A French master

A French master

Different strokes: Auguste Rodin is widely regarded as the first modernist sculptor of the world, writes Giridhar Khasnis

A French master

By the time he died a hundred years ago, Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) was arguably the most famous artist in the world. With his artistic genius, prolific output and enormous influence, he had helped elevate the very concept of public monument by combining supreme realism with pathos. Considered the ‘father of modern sculpture’, he was also probably the first celebrity artist, receiving both eminence and unwelcome notoriety.

Success did not come easily to the French master whose works have been a source of great inspiration to generations of artists around the world. Many of his most notable sculptures were scathingly criticised during his lifetime.

Born to parents of modest means, Rodin grew up in a working-class district of Paris as a poor, unfriended boy. “I was a mediocre student. I was short-sighted, I had trouble with spelling and grammar. I was the silent type, unwilling to speak in class. Pencils and clay were my natural means of expression.”

His attempts to enter the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts failed not once but thrice. He found solace by haunting the galleries of the Louvre, sketching antique statues and developing a prodigious visual memory for works of art. In his youth, he served a long and difficult apprenticeship, earning a living as a craftsman and ornamenter, and producing decorative objects and architectural embellishments.

Character & feeling
In 1864, living in poverty, he created an ambitious sculpture, ‘The Man with the Broken Nose’. It was the portrait of a local workman. Rodin was not put off by the damaged nose of his model; instead he found his head to be majestic and interesting. He invested considerable time (over 18 months), effort and thought in the making of this work, and giving it a classical dignity. He was bitterly disappointed when the piece was rejected for the Salon of 1865 by a jury which thought it was just a fragment.

For many art historians and commentators, Rodin stands out as a unique artist who was more concerned with character and feeling rather than with monumental expression. His genius lay in expressing inner truths of human psyche; his intention was to capture the physical and intellectual force of the human subject — many of his models being ordinary men and women. He seemed to have least regard for traditional vocabulary, decorative patterns and allegorical symbols. All these brought his work into conflict with the then accepted formulas for public monuments.

Although considered the forerunner of modern sculpture, Rodin did not really set out to rebel against the past. He studied the past masters in great detail and with reverence. In 1876, when he travelled to Italy, he was deeply impressed by the work of Michelangelo (1475-1564). The experience also provided a rich foundation for the series of nude male figures that he began to create in the late 1870s. His bronze sculpture ‘Adam’ (1880) shows a full length portrait of a man in deep concentration and experiencing inner anguish; it was directly inspired by two of Michelangelo’s masterpieces.

‘The Thinker’ (1879–1889) and ‘The Kiss’ (1889) are among the most recognised works of Rodin. Interestingly, both these pieces were to be just a part of a monumental portal titled ‘The Gates of Hell’ commissioned by the French government for a new museum of decorative arts. The project was never completed, but became a major source of individual sculptures for Rodin during the last 20 years of the 19th century. ‘The Thinker’ and ‘The Kiss’ were among those which became independent sculptures.

The first cast of ‘The Thinker’ was sold in December 1884 for 4,000 French francs, a high price at the time for a Rodin work. Several versions followed and are now in different museums and public places across the globe. A larger version of the sculpture marks Rodin’s own grave as a lasting symbol of his work. For many, ‘The Thinker’ is the world’s most important, valuable and influential artwork.

‘The Kiss’, on the other hand, is known for its celebration of sexual love. “It must be one of the frankest — and most popular — images of carnal love in the history of art: Rodin’s monumental marble sculpture of two naked lovers fused in passion, known simply as ‘The Kiss’,” writes Alastair Sooke, art critic of The Daily Telegraph. “With sleek and supple bodies, which provide a striking contrast to the roughly chiselled rock on which they sit, Rodin’s sweethearts appear timeless and idealised: a universal representation of sexual infatuation, oblivious to all else.”

Rodin himself was known for his many love affairs and unconstrained interest in the sensual and the erotic. Short, stocky, and bearded, he was sensitive to the criticism and controversy about his works and personal life. Although reputed for his temperamental nature, he preferred to cultivate a silent disposition. As one commentator put it: “Rodin was solitary before he was famous. And fame, when it arrived, made him perhaps more solitary.”

Indian connection
A couple of years before his death, Rodin came across photographs of the 11th century bronze sculpture of Shiva Nataraja in the Madras Museum. He was immediately taken in by the divine form and wrote an admiring essay on the ‘Dance of Shiva’ (in French) which was posthumously published in 1921.

Examining the physical and mystical elements embedded in the ancient Indian sculpture, Rodin waxed eloquently on the form and beauty of the image of Shiva and indeed of the art of Far East itself. “There is no trace of rebellion in this body; one senses that everything is just as it should be... It is a pose often used by artists, but there is nothing common about it — for there is nature in every pose, and such distance! There is, above all, what many people cannot see — the unknown depths, the core of life. There is grace in elegance; beyond grace there is perfection; but this goes farther still… We may call it gentle, but it is powerfully gentle! Words do not suffice…”