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The Cathedrals of Rodin

Cathedrals of France

by Auguste Rodin, translated by Elisabeth Chase Geissbuhler
Beacon Press, 296 pp., $17.50

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 its preparation had been in progress for many years, and it is a great pity that so fine and expensive an edition as this, prepared by such an authority, does not discuss its genesis more fully. In 1908 Rodin had engaged as his secretary the impoverished Symbolist poet and critic Charles Morice, who had been praising him and borrowing money from him for more than a decade. Morice had made his name as a discerning critic a generation earlier, but by now his life was being increasingly “devastated by alcohol and women.” Like Rilke, indeed like nearly everyone who became closely associated with Rodin the man, he soon found the position intolerable while never faltering in his loyalty to the artist. Within a year he had resigned, though he continued to collaborate on what he called “notre livre.” He was used to this sort of work, for ten years earlier he had played a very similar role in relation to the Noa-noa of Gauguin, another of the heroes of this amiable man who was touchingly prone to hero-worship. From both Gauguin and Rodin Morice had to face repeated charges that the character of their proposed books was being drastically influenced by his own somewhat precious style, and recent research has shown that, in Gauguin’s case at least, the charge was a justified one. About Rodin we can be less certain. “I only want these gentlemen to correct my spelling mistakes,” the old sculptor would exclaim irritably when the text of his rough notes was amended and sent back for his approval, and he disliked the long Introduction which Morice contributed to the book (and which is not included in this edition) despite the panegyric with which it ended. Morice did what he could to satisfy him: “Je me suis gardé d’y trop personellement intervenir,” he wrote, “vous parlez seul,” but the highly charged “poetical” style of some passages suggests that his role was more than that of a mere amanuensis. None the less the views expressed are undoubtedly Rodin’s own.

It has long been a commonplace to point out that Rodin’s interpretation of the French cathedrals, both in the text and in the accompanying drawings (many of which are reproduced in this edition), is that of a sculptor rather than of an architect or scholar. It has not, however, been sufficiently stressed (except in passing references to his debt to the Gothic) how very closely Rodin identified them with his own sculpture. The very first words of the book which seek to explain that “Cathedrals impose a sense of confidence…by their harmony…the counterbalancing of masses that move…” echo a definition of his own sculptural principles which he had given to a visitor some years earlier, and when, a page or two later, we come across the phrase “Let us not forget that power brings forth grace; there is perversion of taste or perversity of mind in looking for grace in weakness,” it is natural to recall that Rilke had in 1903 characterized one of the essentials of Rodin’s art as “the grace of great things.” The whole book, indeed, is full of such echoes, and despite the eloquence of many, and the real beauty of a few, passages, an ability to enjoy it depends largely on how far we are prepared to accept Rodin’s overwhelming personality and prejudices expressed here through the medium of an art which did not come naturally to him. For much that we find disturbing even in his sculpture is paraded here with greater blatancy: the rhetoric which often takes the form of bombastic chauvinism; the distinctly mawkish sexuality of some of his later work (“have you never stopped, your spirit and heart in suspense, abashed to have discovered this masterpiece: a woman at prayer? A woman never loses the line,” etc., etc., or the tulips “that bare their hearts which may not be chaste, but are indeed adorable”); the violent dislike of the modern world—seen admittedly at its most provoking in the murderous “restoration” of so many of the great cathedrals. But against many faults of taste we must balance his marvelous response to natural forms and the delicacy with which he observes them. To read this book right through is as discouraging as an overlong visit to the Musée Rodin in Paris; a sort of excessive indulgence induces nausea. But to dip into its various chapters, a few pages at a time, is to experience the elation that can be felt so often when coming across one of his works on its own.

For Rodin occupies an extraordinarily ambiguous and uneasy place in French art of the nineteenth century. When a large group of his works was shown at the International Exhibition of 1900, four artists wrote prefaces to the catalogue: Jean-Paul Laurens, Eugène Carrière, Albert Besnard, and Claude Monet. We should not perhaps read too much into what was primarily an act of personal friendship on the part of the painters concerned, but the combination of an old-style academic history painter, a sincere and gifted mystic with an over-facile formula, a slick purveyor of other men’s discoveries, and a great, inspired revolutionary does suggest something about the nature of Rodin’s own genius. And these discrepancies are reflected in his constantly varying relationship with the public—both that section of it which sympathized with modern art and the far greater numbers who backed the Academy. The controversy over the Balzac was one of the great artistic storms of nineteenth-century France, surpassing in intensity the furore that had greeted Manet a generation earlier. Yet in 1898, when the maquette was exhibited, Rodin already had his Légion, and the President of the Republic, though careful to turn his back on it when inaugurating the Salon Nationale des Beaux-Arts, could still keenly admire an earlier marble figure that Rodin showed with it. Moreover the Salon Nationale des Beaux-Arts itself represented a sort of compromise between the outworn art of the Academy (to which Rodin never belonged despite approaches made at the end of his life) and the growing number of younger painters whose work stood no chance of winning any sort of official backing.

The more interesting artists who submitted to this Salon were faced with an exceedingly difficult problem, which only Rodin himself was able to resolve satisfactorily. They belonged to the generation of the Impressionists, but they would have agreed with Odilon Redon, who, as early as 1868, had pointed out that realism “sets limits on art and denies it its most fruitful sources: thought, inspiration, genius….” But it is significant that even this list omits another of the limitations inherent in Impressionist painting: the impossibility of glorifying man, his achievements and his aspirations, and Redon’s own highly introspective art shows how little this mattered to him. As far as Rodin was concerned, however, a more relevant way of breaking beyond these bounds could perhaps only have come from much younger artists, such as Van Gogh who wanted “to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize,” and it is interesting that Rodin was one of his early admirers and bought one of his pictures. But Van Gogh was a painter, and in any case to Rodin and those who thought like him such a bold defiance of traditional forms was unthinkable (though the Balzac came very near it). Besides, it would defeat its own object, which was to make possible a public art—not for nothing did he write his book on the Cathedrals. He and his colleagues were trying to maintain and revitalize the mediaeval and Renaissance tradition of an art capable of making serious and universally understood statements on the human condition without falling into the banalities of the Salon.

The balance was an extremely precarious one, as can be seen from the fact that, in sculpture at least, Rodin was probably the last man able to use the human figure to this end. Professor Elsen has wryly pointed out, in by far the most valuable critical study that has yet been made of Rodin’s work, that The Thinker “may be seen standing before art museums or philosophy departments; as an advertisement for physical culture, for electrical appliances with a built-in ‘brain,’ and for the Synopticon.” That Rodin himself was aware of the difficulties of his lonely position is shown by the increasing “privacy” of so much of his own work—fragmented bodies, for instance, and the beautiful late drawings—and, while it is probably inevitable that this aspect should appeal particularly to twentieth-century taste, too much concentration on it leads to a wholly misleading interpretation of the nature of his genius. His belief in a more universal type of art is apparent in the passionate admiration he expressed to the very end of his life for the work of Puvis de Chavannes, who was trying to maintain a somewhat similar tradition in painting. Suddenly rousing himself from his death agony he exclaimed, quite clearly, to Judith Cladel who sat by his bedside: “Et on dit que Puvis de Chavannes, ce n’est pas beau!” These were his last words. With them in mind we should read Les Cathédrales de France as a tribute not only to his deep appreciation of purely formal beauty (a point that has not been sufficiently stressed in this review), but also as a projection on the most powerful, sacred, and beloved monuments created since antiquity of all his most private—often morbid—obsessions. The mixture, like some of his own art, is not always a very happy one, but we should be much poorer without it.

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