High Museum’s Rodin sculpture gets some company

‘Rodin in the United States’ show features 45 sculptures plus works on paper.

Since 1995 he has stood outside the High Museum on Peachtree Street, a dark bronze male figure, larger than life, his head and neck bowed as if burdened by some enormous weight, or by grief.

”The Shade” by Auguste Rodin was a gift from the French government to the Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center in 1968 to commemorate the 1962 chartered plane crash in Paris that killed 130 Atlantans, including many of the city’s major arts supporters and leaders. In 1995, after decades inside the Memorial Arts Building, the statue was rededicated and moved to a grassy slope outside the High.

“‘The Shade’ is such an important part of Atlanta history, and it completely shows how Rodin’s work is appreciated in different ways now than he intended,” says Claudia Einecke, the High’s curator of European art.

The solitary figure is soon to get an infusion of artistic company when the new exhibition, “Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern,” opens at the High on Oct. 21.

The show, which includes 45 sculptures and 25 works on paper, will include well-known Rodin works such as “The Thinker” (practically the “Starry Night” of sculpture in terms of its ubiquity) and “The Kiss,” as well as lesser known but important works such as “Monument to Balzac,” drawings and plaster casts.

Credit: Photography BMA/The Baltimore Mu

Credit: Photography BMA/The Baltimore Mu

Rodin (1840-1917) is frequently considered the father of modern sculpture, although his early work was more traditional before he transitioned to modernism. During his life, his sculptures were compared to Michelangelo because of their emphasis on human musculature, and some were considered too erotic for the public tastes of the era. Prolific and commercially successful during his life, his reputation ebbed after his death but was restored in 1954 when the Museum of Modern Art launched a major re-appreciation of his work.

“Rodin in the United States” serves as an overview of Rodin’s life and creativity, but it focuses specifically on how American collectors and museums helped build his reputation.

“The American people enjoyed Rodin quite early. The first Rodins arrived in the USA in 1893, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art made the first acquisition of his artwork by an American institution. Before World War I, Americans acquired quite a lot of sculptures, bronzes or marbles and drawings,” says Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, a former curator at the Musée Rodin in Paris. She curated the current show that debuted at the Clark Art Institute in Williamston, Massachusetts, before traveling to Atlanta. She also edited the exhibition catalogue.

“There have been a lot of shows about Rodin,” says Einecke. “But the history of art includes exploring what the market forces were behind the canon of the greatest artists.

“It’s not just the artist’s story; it’s the story of the people who championed his work,” she continues. “And particularly there were several women collectors who were instrumental in bringing Rodin’s work to the museums, to the attention of the public in the United States.”

Credit: Photography BMA

Credit: Photography BMA

Also in 1893, Rodin sent three marble sculptures to the Chicago World’s Fair. “They were overtly erotic, and people got upset over them, and so they were put in a separate room,” says Einecke. “It was good publicity as a scandal, and a number of patrons became aware of his work. But when they started buying his works, it wasn’t the erotic works they went for.”

One of the greatest influences on Rodin was Michelangelo, whose work Rodin studied first-hand when he travelled to Italy in 1876. Both artists demonstrated an emphasis on the physicality — “even over-emphasizing muscularity,” Einecke says.

“With Michelangelo, the bodies themselves express emotion; you don’t need anything else,” she continues. “Rodin takes it even further. You have figures where he takes the head off and the arms off and you still have the full expression of energy and emotion and movement.

“Traditionally when you think of a monument of the human figure you want to be able to shake the hand. It has to be realistic. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Rodin says that’s not necessary; the human figure doesn’t have to be complete. It can be quote/unquote unfinished and still have the full expressive power of a full figure,” she concludes.

The greatest difference between Rodin and Michelangelo, however, is that Michelangelo carved his works himself, while Rodin made clay models and then supervised a multitude of assistants to turn those models into finished works of bronze or marble. This system was common among sculptors in the late 19th century.

For a statue in marble, Rodin would make the original in clay. Then specialists would measure precisely and transfer those measurements to marble under Rodin’s supervision, even though he did not take up the chisel himself.

The bronze casting process, which produced “The Thinker” and “The Shade,” was more elaborate. Again, Rodin would make a clay model original. Then he and his workers would make a plaster cast of the clay. A mold would be taken from the plaster, and molten bronze poured into the mold.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“Sometimes an artist will make a limited number of bronzes and destroy the mold,” Einecke says. In Rodin’s case, the molds outlived him, and many of the Rodin sculptures we see today were cast years after he died in 1917. Rodin created “The Shade” in 1880, for example, but the bronze statue that overlooks Peachtree Street was actually cast in 1968.

“As with other sculptors, Rodin was happy to sell his sculptures,” says Le Normand-Romain. “He had as many bronzes cast as he had clients: more than 50 ‘The Age of Bronze’ sculptures; more than 20 large ‘The Thinker’ sculptures.

“Among the identical casts, what makes the difference is the history, the provenance of the sculpture,” she continues. “When was it cast, who ordered it, what happened to it? To my eyes, the history of a sculpture is a part of it.”

One example is Atlanta’s version of “The Shade.” The twisted, burdened man was originally just one figure among 180 in a much grander Rodin work titled “The Gates of Hell,” inspired by Dante’s “Inferno.”

“Rodin changed its meaning by isolating it and enlarging it,” says Le Normand-Romain. “And it became a statue ready for a personal life.”


ART PREVIEW

“Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern.” Oct. 21-Jan. 15. $16.50. High Museum, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4400, www.High.org