Exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery, London
Auguste Rodin is best known for his solid sculptures, The Kiss, The Thinker and The Burghers of Calais. None of his most famous works would suggest a technique that was capable of catching the lightness and ephemerality of dance.
However, Rodin was a superb and very prolific draughtsman. Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement assembles maquettes and drawings in London for the first time. Some of his plaster casts were cast in bronze long after his death and his preparatory drawings were not intended for display as works of art in themselves. Overall, Rodin created thousands of busts, figures and sculptural fragments over more than five decades and painted in oils and in watercolours with 7,000 of his drawings and prints surviving. It was the 56 portraits that he created between 1877 and his death in 1917 that were to become most popular during his lifetime.
Rodin was largely an autodidact having been born into poverty to a working class Parisian family in 1840. Often rejected by art schools and salons alike, he honed much of his technique away from Paris in commercial establishments, producing decorative objects and architectural embellishments, serving in the national guard during the Franco-Prussian war and then briefly entering a Catholic order following the death of his sister.
His first attempt at submitting a work for exhibition was in 1864. The Man with the Broken Nose depicted an elderly porter whose head was broken off at the neck, nose flattened and crooked and which had the back of the head missing, it having fallen off the clay model in an accident. Not surprisingly, it was rejected. He amassed sculptures but could not afford castings for all although he did display some works at salons.
In 1875, he spent two months in Italy studying Donatello and Michelangelo. On his return to Belgium, he began work on The Age of Bronze, a life-size male figure that brought him attention but led to accusations of surmoulage – taking a cast from a living model. Rodin demanded an inquiry and was eventually exonerated by a committee of sculptors but the piece nevertheless divided the critics, some of whom likened it to “a statue of a sleepwalker” and “an astonishingly accurate copy of a low type.” It was to be an accusation that would dog him until his latter years of wealth and fame, and which prompted him to work in smaller than life scales .
In 1877, he returned to Paris to find his mother dead and his father blind and senile. He managed to scrape a living collaborating with established sculptors on public commissions and continued to submit pieces unsuccessfully to competitions. In 1880, an ex-employer, now art director of the Sèvres national porcelain factory, offered Rodin a part-time position as a designer which he accepted, designing vases and table ornaments that became very popular.
On the back of this modest success, he began to be invited to Paris salons, meeting Edmund Turquet, the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Fine Arts. By 1880, Turquet helped him to win a commission to create a portal for a planned museum of decorative arts and also purchased The Age of Bronze for the state for the price that it cost Rodin to have it cast in bronze. Rodin duly dedicated much of the next four decades to an elaborate version of The Gates of Hell which became an unfinished portal for a museum that was never built. However, many of the portal’s figures became independent sculptures, including The Thinker and The Kiss. It also provided him with a free studio, enabling him to cease working at the porcelain factory and generate sufficient income from private commissions.
In 1889, the Paris Salon invited Rodin to be a judge on its artistic jury and he began to be sought out by students as his reputation grew. He was commissioned to create a monument to Victor Hugo , although the 1897 plaster model was not cast in bronze until 1964.
By 1900, Rodin’s reputation was assured and he began to receive requests to make busts of prominent people internationally while his assistants produced duplicates of his other works. Several of his works were exhibited in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair although, the nudes were hidden behind drapes and required special permission for viewers to see them. Financier Charles Yerkes, funder of much of the early London underground, was possibly the first American to own a Rodin sculpture, although not the last by any means. Rodin visited England in 1881 and eventually donated a significant selection of his works to the nation, shortly before his death.
Latterly, Rodin became interested in producing small dance studies and erotic drawings. He met Isadora Duncan in 1900, failing to seduce her, although he did sketch studies of her and her students. In July 1906, he encountered dancers from the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and produced many drawings as a consequence.
In the little more than a decade that he had left to live, Rodin continued to indulge in sketching acrobats and dancers from life. This exhibition adds early photographs and newspaper reproductions of the dancers whom he sketched and sculpted. the line between erotica and art always blurred. Genitals are prominent, often being centred in the images which Rodin rotated and manipulated. He produced cut outs and focused on particular shapes that fascinated him. The acrobats and dancers whom he used as models were often capable of hyper-extension, and some of the drawings and maquettes are depicted in anatomically impossible positions. The arm cast of one of the Cambodian dancers, pictured alongside promotional photographs and postcards, seems ridiculously small and reproduce the finger position would occasion sprains and fractures. One small bronze tucked in a corner is lit so beautifully that it is shadow on the wall that captivates – an umbra that sums up the ephemerality of dance and the distance in time between the woman who posed for it and the viewer.
At first glance, his figures seem lumpen and crude but most have distinctive faces and expressions that make them identifiable as being of the models who posed for them. They are undeniably human and capture the essence of dance by distorting and inflating it.
At a time when photography and film were their infancy, all ways of embalming dance in amber seemed possible and Rodin was at the avant guard. Oddly, it is in the most traditional of means that Rodin succeeds most – a drawing. Almost a throwaway in the context of the exhibition, there is a lone sketch of a Spanish dancer. Rodin was famed for sketching rapidly without looking at the paper. Here is a solid woman with a rapt face and fluid arms surrounded by flailing skirts. Here is the essence of movement captured in art. Pure duende.
Not bad for a sculptor!
Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement is at the Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, The Strand, London to January 22, 2017. For details visit www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery.