I tend to prefer abstract sculpture— however, even in more representative work, there is plenty of abstractness to find and appreciate. Take the Rodin exhibition currently at the Portland Art Museum. Subtitled “The Human Experience,” the exhibition certainly showcases the representational aspects of Auguste Rodin’s masterful bronze works. The 52 bronzes in the show are almost entirely of human forms, and are curated so that the viewer learns about the process by which the sculptor produced the works both in detail and at scale. In re-using aspects of previous works, Rodin allowed particular characteristics of the human form to span across his oeuvre, and the viewer can immediately sense these pieces of humanity— hands, torsos, heads, limbs— extending throughout the gallery, like memories or ghosts of the many models that the artist employed to create these testaments to the human form.
But there are also many abstract qualities hiding within these bronzes. In Rodin’s expression of these bodies, there are the bits that are missing, smoothed over, allowed to flow into each other without interruption, creating a jarring sense of the uncanny. There is a point where the human form meets up with the monstrous.
For example, the hollowed out eyes of many of Rodin’s historical figures. Like the Burghers of Calais, citizens who volunteered to surrender themselves to save their city during the Hundred Years’ War. Within the darkness of the bronze, their missing eyes form a haunting shadow, absorbent of light, a hole within the larger-than-life sculptures. Or, consider the missing faces— as in the sculpture of Aphrodite, or the three Faunesses. That most human quality of the expressive face is removed, and we only have the body, seized in a stasis, frozen in the midst of motion, a split second that both denies the individuality of the human body being represented, and also sets it apart from that cognizing glimpse, when we look into the face of another person and recognize someone like ourselves.
Or there are the missing arms, stretched invisible above the contorted body of Narcisse. Or the extra material, the stone block and water jug of the two caryatids, structural pieces that by displacing the head of the sculpture become their own crowns of the body, cast in the deathless life of bronze. The material, of course, unites all the sculptures in their lack of humanity. Bronze might be described as a warm metal, almost organic in hue. But at the same time, it absorbs light even as it reflects, creating an inverse dynamic in which the edges are blinding and the centers are dark. Cast from this molten alloy, far too heavy to be real people regardless of size, the bronze works are significant in how different they are from flesh. Ultimately, they are always stand-ins, cast replicas of what we find so fascinating about our own bodies.
And this is what I believe that Rodin depicts about humanity— our capacity for the monstrous. In each of these works, there is writ large the denial of humanity, the frontier across which we cease to be human beings, and become objects, raw material, mere things that can be owned, sold, melted down and destroyed. In Rodin’s time, like our own, what is reflected in the bronze is human monstrousness— but make no mistake, this itself is only a reflection. If there is anything monstrous to be found in the human body, it originates in us, and by depicting it in his work, Rodin only works to show us as we are, have always been, and will be.