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 themes, he also rejected its traditional principles of a predetermined style appropriate to a subject. “He who sells himself to a style turns his statues into bad literature,” said Rodin; “…the true subject of study is nature.” And for Elsen this direct naturalism distinguishes Rodin’s work not only from the academy, but later also from art nouveau. “Rodin would have established nature as the stern master and measure of art…” “The unselfconscious gestures [of the Burghers of Calais] were discovered in actual life…” Even the case for the Balzac (which Brancusi said was the beginning of modern sculpture) is argued in terms of naturalism, as, admittedly, Rodin himself argued it.
To be sure, Rodin strove for something other than an external, mechanical imitation, though this was perhaps his starting point in the Age of Bronze and The Walking Man. He wished rather “to portray the emotional and psychological complexity of human beings,…to show how the body appears when it experiences states of mind and feeling.” As Rodin once said, “I have always endeavored to express the inner feelings by the mobility of the muscles.” On occasion these two facets of his naturalism came into conflict—the classic case is of course the Balzac. Elsen does suggest that his many studies of the partial figure and the fragment, where “the equilibrium of his pieces was more sculptural than anatomical, gave sculpture a new integrity.” Nevertheless we are left with the picture of an altogether empirical, inductive artist, “copying” nature as closely as he could. But there are many kinds of “naturalism,” and Rodin’s was a very personal version, with strong elements of subjective expression, producing a powerful, individual style. The critic’s problem is to find its definition.
Given the oversimplifications to which Rodin’s work has customarily been subject, it is understandable that Elsen has foregone any summing up. (He wished to make us aware of the particular character of each separate piece of sculpture, and in this he has succeeded.) Nor, except for a passing reference to impressionism, and a short comparison with Degas’s sculpture, has he related Rodin to the artistic currents of his time. Yet because the two are related both are necessary tasks; we must place Rodin in his historical context and his esthetic atmosphere if we are at all to understand the precise nature of his relative naturalism and his personal style.
It has often been suggested that Rodin’s animation of his modeled surfaces (the lumps and hollows) and the resulting light reflections are the plastic equivalent of painterly impressionism. Elsen quite rightly stresses the importance of the shadows as contrasted with impressionism’s lights, and in these purely visual terms Rosso’s achievement is of course a closer parallel. (But it must be noted that though the diffused space of the two doors of the Gates of Hell, a suffused space that ties together the separate figure groups, now seems akin to the movement and scale of a baroque ceiling, the light would have been considerably enhanced had Rodin achieved the “blond” effects he originally strove for.)
But Rodin’s start in realism, his attention to accurate, detailed observation and rendering; his claim that these methods enable him to tell the truth about what he sees (the “real truth” as opposed to the false, conventional truth of the academy); his further claim that he is the real heir of the great tradition (again in distinction to the academy) whose insights he has rediscovered—all these attitudes are matched by the impressionists. So too is the (logically) contradictory fusion of utter fidelity to his subjective feelings and to the objective recording of his sensations. “Nature seen through a temperament” said Zola of early impressionism; is not this a description of Rodin’s art? Particularly if there is added a new emphasis on the physical substance of the artistic medium—color, surface, impasto for the impressionist painters, the feel of the bronze for Rodin’s sculptures. And finally, Rodin and the impressionists shared a belief in the moral value and social utility of personal esthetic truth, being in this the direct ancestors of the modern artist. It is in these respects, rather than in any details of purely visual correspondence, that Rodin is related to impressionism.
Nevertheless Rodin is obviously not an “impressionist,” and this has to do only in small part with the physical impossibility of producing impressionist sculpture. Elsen properly points out Rodin’s dislike of the “monument” and the “statue,” but he overemphasizes the naturalism of the works commissioned as conventional monuments. Surely the gestures of the Burghers are both heroic and dramatic; as in the French classic theater they are considerably larger than life so that they may carry and convey their moral message. This is an attitude that is common to all his work, and the drawings, the studies and the fragments, self-sufficient as they may seem to our eyes, must be seen in this connection, i.e., as part of a total pantheon of figures.
Throughout his life Rodin championed those conventional purposes of sculpture he had been taught during his long apprenticeship: to instruct and enobie. To do this it needed a subject, and he believed, again traditionally, that it could have themes as clear as literature. But Rodin’s sensibility was more contemporary than academic, and he expressed himself through gestures and attitudes of the human body that revealed states of feeling, through figures which, whether mythological, historical or anymous, were the generalized embodiments of moods and emotions. He is an allegorist whose method has perforce turned from the discursive and the public, toward the contained and the private. In all these respects, as in his concern with evolution, with passion and old age, with physical and artistic creation, with anguish and despair, Rodin is related to the symbolists of the last two decades of the century. They shared his obsession with physical love and its moral implications. He is a more vigorous artist that Gauguin, a franker and a more joyous one that Munch, a much greater one that Hodler, but he is of their kind and their period, grounded like them in a personal naturalism, butt grown out of it toward symbolic statement. He escaped their involvement in the pure externals of fin-de-siècle style (whose creators after all they largely were), but he was not untouched by it, especially in his drawings. More than most modern artists Rodin created a related world of figures. Wonderful as the individual works are in both their power and sensitivity, their author’s intention is best grasped when they are seen together. In this sense the total effect of the Musée Rodin is no accident, and cannot be ignored. Only there can we fully enter Rodin’s symbolic world, sometimes tragic, usually passionate, always various, and finally overwhelming.