of using assistants, some with superior training, and his solid belief in his vision as an artist.
Camille Claudel was born in 1864 and came into Rodin’s life in 1882 while she was still a student at the Académie Colarossi. She was 18 and Rodin was 42. She became Rodin’s muse, art assistant, and lover. Poet Paul Claudel described his sister as having “magnificent eyes of a dark blue rarely encountered anywhere other than in novels,” the “terrible forcefulness of her character,” and a “fierce talent for mockery” (pages 55-56). By 1886, Rodin’s passionate letters to Camille poured forth his anguish and ardor: “Oh divine beauty, oh flower who speaks and who loves, intelligent flower, my darling. My dearest, down on both knees I embrace your fair body. R.” (p.57). The chapter devoted to Camille Claudel develops her intellectual curiosity and shows a few works in bronze and marble, including Vertumne et Pomone, 1905, marble (begun in 1886), an anguished couple in a complex pose. The 1905 bronze was titled Abandon. The Wave and Gossips, two table-sized onyx and bronze works (1897 – 1902), are tableaus of women shrews; a bronze work from this period shows the young artist on her knees begging as Rodin’s aged mistress Rose pulls him away. Claudel was unable to establish herself as a sculptor, in part, because people accused her of assimilating Rodin’s style when the opposite may have been the case. These poignant sculptures show a mastery of craft that make me wonder whether Claudel or one of her “enemies” destroyed her works as she reportedly went mad. Claudel spent 1913 until her death in 1943 in an asylum.
This book does not clarify which works Claudel created in Rodin’s studio between 1882 – 1894 as Rodin worked on The Gates of Hell, his first major commission from the French government which was cast in bronze only after his death. The Gates features Rodin’s famous The Thinker as well as Fugit Amor and a range of sensuous, tortured figures that depart dramatically from Rodin’s earlier heads and from The Thinker in composition, theme, and flow. This book does not clarify the degree to which Claudel inspired, researched, and/or executed the supple, entangled figures in The Gates of Hell, which are unlike another important work of the same period, The Burgers of Calais,1885-1895. This larger-than-life-sized grouping commemorates six heroic leaders who offered to sacrifice themselves to the British in 1347 in exchange for sparing the lives of the people of Calais.
Platform for Monumental Public Art and Unconventional Subjects:
Some chapters discuss how Rodin and Claudel carried forward the example of Donatello to create sculpture featuring decrepit aging women and unconventional figures. Rodin’s nude Balzac sculptures, one showing the subject masturbating and another with a triangular symbol extending between his spread legs from his genitals to his feet, used to be at the Rodin Museum, but are barely noted on the Museum’s website and in the book. According to Wikipedia, “Each sketch evolved and transformed into a different representation of the novelist varying from phallic nudes to heavily clothed and hidden figures.” The final monumental public sculpture, completed in seven years instead of the contracted eighteen months, shows Balzac as a nine-foot-tall form cloaked in his writer’s robe. Viewers at the Salon of 1898 ridiculed this powerful abstract work, and it was rejected by the Société des Gens de Lettres that commissioned it. Rodin showed his plaster Balzac and a stripped-down plaster version of The Gates of Hell two years later in a solo show he organized to coincide with the Universal Exposition of 1900. Rodin found investors for a specially-built white pavilion; inside were 60 sculptures (most plaster), 128 drawings, and 71 photographs. Rodin thrived at promoting himself despite the irony that two monumental commissions he exhibited were not yet in the public domain. Balzac is a strong symbol for manhood, artistry that stands above the crowd, and for the artist himself. Rodin identified with the abstract form he labored over for seven years.
The Balzac nudes are curiously not shown or discussed much in this book. Instead, the book’s cover art and contents display Rodin’s erotic portraits of women. Danaïd, the cover art, is the upside down head and shoulders of a marble sculpture that is curiously undated in the book. According to the Rodin Museum website, the work (in plaster?) was completed in 1889 and the marble version was carved by Jean Escoula in 1890. The Museum website quotes Rilke’s view of the pose: “Exhausted, she rests her head ‘like a huge sob’ on her arm, while her outspread ‘liquid’ hair merges with the water from her overturned vase.” Danaïd ‘s submissive pose offering her nubile bare neck, shoulders, back, and buttocks to viewers is based on the myth that the daughters of Danaos “were made to fill up a bottomless barrel with water in punishment for killing their husbands on their wedding night” (Rodin Museum website). This myth projects Rodin’s tortured view of Camille Claudel as an ill-fated temptress. She ushered in his erotic period. Rodin and/or his assistants sculpted similar poses, such as one titled Sin, that express a palpable sexual charge. In addition to sculpture, Rodin left “an impressive corpus of drawings of nudes that glorified the female body…” (p. 186), especially toward the end of his life. Three undated works show women masturbating and climaxing (pp. 186-7). Rodin protected this work, which was criticized for being licentious. In the chapter on “Sources of Inspiration,” Veronique Mattiussi points out that Rodin’s works like Eternal Idol, 1889 and Iris, Messenger of the Gods, 1895 are “a clear allegory of Rodin’s abiding admiration for female genitalia” (p. 182). Rodin’s entire erotic output has rarely, if ever, been seen.
Authors Raphaël Masson and Véronique Mattiussi write alternate chapters. Masson, former curator at the Musée Rodin and head of its library archives, is chief heritage curator at the Château de Versailles. Mattiussi is an archivist at the museum, responsible for manuscripts.
Rodin’s body of work is notable for its abstract, erotic and monumental qualities, and this book, though not definitive, adds substance to the field. I hope that the Rodin Museum has, somewhere, a catalog of Rodin’s complete work to inform scholars about each work’s genesis, two and three-dimensional studies, and castings.
Another new Rodin book that I could not secure by press time is You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett. (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016) Rilke, whose eminence in literature now equals Rodin’s in art, assisted Rodin during his rise to fame. Rilke’s role is poorly documented in the Musée Rodin book. One telling quote (with no footnote or source) is Rilke’s insight into Rodin’s Balzac: “It was creativity itself that was displayed in Balzac’s form – haughty creativity with its pride, headlines, intoxication” (p. 102).