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Art & artists

Sex and the sculptor: How sculpture became modern

— July 2011

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

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Cover of Rodin: Sex and the Making of Modern Sculpture

Rodin: Sex and the Making of Modern Sculpture

David J. Getsy

In 1876 the city of Florence staged a revival of Michelangelo’s reputation with a series of exhibitions.  The sculptor Auguste Rodin decided to invest time and money he could ill afford in travelling to Florence.  Rodin was in his mid thirties, a jobbing sculptor, but ambitious.  He made drawings of the female nudes in the Medici Chapel.  These nudes had been for some time the subject of ribald comment, as being male nudes with breasts attached and genitalia removed.  What Rodin gained was not a lesson in technique but a realization that for Michelangelo the nudes were objects of intense passion.  Rodin in his drawings sought to capture that passion for himself.  He changed the breasts’ form and the bodies’ musculature.  He chose provocative viewing angles.  Thus he changed these male nudes into objects of his own passion, into genuine female nudes.  He later wrote to one of his assistants, Bourdelle, of Michelangelo: ‘It was he who held out his powerful hand to me’.  Rodin changed his sculpture so that by 1900 a critic could write: ‘The principle of Rodin’s work is sex’.  It is impossible not to see the truth of this statement in the many illustrations of bodies in ecstatic poses that punctuate Getsy’s text.  Rodin used sexuality in his sculpture, to create the persona of a virile male genius, as one part of his strategy to create a modern sculptural practice.

1900 was a different kind of landmark.  Rodin’s reputation was on the wane.  A retrospective exhibition was held by the main entrance of the Paris Exposition Universelle, which brought his work to a wider international attention and sealed his reputation as the finest living sculptor.  One work, exhibited publicly for the first time, in incomplete form, was The Gates of Hell.  The work, inspired by Dante’s Inferno, had been commissioned as a relief for a bronze doorway for a new Museum of Decorative Arts for Paris, which was never built.  The work, 6.35 m. high and 4 m. wide, was never finished.  The completed version now at the Musee Rodin in Paris was made after Rodin’s death.  Rodin kept a plaster cast in his studio, continuing to work on it as a place of experiment throughout the rest of his life.  The author, David Getsy, uses the work to argue how Rodin developed his technique in order to parallel developments in painting.

In painting there had been a move away from the notion of a picture as an image.  Instead the painting became an obviously hand-made object celebrating the genius of the artist.  The flatness of the image and the visibility of the paint as the medium emphasized the work of the hand of the artist.  The problem for sculpture was that the techniques of the nineteenth century were essentially collaborative.  The artist made a clay model which was later destroyed.  A specialist studio assistant then made a plaster cast, which in turn was sent to a professional foundry to be turned into bronze.  The object was not the sole work of the genius artist.  Rodin developed a method of marking his clay model with the unambiguous signs of the artist’s hand.  These survived the process of casting, so that the object could be passed off as the sole creation of the artist hero.  Stone statues posed more of a problem.  These were carved by specialist carvers, who used mechanical techniques to obtain an accurate copy of the plaster cast.  Some sculptors did at least some of their own carving, but Rodin could not carve for toffee, so any attempt to put the genius artist’s marks on the stone was easily seen to be a fake.  This was why later modernist sculptors took to direct carving into the stone, without any clay modelling stage, so that the authorship of the stone object was clear.  In addition in The Gates of Hell, Rodin used the plaster casts themselves as units of assembly.  He would take multiple copies of a figure in plaster and use them in different orientations on the surface of the sculpture, falling, rising, diving, creating a relief sculpture made of an assembly of plaster sculptures.  The surface onto or within which these figures were attached was not flat but full of waves and undulations bearing the marks of the artist’s hand, with the figures seeming to be swirling in a boiling sea.

This is an important book presenting arguments that are of great interest for the study of late nineteenth and early twentieth century sculpture and of modernism generally.  It is also valuable as an illustration of a particular art-historical method, the close reading of works of art.  As Getsy points out with examples, the notion of the virile artist genius can now seem rather quaint, ludicrous, even slightly sick.  But it is an important component of modernism which Getsy brings out very forcibly through his analysis of Rodin.

Getsy has established himself as one of our leading scholars of late-nineteenth-century sculpture on the strength of just two books.  His first, Body Doubles, considered British sculpture, not by reviewing the whole of the field but by looking closely at just four sculptures by four different sculptors.  These included the wonderful Shelley Memorial by E. Onslow Ford, which is hidden away in University College Oxford, but which is so good that it ought to have people flocking to see it.  In this latest book he has tackled Rodin, a much written about sculptor, again not by reviewing him or his work as a whole but by looking at two key moments in his career, 1876 and 1900.  If you want a biography of Rodin or a book about his work you will need to go elsewhere.  This is about how Rodin found his personal voice, and then how he made sculpture modern.  In this latter sense the book is not even about Rodin.  It is about the beginnings of modernism.

Rodin: Sex and the Making of Modern Sculpture  by David J. Getsy is published by Yale University Press 2010. 245pp., fully illustrated. ISBN 978-0-300-16725-2



Dennis Wardleworth
Dorset, UK
Independent art historian

Background info

Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) was born in Paris to a working-class family.  He trained as an artist at the Petite Ecole, and from 1864 worked for the decorative sculptor Carriere-Belleuse in Paris, then in Belgium, and later in the Sèvres pottery factory as a designer. He lived with Rose Beuret, a seamstress, from 1864 until her death in 1917. They married shortly before her death and he died shortly after her.  They had one child, a son.  Rodin had at least two passionate and extended affairs, with the French sculptor, Camille Claudel, and the Welsh painter, Gwen John.  Nonetheless, he stayed with Rose.

His first major sculptural success was The Age of Bronze (1877), a life-size male nude so life-like that he was accused of making a plaster cast of his model.  Despite this, his reputation grew and he had several prestigious commissions, including monuments to Balzac and Victor Hugo, The Burghers of Calais (a copy of which was installed next to London’s House of Lords in 1915), and The Gates of Hell, a door for a proposed Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris.  The latter contained portraits of many of the characters of Dante’s Inferno, including The Kiss, and The Thinker.

A frequent visitor to England, he made portraits of the English aristocracy and intelligentsia.  When Whistler died in 1903, Rodin replaced him as president of the International Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers

Editor's notes

The best place to go to see and study Rodin’s work is the Musee Rodin in Paris, which was opened in 1918 in the house where he lived and had his studio.  It has a large sculpture garden, and the house itself contains thousands of his sculptures and drawings. A cast of  The Burghers of Calais  still stands on the green next to the House of Lords, in London.

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