In 1877 at the Paris Salon, Rodin’s Age of Bronze was considered so lifelike that skeptical artists and viewers alike circulated the defamatory rumor that Rodin had simply submitted a bronze made directly from a cast of his model, and the sculpture was ignominiously removed from the show. After the artist subsequently furnished proof that he had indeed modeled the sculpture by hand, it was displayed again the following year, and the work, originally titled The Vanquished, became Rodin’s breakout triumph.
In Rodin’s retrospective at the Metropolitan Art Museum, The Age of Bronze is the literal and thematic centerpiece of over fifty marbles, bronzes, plasters, and terracottas which collectively demonstrate Rodin’s Shakespearian grasp of the human condition. Displayed in the Gerald Cantor Sculpture Gallery, recently refurbished and re-painted a dark blue specifically to accent the patina of Rodin’s bronzes, this exhibition commemorates both Rodin’s centenary and the Met’s own century-long history of collecting his work.
Loosely arranged both chronologically and thematically, one end of the lengthy corridor-gallery features generally optimistic works, such as a large marble version of The Hand of God, in which we see the Creator’s hand shaping an indeterminate, lifeless human form. It was this sculpture that so emotionally moved Gerald Cantor in 1946, beginning what he called his “magnificent obsession” with the artist. His foundation later gifted many Rodins to the Met.
Many sculptural ensembles portray mythological love. In Cupid and Psyche, Eternal Spring (originally also called Cupid and Psyche), and Pygmalion and Galatea, Rodin depicts each pair in an erotic embrace. But though the subjects are classically inspired, they’re emphatically modern; Rodin audaciously leaves each vignette calculatedly unfinished. Smooth torsos dissolve into rough marble, and the surfaces of his figures seem roughed in like a sketch in three-dimensions, but the effect is that they seem to ripple and pulsate with energy.
Progressing toward the other end of the gallery, the subject matter becomes increasingly dark and weighty, verging on the sublime. We encounter studies for the Burgers of Calais, a moving ensemble depicting doomed French elders walking toward their deaths, each emotionally responding in his own way. Eve, expelled from the Garden of Eden, pathetically attempts to cover her exposed flesh, unnervingly seeming to be painfully aware of the gaze of sympathetic onlookers. Things crescendo with vignettes from The Gates of Hell, for which Rodin sculpted a teaming mass of writhing souls languishing in a Dante-inspired inferno. The Thinker, likely the most recognized and reproduced figure on the Gates, originally dispassionately sat above the fray, stoically contemplating the fate of the damned below.
Rodin at the Met offers a rare chance to see Rodin on paper; an adjacent gallery contains some drawings and watercolors. These reveal a broad stylistic range. The Golden Age is a dead-ringer for an old-master drawing from the Renaissance, a world apart from the wispy, hurriedly sketched-in forms of Ugolino and His Sons. And his Nude figure on Hands and Knees seems to anticipate the reductive figures we might later expect from Matisse.
For me, the most impressive of Rodin’s works are his studies, never intended for display. He seemed to possess an uncanny ability to imbue his sculptures with soul, even if his works were merely limbs or torsos. His dramatic Clenched Left Hand (Study for Hand of Pierre de Wiessant) certainly seems to prove the point, as Rodin argued, that hands can be every bit expressive as the face.
Both Greeks and Romans told the story of Pygmalion, an artist who became so enamored with the figure he was sculpting that the goddess Venus magically granted the figure the gift of life. It’s a subject Rodin himself depicted in a work on view at the Met. But Rodin gave Pygmalion his own aged features and — lest the message not be emphatically clear — chiseled his own name alongside Pygmalion’s on the base. Were any other sculptor to make the audacious comparison with the fabled Greek artisan, whose sculpture literally sprang to life, such a claim could be dismissively ignored as hyperbolic self-aggrandizement. But this is Rodin, and the comparison is spot-on.