Cathedrals of France
Never did an apotheosis take place amid so much squalor and pathos. During the last few years of his life Auguste Rodin, the most publicized artist since Michelangelo, was surrounded by jealous relations, intriguers, friends, and mistresses who quarreled incessantly over his will, his work, his reputation, and his still potent virility. He had struggled with the complexity of symbols, but now, alas, no symbol could be more crudely apt than the bowl of leeches which was kept to cope with a possible second stroke by Rose Beuret, his companion for over fifty-three years whom, after a lifetime of infidelities, he was finally to marry three weeks before her death and only a few months before his own. “Fils du peuple, né dans le peuple,” in the words of his most conscientious biographer, he was besieged by kings from the Académie des Beaux-Arts and duchesses and even by delegates which he had always so bitterly despised and which had shown him such consistent hostility. Such was his reputation that even after the English public had been specifically warned that “in his sketches, made for himself alone, and in the privacy of his studio, Rodin no more fears erotic positions than did Hokusai,” he could still be welcomed by the old ladies of Cheltenham, of all places, where he went for a few improbable weeks after the outbreak of war in 1914. Yet even now things could go wrong. The State hesitated for years before accepting the legacy of a lifetime’s work, and though he was commissioned to model the rich and powerful from both sides of the Atlantic, Clémenceau and the Pope were only two among many mutually hostile grandees who could at least agree on their common dislike of the splendid portraits he made of them—“achevez, achevez, monsieur Rodin” the latter would grumble before cutting short the unsatisfactory sittings. Never a man of much moral conviction except in the practice and defense of his art, Rodin’s vacillations now became ever more cowardly. He agreed to sign an article by Roger Marx, one of his own staunchest supporters, rebutting charges of obscenity made against Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune and then—to everyone’s embarrassment—disavowed it when he himself came under attack: but he characteristically followed this up by making a masterly bronze of the dancer. Alternatively gentle and truculent, humble and vain to the point of mania, he reminds us, like Beethoven, that an art capable of expressing man’s noblest aspirations can be the product of an unusually petty temperament. While still creating much inspired work, drawings above all, Rodin was bullying his faithful companions, grumbling about the corruption of the times and giving longwinded explanations of his sculpture to just about everyone who came to see him.
Les Cathédrales de France, which is here beautifully translated by Elisabeth Chase Geissbuhler, can perhaps best be considered in the context of these outpourings. It was published in 1914, when Rodin was seventy-four, but …
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