Classic Essays

Auguste Rodin: Premier Sculptor

by Jeff Hilson

SCULPTURE, AS AN ART form, is not native to Northwest Europe. Northern Europeans excel in painting, graphics, drawing, music, and dance: aesthetic forms more individualistic than the grandiose formalism of monumental sculpture. Sculptural development needed large metropolitan areas, rich patrons, and masses of artisans. Thus, sculpture came to us through the Classical corridor of Egypt, Crete, Greece, and finally the Roman copies that diffused into Northern Europe.

There is an intangible, awe-inspiring something in a sculptured life-size or hyper-life-size figure. It is as if the very immobility of the piece, its timeless permanence, its very mass, simultaneously suggests both the stillness of death and the triumph of human expression over the leveling forces of the ages. The Greek Medusa myth has some of this flavor. So does the Roman story of Pygmalion, who fashioned a female statue of ivory so lifelike that he became obsessed with its beauty and petitioned Venus to give life to his creation so he could wed it. We can see the same thing in Siegfried’s reaction when he contemplates the statuesque tranquility of the bewitched Brunhild in the ring of Odin’s fire.

That aspect of sculpture is exactly why it is not intrinsically suited as a medium for depicting commonplace subject matter. Whereas pigment on canvas is well suited to portray, say, Brueghel’s peasants, to sculpt the same scene in bronze or stone would add a superhuman aspect not at all fitting. But conversely, sculpture is vitally necessary to depict the divine profile of Ramses II, whose visage stoically guards the Nile, standing 67 feet high and 14 feet from ear to ear, carved from a single block of sandstone.

Rodin, “The Kiss,” 1898, inspired by the story of Paolo and Francesca, the ill-fated lovers in the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno

Ever since Sargon of Akkad, sculpture has been the province of kings and creatures divine. And that is exactly why Rodin was important in the history of sculpture: it was largely through him that the powerful art form was harnessed to express the majesty of noble, individual struggle so fundamental to the ethos of Northern Europeans.

Francois Auguste Rene Rodin was born in the slums and clutter of Paris’ Left Bank on November 12, 1840. The Left Bank has traditionally been the center of Parisian–and, thus, European–university and artistic life. Today, just as in Rodin’s time, this area is choked with bookstores, tearooms, and student quarters. But, more importantly for Rodin’s formative years, the Left Bank is also filled with sculpture. Stonework abounds, from the Gothic gargoyles of Notre Dame to the twisting stone forms that deck the church of Montagne Sainte-Genevieve and the shrines of Sainte-Genevieve and Saint-Severin.

Jean-Baptiste Rodin, Auguste’s father, was a hardworking, vigorous, minor official from rural Normandy. Auguste’s mother, Marie Cheffer, was a peasant from the Lorraine, on the French-German border, Cheffer being the French version of the German Schaefer (and the English Shepherd).

After several unsuccessful years in a Catholic normal school, Auguste dropped out at 13, a practice not uncommon then. He was later to write, concerning school, “I always felt I was being held prisoner.”

Rodin’s acute nearsightedness may have shaped his career. Isadora Duncan wrote of him, “His faulty eyesight may also have influenced his choice of the field of sculpture, in which he would work with the tactile, the plastic, the near at hand.”

In the 19th century, the French art schools were divided into the Petite Ecole, or vocational school for artisans, and the Grande Ecole, or “high” art school teaching painting, graphics, and drawing. At 14 Rodin entered the Petite Ecole to learn the art of making the decorative figurines and architectural bas reliefs so popular in that era.

Rodin was thus set in the track to become a minor craftsman when he came under the influence of Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. Boisbaudran, one of Rodin’s teachers at the Petite Ecole, was a young and vigorous artist in his own right, who had just completed the revolutionary book, Training of Graphic Memory and the Formation of an Artist. What was so innovative about his theory was that, instead of using the standard method of sketching a subject from life, Boisbaudran taught sketching from memory. The memory method forced the student to observe the subject minutely first, instead of simply copying what was seen. It also forced him to draw a “concept”–to portray all facets of the subject instead of just rendering surface characteristics. This intensity of observation was new to French artistic theory, then dominated by staid formalism. Rodin filled reams using the new technique of sketching during his studies in the Louvre, the print room of the Bibliotheque Imperial, and in I the evenings, at the free nude drawing course at the Gobelin tapestry works. Rodin also attended lectures on numerous topics at the College de France. He especially enjoyed the literature of his contemporary Victor Hugo, Dante, and Vergil and Homer.

Rodin became proficient in the ornamental plastering crafts, and he excelled in all forms of serious sculpturing. He was encouraged to apply for a place at the Grande Ecole, but was thrice rejected. The professors judged his work to be lacking in elegance. After these rejections Rodin was forced to devote his energies to the production of the bric-a-brac popular in 19th-century France. But through this menial toil he gained more skill, dexterity, and determination.

Rodin, “Man with a Broken Nose,” 1864

In 1864, when Rodin was 24, he produced his first serious head, The Man with the Broken Nose. He was later to write, “It determined all my future work . . .” The bust’s subject was not a glorified personage, but a common odd-job man called Bibi, who”. . . had life sculptured on his face. He belonged to a fine race, no matter if he was brutalized.”

Rodin based his work on the coupling of intellect and observation, using the medium of grandeur to capture the commonplace. He summarized his artistic philosophy by writing in reference to the Bibi sculpture: “If the artist only reproduces superficial features as photography does, if he copies the lineaments of face exactly, without reference to character, he deserves no admiration. The resemblance which he ought to obtain is that of the soul; that alone matters; it is that which the sculptor or painter should seek beneath the mask of features.”

It should be noted that this is a very dangerous aesthetic philosophy: the notion of “interpreting the soul” of the subject can lead the undisciplined artist into a veritable quagmire of subjective, trendy results. In fact, under the guise of “interpretative realism,” sculpture specifically and the art world in general degenerated into just such a mess after the tum of the century.

Unfortunately, not even Rodin’s work was immune to this downhill slide into the trivial and the debased.

After The Man with the Broken Nose, Rodin worked for more than a decade in Brussels, eventually going into the ornament business for himself. It was there, in 1876–77, that he executed his first major freestanding piece, The Age of Bronze. In preparation for the work, he hired a subject, Private Auguste Neyt, stationed in the Brussels garrison, to pose for studies. He worked for over a year to catch the essence of an excellently proportioned man in three-dimensional completeness. There is no evidence that Rodin possessed any more racial consciousness than his contemporaries did, but in The Age of Bronze he captured the spirit of Aryan man.

It is interesting to trace the series of titles Rodin gave to this sculpture, because it shows his cast of mind in the creation of the work. His first choice was Primitive Man, but, according to his later notes, this title was too simplistic to express the transcendental feelings he wished to convey. Second he chose The Man Who Awakens to Nature, in which he attempted to signify the irrepressible bond man has with the creative force of life, a force that transcends individuality yet is immanent in each conception.

Rodin, “The Age of Bronze,” 1876–77, detail

Finally Rodin settled on The Age of Bronze as a permanent title, because he felt that it was during the Bronze Age (3,000–1,000 B.C. for most of Europe) that man first cast off primitive helplessness and attempted to direct the forces of his existence through the use of tools and metal.

Today The Age of Bronze is one of the most famous pieces in the Rodin Museum, in Paris, but when it was first exhibited in 1877 it was the object of much negative criticism. The exquisitely proportioned body pitches forward, and a dramatic right hand clutches the forehead. Dreamy, otherworldly eyes are closed and angled toward the Cosmos, caught at the exact point when the soul awakens to encompass its surroundings. The Age of Bronze is the sculpted metaphor of Nietzsche’s Superman, man ready to strive toward his destiny with purpose and energy.

National Vanguard, no. 87, June 1982, 19-20. First published online by Counter-Currents Publishing.

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