As Jubal Harshaw said:
“Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl.
An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become.
A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist — a master — and that is what Auguste Rodin was — can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is… and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be…. and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart…. no matter what the merciless hours have done to her.”
I was thinking about this quote yesterday as I was visiting the Moore/Rodin exhibition at Compton Verney. Jubal’s words are probably the first critical assessment of Rodin’s work that I ever came across. In the passage, Jubal is talking about the sculpture “Celle qui fut la belle heaulmière” and that piece is not in the show… but much of what he says about Rodin rang true as I looked at the pieces on display..
There is a quality to Rodin’s work that moves me profoundly. And the juxtaposition of Henry Moore’s work made this all the more evident and poignant. From a purely visual aspect the two artists sit very well side by side. There is a clear thread that links Moore and Rodin: the way they both work with volumes, light and shadows feel very similar. But where Rodin moves me (almost to tears at one point – “Cathedral”, two hands reaching for each other… http://www.musee-rodin.fr/), Moore left me cold.
To paraphrase Jubal Harshaw, the sculptors that came after Rodin saw what he had done with shapes and continued to explore the visual aspects but failed to see the humanity contained in his work.
I grew up in the north of Italy, near Turin – a place full of history, of great political and religious significance. Pretty much in every square, in every park and on every other corner you will find a statue (generally, bronze if they’re generals, warriors, politicians; stone if they’re saints and religious figures). Whoever they are, those characters stand tall, strong, proud – leading, admonishing, teaching, solid in their beliefs and glory – but ultimately two-dimensional: they are didactical, propaganda works. Rodin seems to be able to go beyond the surface – to give a full story – to show the humanity, the roundedness of the figure. Often his work is unpolished, with casting and making marks left clearly visible. And often the figure is not complete – here it’s just a hand, or a torso, or most of a figure but without arms, or again there is no clear distinction between the figure and the rock it grows out of – and yet they face you with such presence and power!
Look at Adam.
His strong legs and arms, the details of every tendon and muscle in his body so carefully realised – full of energy and tension… Michelangelo would have been proud! And yet he is contorted, conflicted… far from the idealised figures of the classical tradition. He is here not as the ideal man but as “the real man” with all his contradictions. A classical body, yes, but also one that struggles, definitely fallen out of Eden.
I was thinking of Michelangelo’s David and wondering: what would have Rodin done with that subject? Michelangelo gives us a young man, fresh from his victory over Goliath, with a glorious future ahead… And I imagined Rodin giving us an older David, one that has known defeat and shame, aware of his weaknesses and mistakes and yet, despite or perhaps because of that, still unmistakably a king.
That is what I see in Rodin’s work: this sense of tension, of strength and solidity and brokenness and fear, within the same figure.
Look at the Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone…
Harshaw again: “Ben, for almost three thousand years or longer, architects have designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures – it got to be such a habit that they did it as casually as a small boy steps on an ant. After all those centuries it took Rodin to see that this was work too heavy for a girl. But he didn’t simply say, ‘Look, you jerks, if you must design this way, make it a brawny male figure.’ No, he showed it… and generalized the symbol. Here is this poor little caryatid who has tried – and failed, fallen under the load. She’s a good girl – look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, but not blaming anyone else, not even the gods… and still trying to shoulder her load, after she’s crumpled under it.
“But she’s more than good art denouncing some very bad art; she’s a symbol for every woman who has ever tried to shoulder a load that was too heavy for her – over half the female population of this planet, living and dead, I would guess. But not alone women – this symbol is sexless. It means every man and every woman who ever lived who sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude, whose courage wasn’t even noticed until they crumpled under their loads. It’s courage, Ben, and victory.”
I don’t know enough about art and Rodin to know if this is what he was aiming for. In a sense it doesn’t really matter: this is what I see in his pieces: humanity, bare in all its contradictions, tensions, fears and desires, strengths and weaknesses. And I guess that’s also what makes his figures so flexible. It’s interesting how many of them start out as parts of the “Gates of Hell” ensemble only to end up as stand alone pieces, often with completely different titles… Or they start as individual pieces and become part of a group… because it doesn’t really matter if this really is “Adam” or a “Shadow from Hell” or one of the “Burghers of Calais”… those are just temporary labels, accidents in time and space. Their underlying humanity – that’s what’s real and timeless and what they all share. It’s interesting that even with the figure that ended up clothed, he started from naked bodies and only after he was happy with that he would drape clothes on. Underneath the trappings of office and status, we are all the same… and good art allows us to to look at individual, specific items and yet transcend them and see that something “other” (universal, timeless) behind the physical, material object.
PS – And I guess I need to come clean, before you start looking for art history essays by Jubal Harshaw. He doesn’t exist: he is a fictional character created by Robert Heinlein and appears in several of his novels. The passages quoted are from “Stranger in a Strange Land”… As Charlie Brown says in the one of the Peanuts strips, if I remember correctly, “I quote wisdom wherever I find it”…