Breaking the mold

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 58, Spring 2019

Page 37

Rodin is known as the first modern sculptor. But his obsession was not to make things new – he found the future by looking into the past, says Jonathan Jones

Until 1877, Auguste Rodin, the 37-year-old son of a police inspector, was regarded as a man whose career had been a craftsmanlike slog. But then he unveiled his sensational nude, The Age of Bronze, at the Paris Salon, and the shockwaves made him famous. It's hard to relate, now, to the controversy that surrounded this provocative tremor of nakedness – a version of which is offered at the Impressionist and Modern Art sale in February at Bonhams New Bond Street. Skeptics whispered it was not a creative work but a mere reproduction of life, a cast: what a blague!

But this was the age of Salon scandals. Manet's Olympia had traumatized the crowds in 1865 with its blunt portrayal of a naked prostitute. Cézanne repeatedly presented paintings for consideration, knowing they'd be rejected for their sexual explicitness or simply rough brushwork. The first Impressionist show, held at Nadar's studio in 1874, seemed to pit a new art of reality against the carefully constructed, elegantly artificial Classicism of such Salon stars as Bouguereau and Gérôme.

Rodin was on the side of the troublemakers. His statue is outrageously real, a breathing body instead of an elegant nude. It's sexy, perhaps more so than the pre-Freudian critical language of the 1870s could confess. It seethes with anatomical immediacy.

Yet the paranoid suspicion that his sculpture was a 'photographic' work, a mere copy of life, made no sense. It's actually an interpretation of art.

Rodin is universally acknowledged as the first modern sculptor. Yet the cheap instant version of art history that sees modernity as a 'rebellion' against the 'Classical' past does not apply to him. Far from rejecting the sculptural tradition of the West, Rodin set out to revive it. His art is as erudite and scholarly as it is sensual and revolutionary. He found the future by looking into the past.

That paradox glimmers in the smooth polished metal of The Age of Bronze. The rebel knew the sculptural tradition better than his critics. They only had to visit the Louvre to see Rodin's true source. Far from a lumpen reproduction of reality, The Age of Bronze is a hymn to Michelangelo's marble statue The Dying Slave. Carved from 1513 onwards for the unfinished tomb of Julius II, this image of a slave, or prisoner, apparently expiring in his bonds, has a disturbing erotic force. It could be an orgasm the naked slave is experiencing. As he shudders with deathly ecstasy, he raises his right arm over his head in a sensual, exhilarated impulse. That gesture is unmistakably echoed by Rodin's nude. As he touches his head, he seems ready to swoon like Michelangelo's sensual masochist.

Rodin finds the antidote to bland statuary in a fresh encounter with the true giants of sculpture's history. The Age of Bronze is an attempt to rival and revive the muscular passion of Michelangelo. By the 19th century, the Classical tradition was safe and stale. To be reborn, says this manifesto for Rodin's vision, it needs to recover the rippling energy of the Renaissance. His next move would put this manifesto into practice on a stupendous scale.

The Age of Bronze made Rodin a star. In 1880, the French state bought a cast of it. Rodin's working method was now established: working in clay, then employing artisans to render his creations in marble or bronze. He can be seen as a predecessor of the 21st-century conceptual artist. Yet he was also imitating Michelangelo, who wanted to be respected for his "divine concepts". Rodin was a true maker, whose sensual love of the human form is so strong it flows from his original drawings and models through all the carvings and casts he supervised in his workshop. Yet this production process also meant he could send his images all over the world in multiple editions, making them into universally recognized icons.

Many of those icons originate in a visionary project that filled his imagination for decades. In the same year it bought The Age of Bronze, the government commissioned him to create a set of ornamental doors for a proposed new museum of decorative arts in Paris. Rodin would never finish the doors and the museum itself was never built, but the project unleashed his wildest creative impulses. It also fulfilled his passion for the Italian Renaissance. Rodin wasn't content with looking at Michelangelo's works in the Louvre. He made many trips to Italy, starting in 1875. In his imagination, those museum doors became The Gates of Hell – a phantasmagoric illumination of Dante's medieval poem Inferno.

Inferno is the story of Dante's journey through Hell and his meetings with the exquisitely suffering souls of the damned. As he approaches the entrance of the infernal world, he sees the awful inscription on its gate that concludes: ABANDON HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE.

Rodin replaces these words with a swarming, flowing vision of the strange ecstasies of the damned that not only cascades down the doors themselves but electrifies the legion of figures who populate their framing columns and upper relief or tympanum. At the center of the tympanum, brooding over the torments below him with his head resting on his hand – the medieval symbol of Melancholy – is the figure who would become famous as The Thinker. At the bottom of the right-hand pilaster are the lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, whose embrace in the circle of the adulterers would become The Kiss.

Another image from The Gates of Hell that would become a work of art in its own right can be seen in the crowd of sinners to the left of The Thinker. This is a female nude with a tough, almost bestial face, who kneels in savage ecstasy. Like the male nude in The Age of Bronze, she raises her arms in a dream-like sensual pose. She kneels too, as if in obeisance to some carnal god.

This is the figure that Rodin would call Faunesse à genoux – 'female faun on her knees'. In the bronze of this figure (also offered at Bonhams in February), the hint of wildness in her face adds raw power to the sheer beauty of the fauness's slender body. Yet why did Rodin put an image of uninhibited sexuality into his colossal illustration of Dante's Christian poem?

The Gates of Hell approaches Dante through Michelangelo and the Renaissance. In the 15th century, Lorenzo Ghiberti created bronze doors for Florence's Baptistery that use a mixture of relief and single-point perspective to create life-like pictorial scenes. It was Michelangelo who gave this tourist attraction its nickname: he looked at Ghiberti's doors and said they were beautiful enough to be the Gates of Paradise. Rodin's operatic masterpiece mutates The Gates of Paradise into The Gates of Hell. Yet he's not so much inverting Renaissance art as revealing its demonic side. The Renaissance art Rodin loved is full of sensual abandon and Dionysian lust. His Faunesse à genoux belongs to the mythological species of fauns, satyrs and centaurs – beings partly human, partly animal, whose passions are monstrous – that were in the Renaissance revived from ancient Greek and Roman sources. In Renaissance art, they can be just as sexual as Rodin's kneeling hedonist.

Rodin's vision of Hell is not Christian. The Gates of Hell portray suffering and ecstasy, contemplation and passion – the whole of life is here. "Why this is Hell," says Marlowe's Dr Faustus, "nor am I out of it." All our pleasures are hellish. Out of the past, Rodin creates a myth of the modern. He merges the tragic art of Dante with the modern disillusionment and despairing sensuality of Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal. We are all Rodin's figures, caught between delight and agony.

Like the great artists and writers who inspired him, Rodin created myths. The Thinker, The Kiss, The Burghers of Calais – they've become universal.

The Gates of Hell are the birthplace of Symbolism, the late 19th-century movement that looked inward instead of outward for modern truths, from Munch's Scream to Picasso's Blue Period. In looking backward, Rodin showed the way ahead. Today he's a psychopomp, traveling between worlds, leading us to infernal realms of inspiration and delight.

Jonathan Jones is the art critic of The Guardian.

Sale: Impressionist and Modern Art
New Bond Street, London
Thursday 28 February at 5pm
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