Before his death in 1917, Auguste Rodin was already widely considered the greatest European sculptor since Michelangelo. Such high praise is what makes the Fairfield University Art Museum’s new exhibition such an exciting addition to campus. Thanks to the generosity of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, this exhibit will be displayed in the Walsh Gallery in the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts until December 13, inviting visitors to marvel at works of genius created by a man interested in “Truth, Form, and Life.”
Rodin lived his early adult years as an artist struggling to create his unique artistic voice during days of poverty. Growing up in Paris, Rodin was denied admission on three separate occasions to the prestigious Ecole des Beux-Arts. The craftsman did not receive his first commission until the age of 40. In his first commision, as a part of his “Gates of Hell” (which was inspired by Dante’s Inferno), Rodin created one of his most recognizable pieces, “The Thinker.”
Rodin’s style is well expressed in his thoughts on “The Thinker,” as described in an overview of the piece from The National Gallery of Art:
“What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his disinterested nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, and legs, with quenched fist and gripping toes.”
Like all good artists, Rodin existed in both a strong tradition with past master sculptures, while pushing the boundaries of what that tradition could express. Stepping into his studio, a time travelling observationalist would not know whether they found themselves in the studio of a Renaissance sculptor, or that of the relatively contemporary Rodin. Italian models were highly sought after by the Parisian artists of Rodin’s day. Their “classical proportions” made them ideal for depicting the mythological and Christian iconography which were in vogue at the time. Rodin, on the contrary, needed “flesh and blood models in the here and now,” as noted by biographer Ruth Butler.
In order to capture the nature of the model, instead of posing, Rodin would tell them to “Be angry, dream, pray, cry, dance,” as quoted from the brochure provided by the exhibit. With the wisdom that comes from years of dedicated craftsmanship the great sculptor noted, “It is when models leave a pose that they most often reveal their beauty to me.” This process was one which allowed him to capture the physicality and individual character of his models in sculpture, which always guaranteed expressive surfaces that reveal a deep truth of human nature.
Besides aesthetic considerations, we study art because great artists exist very closely to the times in which they live. We can learn not only from their genius, but also from their flawed character, how this flawed character was assessed in their time, and how it is then assessed in our time is a source for potential revelation. The passionate Rodin was known to be sexually aggressive towards his models, coercing with the power his popular work gave him at the time. During his time, this was not uncommon. Today, however…
A student with some time to kill, or in need of some inspiration for an assignment, or simply interested in Rodin’s relation to the history of art will find in the Quick Center: a heroic bust of Victor Hugo, multiple experiments on form based off Balzac or a heroically defeated Burgher of Calais handing over the keys to his city. Lesbian lovers in a state of physical affection, a torso which could have been unearthed in an archeological dig of antiquity, the hand of a piano player in motion, or the hand of God in creation.