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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

The Making of Rodin

Auguste Rodin, The Kiss, 1901-04, Tate Modern London

Tate Modern - London

18 May - 21 Nov 2021

Tate Modern showcases an exhibition about Auguste Rodin as a creator, artist and influencer on Modern and Contemporary art. Rodin, as an artist, broke the rules of classical sculpture to create an image of the human body that mirrored the ruptures, complexities and uncertainties of the modern age.

Born in the working-class district of Mouffetard in Paris, the son of a Police inspector, he failed the entrance exam for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts three times, and he worked as a studio assistant for many years.

He finally grabbed the attention at the Paris Salon in 1877 with his male nude, The Age of Bronze, a bronze sculpture of a young Belgian soldier called Auguste Neyt.

Auguste Rodin, The Age of Bronze,1877, Musée Rodin, Paris

He modelled the figure in clay working by close observation and examining the subject from all angles with an incredible realism.

Most of Rodin’s work in Bronze were “sand cast”, a technique in which the plaster model was cut into sections and each part was pressure into a mixture of clay and silica sand, creating a negative imprint.

Molten bronze was poured in this imprint and the bronze pieces were then reassembled.

The Age of Bronze was so realistic that Rodin was accused of having made the cast directly from the subject’s body instead of sculpturing the figure by hand.

To prove doubters wrong, the artist had photographs taken of the sitter and work, emphasising the subtle anatomical differences.

The accusation had a major impact on Rodin.

This was the turning point in which he broke with the conventions of classical sculpture and idealised beauty to create a new image of the human bodies modelled with naturalism, and his sculptures celebrate individual character and physicality.

In the Central Gallery of the exhibition the curators decided to recreate the major exhibition that Rodin staged in a specially constructed Pavilion at the Place de l’Alma designed and built for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900.

View of Rodin’s studio 1904–5. Photo by Jacques-Ernest Bulloz, Musée Rodin
The Central Gallery of the exhibition, Tate Modern, London

The venue hosted Rodin’s first solo exhibition created with the idea to walk through the artist’s studio.

This idea was reinforced by Rodin’s decision to exhibit plaster versions of his work, rather than the marble or bronze casts that he was best known for.

The exhibition turned Rodin into an international star.

Casts were commonly considered a transitional stage between clay modelling and bronzes but they played a central role in the development of his new aesthetic.

Questioning the conventions of classical sculpture and highly influenced by the deliberately incomplete Michelangelo’s four prisoners, he believed that the process had to be as significant as the finished form.

Pristine surfaces were gouged with fingerprints and nail marks. Traces of modulation, including seam lines were left clearly visible. He also experimented with the proportions of his figure’s bodies, distorting the length and scale of their limbs.

During the time that he worked as a studio assistant, he learnt how to get the most out of a single sculpture, casting multiple copies and reworking each one. This became an ongoing feature of Rodin’s work and set him apart from his contemporaries.

Despite taking centre stage in Rodin’s own exhibition, the plaster casts were not recognised as being as important as the work in more traditional material until well into the twentieth century.

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker 1903
Auguste Rodin, The Monument of Honoré de Balzac, 1898

In the Central Gallery we can see several versions of the cast of his more famous works as The Thinker, part of a large commission begun in 1880 for a doorway surround called The Gates of Hell and base on The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, symbolising human creativity.

There are also several cast versions of the monument commemorating the French writer Honoré de Balzac, commissioned in 1891 by the Society of Writers under the presidency of Emile Zola, and characterized by long loose robe that modelled his body.

Auguste Rodin, Study movement known as Dance Movement A, G, Musée Rodin, Paris
Auguste Rodin, drawings, Musée Rodin, Paris

In the room are showed as well small sculptures and drawings that were used by Rodin to study movement and the internal dynamics of the Body. The approach to drawing and sculpture was remarkably similar with the creation of several copies that could generate new works.

The next room is mainly devoted to his relationship with his female models. We can find the Japanese Ohta Hisa (Hanako) an actress and dancer who was portraited more than 50 times by Rodin who was fascinated by her stage persona. Rodin focused only on her face, an allusion perhaps to the mask used in Japanese theatre.

Auguste Rodin, Hanako, Musée Rodin, Paris

Auguste Rodin, Hélène Von Nostitz, Musée Rodin, Paris

He portraited several times the aristocrat, writer and pianist Hélène Von Nostitz, an admirer of Rodin’s works who commissioned to him several family portraits busts.

The Mask of Camille Claudel, one of the first portraits Rodin executed of his young pupil and mistress, shows the scar-like marks left by the seam lines of the different pieces of the mould. The mask aesthetic, more than that of a head or bust, permits this focus on facial features, without the effects of hair or chest. The wide-open eyes and blank gaze however betray a feeling of distress that the addition of the colossal hand only accentuates.

Auguste Rodin, Mask of Camille Claudel and left hand of Pierre de Wissant, 1895, Musée Rodin, Paris
Auguste Rodin Abattis, hands, 1890-1900 Musée Rodin, Paris

The hand was borrowed from Pierre de Wissant, one of The Burghers of Calais.

Small hands filled Rodin’s drawer and he liked to call them “abattis” (giblets). He reworked these casts, experiment with their proportions and when they broke, he put the parts together in changing configurations.

In a small room illuminated by the Tate Modern’s windows is showed one of his most famous works: The Burghers of Calais.

Auguste Rodin, Monument des Bourgeois de Calais 1889 Musée Rodin, Paris

During the Hundred Years' War, when Calais, a French port on the English Channel, surrendered to the English after an eleven-month siege, King Edward III of England agreed to spare the townspeople if six of the leaders surrendered to him with ropes around their necks, ready to be executed. Eustache de Saint-Pierre and five fellow citizens volunteered for the task but they were ultimately spared. The burghers were first modelled unclothed. Fabric tunics were dipped in plaster and draped over the nude sculptures to allow the withered outline of the bodies to be seen clearly beneath the garments. This is a collective sacrifice, emphasising the men’s vulnerability and hopelessness as they walked towards their death.

Auguste Rodin, Monument des Bourgeois de Calais, detail
Auguste Rodin, Monument des Bourgeois de Calais, detail

A bronze cast of the Burghers stands in Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the house of Parliament in Westminster.

Auguste Rodin, Burghers of Calais, Victoria Tower Gardens, 1911, London

Rodin avidly collected Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Far Eastern artworks. From 1895 he is shown to be “appropriating” some of the terracotta artefacts, combining them with plaster figures.

Rodin said: "Antiquity is for me supreme beauty: it is the initiation to the infinite splendour of things eternal; it is the transfiguration of the past into a living eternity”. The small plaster figures added in some artefacts were described by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke as “floral souls”.

Auguste Rodin, composition, Musée Rodin, Paris

Rodin’s use of existing object prefigures modernist strategies such as cubist collages, readymades and surrealist objects.

In this exhibition “The Making of Rodin”, we can see the process of the artist in dismantled and reassembled existing sculptures in endless combination. By casting different parts of figures separately, he could alter the overall composition without having to remake the whole sculpture. Each fragment could exist both individually and as a part of a greater whole.

Whereas Rodin's art inspires subsequent generations, and the acute vision of contemporary masters illuminates our understanding of the sculptor, it is chiefly his trailblazing approach to the creative process that makes him the "father of modern sculpture."

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