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Rodin: A Man of Multiplicity and Modernity

Rodin: A Man of Multiplicity and Modernity

An image depicting "The Three Shades" by Auguste Rodin

By Sam Scott
This article was intended to appear in Fall 2020 Cantor magazine.

It is no exaggeration to say Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917) forever changed sculpture, says Patrick R. Crowley, the Cantor’s associate curator of European art.

In an era when painting enjoyed unrivaled primacy, sculpture in the 19th century was deemed a lesser medium. Rodin, Crowley says, shook the status quo.

It was “a dead medium of lifeless, inert material,” Crowley notes, adding that “sculpture in Rodin’s nimble hands comes alive, breaking free from the plinths that traditionally separated sculpted figures in stone or marble from their earthbound beholders in flesh and blood.”

Previously on faculty at the University of Chicago, Crowley recently authored a learning guide titled Recasting Rodin, which provided source material for these lesser-known insights about the sculptor and his art.

Hands On

Rodin’s virtuosity had clear roots in perspiration, as well as inspiration. In his studio, he kept numerous casts of disembodied plaster hands in drawers, ever at the ready to help him resolve the complex compositional problems he faced in his larger ensembles. His genius defied belief. In 1877, the stunning vitality of his breakout sculpture, The Age of Bronze—represented in multiple versions at the Cantor—fueled accusations he had cast the life-size nude directly from the model’s body. For Rodin, the charge of “life casting” was a slander that reduced his role as sculptor to a “merely mechanical operation.” In angry reply, he summoned testimonials from other artists who confirmed having seen him shape the work with his own hands. The controversy ultimately rebounded to his benefit, burnishing his reputation.

Hands Off

At the heart of Rodin’s resounding modernity in his bronze works is an ancient technique: lost-wax casting. The process began with Rodin sculpting a clay model, which skilled artisans then used to make a hollow mold to be filled by liquid bronze. In literal terms, it was these anonymous fabricators who created what we often regard as the finished original. The technique compels us to question what constitutes an original work, Crowley reflects. “If by ‘original,’ we mean a sculpture that bears the direct traces of the artist’s finishing touches in chiseled marble or chased bronze, then virtually none of the works we know by Rodin could be considered as such,” he says. Indeed, Rodin, like other sculptors of his day, reportedly never stepped in a foundry himself. In the case of The Gates of Hell, a masterpiece he toiled on for decades and one of the Cantor’s most famed objects, he died before ever seeing the finished work.

Productive In Death

Rodin’s death further muddles the idea of what makes an original. Upon the artist’s passing, control of his estate passed to the French government and the Musée Rodin in Paris, which controls rights to create certified originals. Many of the world’s great Rodin collections—the Cantor’s included—largely comprise such “original copies,” created after the artist’s death in 1917. The arrangement allows up to 12 official casts of each bronze. Some sculptures, such as The Thinker, have already reached their maximum number. Others can still be recast, a fact that made headlines last summer as the Musée Rodin announced plans to increase production, following the financial crush caused by COVID-19 and felt by many museums globally. “Rodin is by no means the first or the only artist to be caught up in such a dense thicket of legal and even philosophical questions about what makes an original,” Crowley says, “but he is probably the best known and most complex.”

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