The Making of Rodin at the Tate Modern

Guest review by Sarah Mulvey

Featured: Mask of Camille Claudel with Hand of Pierre de Wissant, after 1900, plaster assemblage

Detail from the Monument to the Burghers of Calais,1889, plaster

Rodin’s work evokes very different responses; his humanity is recognised through the fragility and compassion of his works, or by his tolerance of imperfection, but the arbitrary violence or cruelty of his severing and re-using of sculpted body parts, or the emotional realism of his depiction of suffering bodies shocks. What surprised me when I entered the exhibition The Making of Rodin at the Tate Modern was how strange Rodin’s work is when viewed from the perspective of his working methods. It was a refreshing view which made me look at Rodin’s work anew. The Tate has chosen to offer us a perspective on Rodin’s production process by showing us what it might be like to enter Rodin’s studio, with unfinished pieces, body parts and drawings on display. The display was inspired by the exhibition Rodin put on to coincide with the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900, planned as a retrospective of his own work. He showed only plaster works, some of which had never been cast in bronze. At the Tate Modern this process is presented in a series of rooms, aesthetically cluttered with working models in plaster and clay, at different stages of fabrication. Some of the casts on show are marked with instructions, some completed for casting into bronze, others are presented as finished works for contemplation in their own right. Rodin worked out his ideas in clay. He then employed experts in plaster casting and carving to transform his clay models into plaster. He did not polish the surfaces of his clay models to make them smooth, so the casts retain the marks that he left on the clay models, asserting their hand wrought characteristics. In the exhibition you are able to follow the different stages of the making of commissions. In the main gallery different stages in the making of Monument to Balzac, 1898, for example, are shown, which provide a fascinating insight into Rodin’s creative process.

Head of Pierre de Wissant, before 1908, coated plaster

Rodin’s work is both sensual and emotional to an extreme; bodies strain, muscles are pulled taut and faces grimace in pain. Each figure, in the midst of its own personal drama, exposes itself, as if oblivious to an audience. Unlike many sculptures destined for civic spaces the figures do not grace us with an obvious public face.

Balzac, study of nude C 1892, coated plaster

The Monument to Balzac is not perhaps a monument at all. It does not testify to Balzac’s greatness as the author of The Human Comedy to a prospective Parisian audience. Instead Rodin shows an enigmatic, more contemplative figure, wrapped in a robe which hides the body; no clues to Balzac’s achievements are included. Rodin submitted a plaster cast of Balzac in 1898 to the Société des Gens de Lettres; the commission was cancelled. Off the main galley The Burghers of Calais are presented at ground level in a small room. It is a terrifying sculpture; we are forced to confront the pain and terror of the burghers as they prepare to sacrifice themselves, nooses around their necks, for the sake of the citizens of Calais. There is no escape from their suffering; Rodin designed this sculpture in the round. As you encircle the bodies of the burghers you are forced close up to their expressions and gestures of fear and despair. Their heroic deeds are not conveyed to us; instead we are forced to empathise with the emotions of men who are facing their death.

Assemblage of plaster fragments

The Tate invites us to contemplate the uncanny nature of Rodin’s fascination with death. He used hundreds of anatomical body parts, cast in plaster, which, with a macabre humour, he termed ‘abattis’ (giblets). These fragments of the body are archived in the storerooms of the Musée Rodin. As displayed in the exhibition they have an abeyant, sepulchral quality, separated from the body that would give them life. Plaster itself, when used for modelling the body, has, for me, an inert lifeless quality.

Plaster assemblage including head of Camille Claudel and hand of Pierre de Wissant, after 1900

Bronze version of the Monument to the Burghers of Calais, Victoria Tower Gardens

Comparing the plaster version of The Burghers of Calais to a bronze version, erected near the Houses of Parliament, the earthy lustre of the bronze, modified by the changing natural light, gives the figures an earthy naturalism. In plaster, in the controlled light of the gallery, they seem petrified. The dramatic vitality of the gestures of the sculptures are suspended by the inert quality of the plaster. This gives the sculptures on show an uncanny vitality; an unnerving contradiction.

The Tate has chosen to show those aspects of Rodin’s work that place him in a modernist trajectory. However, Rodin’s work seems so embedded in the 19th century, with its emphasis on naturalism and freedom from the constraints of classical idealism, and on real weighted dynamic bodies and emotional rawness. The influence of Renaissance naturalistic sculpture is very clear; his work The Inner Voice is clearly influenced by Michelangelo’s Slaves. In the same way that Michelangelo shows a contrapposto figure struggling to escape from a block of marble Rodin’s sculptures reject classical notions of beauty and balance to communicate psychological and material states through convulsed bodies.  

Son of Ugolino, without head, 1904, plaster

The use of the figura serpentinata in many of his sculptures proclaims the undignified awkward postures of real human bodies and emphasises the body’s latent power to move. The influence of late 19th century medievalism can be discerned in the Gates of Hell, based on Dante’s early fourteenth-century poem Inferno. Moreover, Rodin’s interest in the art of the medieval period is demonstrated in the book on Gothic architecture he wrote and illustrated, published in 1914, Les Cathédrales de France. His study of the Gothic made an impact on his work: “The study has unquestionably influenced my sculpture, giving me more flexibility, more depth, more life in my modelling. The influence has entered into my blood, and has grown into my being.” 1905, The North American Review.

The Three Faunesses, before 1896? plaster

The exhibition emphasizes Rodin’s radical processes; Rodin himself relishedthe working process as an end in itself and revelled in the malleable qualities of clay and plaster. He purposefully left the marks of execution within and on the surface his models that were then captured by the casting process as traces of the creative process. Rodin’s strategy of using fragments of the body can be viewed as both practical and radical. The many different limbs he had at his disposal were interchangeable and were used by Rodin in an industrial-like method of assemblage. He also assembled the same cast in different combinations as in The Three Faunesses (above). The modular nature of the process, it could be argued, places his work as a forerunner to 1960s and 70s assemblage art or surrealist collage. The surrealist artist Hans Bellmer adopted a similar modular approach to the body in his doll assemblages.

Detail from the Monument to the Burghers of Calais, 1889

The great thing about contemporary art exhibitions is that they force us to question preconceived notions of artists’ work by presenting revisionist viewpoints. What this exhibition revealed to me is not a controversy about where Rodin should be placed in the history of art but Rodin’s imaginative vitality as a sculptor; his ingenuity and inventiveness. The work is so powerful in its depiction of the human body in its frailty and power and in the complex emotions that drive gesture and movement, but also in its formal inventiveness to tell stories both contemporary and from history. By concentrating on the transitional process from clay to plaster casts Rodin’s idiosyncratic making process is acclaimed and we come closer to understanding the extraordinary nature of his creative power.

The Making of Rodin finishes on 21st November, 2021

Sarah Mulvey is an art history graduate and has worked in education for over twenty five years, teaching art and photography. She has also written on art and fashion. Her passion is visiting museums, galleries and exhibitions. When not working she tries to find time to draw and paint and to take photos on her strolls in diverse London boroughs.

Image credits: Sarah Mulvey

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