Rodin at the Frist Center

Now on view at the Frist Center in Nasville, Tennessee is an exhibition entitled Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession, Sculpture from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation exploring the work of the beloved 19th century French sculptor, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). The show’s title is a reference to Mr. Cantor’s “magnificent obsession” with Rodin’s work, of which he and his wife collected approximately 750 works, some 450 of which have since been given to museums. This exhibition has been traveling around the country to various museums since 2001, and it will remain on view in Nashville through January 4, 2009.

Rejected three times by the esteemed French art school, the Ecole de Beaux-Arts, Rodin trained in Belgium as an ornamental sculptor under French decorative artist Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse and studied the work of Michelangelo on trips to Florence, Italy. His work was also rejected on numerous occasions by the Salon, the traditional French annual art exhibition and art establishment. In 1876, however, Rodin scored a victory with The Age of Bronze, a sculpture accepted into the Salon of 1877. Rodin’s work caused an uproar as the sculptor was accused of having cast his sculptures from live models, a trick a true sculptor would never use, for the figures were so naturalistic and lifelike as to be startling to their viewers.

In addition to his individual figurative sculptures, Rodin pursued public sculptural commissions as well. In 1880, at age 40, Rodin received a commission to sculpt the entrance portal for a Parisian museum of decorative arts — a museum that would never be built. Rodin conceived of the doorway as a sculptural model of the Gates of Hell from Dante’s Inferno, part of The Divine Comedy, replete with squirming figures and anguished, tortured souls. In this exhibition, there is a maquette (a small scale sculptural model or sculptural sketch) of the Gates of Hell which allows a sense of scale and proportion of the gates which he also modeled on the church portal of the Florence Baptistry. Rodin would work on this piece for the rest of his life.

The individual figures in the Gates of Hell became works in their own right, individual, freestanding sculptures, including The Three Shades (the figures atop the Gates of Hell), Rodin’s iconic The Thinker, and The Kiss (which was not included in the final monument.) Casts of these sculptures play off one another proudly in this exhibition. It was during this period that Rodin gained notoreity as a sculptor.

Another of Rodin’s monuments to take up much of his life was his Monument to Honore de Balzac, a French writer. After seven years of work and perhaps fifty studies, Rodin unveiled his monument to Balzac in 1898. The sculpture, which Rodin created after studying photographs, literature and even a suit of clothes fitted to the deceased Balzac, and with which he attempted to convey the sense of the man moreso than his physical likeness, was rejected and criticized by the public. Outraged by this reception, Rodin refused to cast the sculpture in bronze during his lifetime.

In addition to these public monuments and studies of the figures are some of Rodin’s partial body sculptures. Rodin’s interest in ancient scultpures, which have not remained intact over the years and have perhaps lost arms or legs, spurred the artist’s interest in using body parts to represent the whole body. His highly emotive large sculptures of human hands convey emotion as much as many sculptural faces ever could. These hand sculptures depict pain, drama and even grace. His Monumental Torso of the Walking Man is another exceptional example of these sculptures based upon ancient models. Throughout the exhibition one can see Rodin’s incredible ability to model his figures so as to capture light in just the right way to make a strong impact and be emotive despite their being made of bronze.

Also included in the exhibition is a detailed step-by-step guide to the lost-wax bronze casting process by which bronze sculptures are made.

The show presents the professional struggles of the sculptor in the face of exclusion from the art establishment and public criticism as well as his artistic triumphs and highly-atuned skill as an artist.