Too many books on Rodin have to do with matters other than his art. They are generally concerned with a life—ardente, intime, or glorieuse et inconnue—that is a dramatic story of struggle, fame, financial and amorous success. There is no use pretending this is not an endlessly fascinating story, but it has little to do with any understanding of his sculpture. It is the first virtue of Albert Elsen’s book that, despite its brief title, it is entirely devoted to Rodin as artist. Although he has included a biographical outline in an appendix, Elsen’s discussion of the work assumes we know the life, the early accusations of fraud and the continuing arguments with clients, the later role of embodied genius, and that no dramatic accent is needed for added flavor. In this he has been justified; the many works and his constantly close analysis of them combine to maintain considerable intensity throughout.
The book’s sequence is thus given by Rodin’s development as an artist, rather than by the events of his life, and if this necessarily involves some overlapping, the chronology remains quite clear. After a discussion of the realistic figures of the Seventies (The Age of Bronze, St. John, The Walking Man), Elsen reasonably gives most space to The Gates of Hell and its Offspring; to Rodin as a “Monument Maker” (Le Défense, The Burghers of Calais, Balzac); and to the “Portraits.” There are chapters also on “Drawings,” “Improvisations,” and the “Fragment.” Elsen’s brief discussion of the sculptures in marble seems to embarrass him, perhaps because they were the chief medium of Rodin’s final fame and fortune. Nevertheless much of Rodin’s popularity is still based on these smooth and handsome groups precisely because the brilliant polish and even surface negates and generalizes their passionate subjects and removes them into the safe realm of Art and Contemplation.
Sculpture, said Rodin, is the art of the hollow and the lump. Elsen lays double stress on this theme: the artist’s pure pleasure in working his material and the chiaroscuro effects he achieved with it. Rodin was above all a modeler, and apart from his initial idea he had a direct physical relation to his clay, to which he imparted rhythmic inner structure that grew intuitively from contact And as he modeled, the surface came alive with a play of light and dark that rendered visible what the artist had felt through his fingertips, so that for the spectator too, it had its own existence beyond all theme or subject. This insistence upon awareness of the material, with all it implies about creation as opposed to illustration, is, says Elsen, one of Rodin’s chief claims to modernity. It was Rodin’s own “truth to materials,” more basic and more subtle than that of those who have claimed he was no sculptor because he was no carver.
The author puts perhaps even more stress on Rodin’s naturalism as the guiding principle of his art. If Rodin opposed the academy by creating substance instead of illustrating…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.