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Art: lifeless stone and human flesh

(August 2012) His bronze statues, e.g. „The Thinker“ or „The Burghers of Calais“ are world famous. But Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was also a stone sculptor and under the title „Rodin, la chair et le marbre“ (Rodin, flesh and marble) the exhibit showing until March 3rd 2012 is dedicated to this aspect of art.

Under the auspices of the Rodin Museum, the exhibit is being shown in La Chapelle next to the actual site of the museum across from Les Invalides, currently undergoing modernization. More than 50 sculptures are on show as well as some 10 clay or plaster drafts.

In fact the drafts are closest to Rodin himself. In the 19th century there was an intrinsic distance between the draft and the realization of the work in stone: Only the act of creation and the first model was actually carried out by the artist himself. Sculpting the stone was carried out by a team of stone masons working according to the plaster draft.

In Rodin’s heyday he employed as staff of up to 20 according to the catalogue to the exhibit. Contemporaries nonetheless regarded him as a „dominator of marble“, and critics poetically wrote that the stone „trembled“ before him.

The weight of the exhibit is of interest as well. Flesh and stone are, in reality, opposites: one warm, soft and alive, the other cold, hard and lifeless. But marble has been used like no other material over the centuries to capture human poses not merely because it is highly durable and costly.

Rodin and his team were masters in giving life to stone and making it appear like human flesh moved and full of inner emotion.

„La Danäide“, e.g. after the Greek myth of the 50 daughters of Danaeus who, save one, slayed their spouses in the wedding night and were condemned to spend eternity pouring water into a perforated receptacle: depending on the angle from which the beholder views Rodin’s figure, one might see merely a beautiful female body with ample blond hairdo or a tired figure with a light glow of perspiration or, from another angle, a totally exhausted wench whose heart is weakly pumping mechanically under her skin.

„Le Baiser“ (The Kiss) is full of lust, the skin of the man and woman seem to scintillate.

„L’Aurore“ (Dawn), too, is full of emotions: a face is looking into the future full of hope and longing.

„Paolo et Francesca dans les Nuages“ (Paolo and Francesca in the clouds) is typical of Rodin’s non-finito-style: possibly the work is incomplete and that the surroundings might be worked out of the stone at some future time.

The style was not without controversy among contemporaries as was his style of bringing art down to eye-level of the beholder.

Take, e.g. „Les Bourgeois de Calais“ (The Burghers of Calais): commemorating to 6 noble-men of Calais who gave their lives for the good of the community during the 1347 English siege of the city. Rodin gave them no pedestal and none of the heroic elements one might expect – he rather let them listen to the call of fate, the characters and in particular the expression of their hands full of doubt and lack of understanding as to what the world was coming to.

„Rodin, la chair et le marbre“, Musée Rodin-La Chapelle, through to march 3rd 2013

Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, USA is opening after a 3 year break for renovation.

Photos: Musée Rodin / Christian Baraja