Grasping after Perfection: the making of Rodin

Auguste Rodin The Three Shadows, before 1886, S.03970

If you were expecting to see Rodin as the maker of finished sculptural objects, a fabricator of masterpieces in bronze or marble, a maker whose works could easily be defined and wholly encompassed by the word MONUMENTALITY, this is the wrong exhibition for you.

Auguste Rodin, Hanaka Mask, Type E, 1907-10, Musée Rodin; S 00194

This is an exhibition not of works in bronze and marble, but of plasters. This is an exhibition which tells the story of works which are coming into being, with great and agonising difficulty.

The Rodin of this exhibition is an ever feverishly restless and provisional being, one who is always striving to make, a man who is never quite satisfied, a man who is perpetually in the grip of the idea of art as process, of art as a quest which will forever prove to be endless.

Auguste Rodin, Limbs, Circa 1880-1917. Plaster and terracotta. Musée Rodin. Photo Copyright: agence
Jules Richard Rodin dans son atelier Musée Rodin, Ph.02392 Copyright: Musée Rodin

This is the man who assembles large things from smaller components, and who was forever arranging them and then re-arranging them, a man who was forever trying something new, some newly expressive angle of the head or arm or hand. This is also the man who was an obsessive collector of hands and arms and legs – in plaster, of course.

You can judge what kind of an exhibition it will be by observing the nature of the plinths, which take you by surprise as soon as you walk into the show. They are all made of wood, and they look a bit like well-made packing cases of the kind in which art might well be transported.

Auguste Rodin Right Hand of Pierre and Jacques de Wissant 1885-86 Musée Rodin, S.00332

Even in the show’s largest and most important gallery, wood predominates as a way of raising up and showing forth. The entire centre of the gallery is taken up with a huge, low, wooden stage on which many of Rodin’s best known works are displayed, including The Thinker. But alongside, for example, the monumental statue of Balzac (which was rejected out of hand), there are the component parts from which it grew, from the modelled head to the naked body with its huge stomach. There is even a full-length plaster of the dressing gown in which Rodin chose to dress the great author of La Comédie Humaine.

The exhibition is also the touching and fully human story of Rodin and his often rather unpleasant dealings with the subjects of some of the works on display in this show, those who assisted him or modelled for him. There was Camille Claudel, for example, a fine sculptor in her own right, who was a dogsbody for him, or the actor and dancer Ohta Hisa (1868-1945), who performed Westernised versions of Kabuki theatre in Paris. There are more than 50 exquisite masks of her head in this show, works which demonstrate to what agonising lengths she must have gone to please Rodin by striving to re-capture the look of stylised agony she showed off so well during her performances. She worked tirelessly for him, at great cost. And was she finally rewarded for her pains, meagrely. Two years after Rodin’s death in 1917, she was finally given what Rodin had always agreed would be her payment for all that work: two masks of her own face.

The EY Exhibition: The Making of Rodin is on display in the Eyal Ofer Galleries at Tate Modern until 21 November 2021

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