Rodin in the round
The Met Fifth Avenue marks the centenary of the sculptor’s death with a presentation of works from its historic holdings
There is probably no better way to appreciate Michelangelo’s legacy than to behold the carefully modeled figures of one of his biggest fans, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), now on view on the Met Fifth Avenue’s second floor, fortuitously just around the corner from its blockbuster show on the Divine One.
Rodin died 100 years ago in Meudon, outside Paris, and the museum has taken the opportunity to look back at its historic engagement with the French sculptor’s works, acquired over the course of more than 100 years, beginning in 1912 with the establishment of a gallery exclusively devoted to his oeuvre — the first such room dedicated to a living artist.
The nearly 50 bronzes, marbles, plasters and terracottas that grace the long B. Gerald Cantor Sculpture Gallery (Gallery 800) are drawn solely from The Met’s collection and will be on permanent display. Paintings by Rodin’s heroes, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Monet, Renoir and others, are presented here alongside the sculptures. A small adjoining room (Gallery 809) showcases drawings, prints, letters, book illustrations and photos by Edward Steichen, items that can be seen through January 15.
Born in Paris to a police inspector and a former seamstress, Rodin spent some two decades working in the decorative arts before breaking free and focusing on the expressive qualities of the human form. A three-month trip to Italy in 1876 proved nothing short of transformative.
“Florence was the place where he had his transcendent moment,” the exhibit’s curator, Denise Allen, said in an interview. “He studied the works of Michelangelo there. It was the thing that launched him as a mature artist.”
That same year he completed “The Age of Bronze,” a life-size male nude that was so realistic critics accused him of making a mold from a live body. The glistening bronze cast at the entrance crossing is a showstopper.
“Rodin is known for dedicating his entire life to the exploration of the human figure. That for him was the highest means of expression, how you can understand emotion by the way a figure is posed,” Allen said. “He searched for that. He searched for finding meaning as a human being in the study of the human body.”
The pieces lining the walls and on parade in the middle of the main gallery include iconic works like “The Thinker” and “The Hand of God” and lesser-known works that have been in storage for decades — like “The Tempest,” a marble relief of a shrieking figure, and “Pierre de Wiessant,” a small clothed statuette in “The Burghers of Calais” case. (Wiessant was one of the six burghers who offered their lives to the King of England during the Hundred Years’ War in return for an end to the siege of Calais.)
Of the latter figure, Allen said: “There are extraordinary colors in the bronze. The patina is absolutely beautiful. It’s as if it were a ceramic glaze. It is a masterpiece of bronze casting made during Rodin’s lifetime and a wonderful thing to have back on display.”
In homage to his muse Michelangelo, Rodin sculpted heavily muscled bodies and twisted torsos to bring his subjects to life. One of his small nude terracotta figures demonstrates the contrapposto stance in the manner of the Renaissance master, and mirrors the monumental bronze, “Adam,” that Rodin created for “The Gates of Hell” doorway. (The doors were commissioned in 1880 for a museum of decorative arts in Paris that was never realized.)
Per the curator about the two works on view here: “All of the energy in the figure now seems to be held in the torso.... The kind of monumental muscularity, the idea that the human figure is magnificently muscled — over muscled — and ponderous, but also shows movement in its twisting pose. That’s something he learned from Michelangelo.”
Allen points to a direct quotation from the master in Rodin’s “Adam” figure: “Look at the right arm that hangs next to the body on his Adam, with pointing finger. That is really the arm of the Adam on Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, in the ‘Creation of Adam.’ It’s the same arm. He’s lifting his arm and pointing his finger to touch the finger of God. So Adam is shown by Rodin — that finger and that arm show that Adam is now coming to life. It is his moment of awakening.”
Whereas once many of the museum’s Rodin sculptures were in cases or positioned against a wall, the new installation has brought more and more of them out on the floor, allowing for 360-degree views.
“People now can walk around ‘The Hand of God.’ From one side, it’s this giant hand, you don’t know what it’s holding. And from the other side, there are the nestled figures of Adam and Eve,” the curator said. “People love walking around the sculptures, and Rodin wanted his public to walk around the sculptures. ‘The Thinker,’ you can walk around it now.”
For more celebrations of this artist in the city, head over to the Brooklyn Museum’s “The Body in Bronze,” through April 22.
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