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Being and Becoming
Compact, Heady Show Tries To Suggest How A Sculptor Became A Master
AGE OF BRONZE: Rodin's 'The Thinker'
AGE OF BRONZE: Rodin's 'The Thinker' gives visitors to the BMA's current show something to ponder.
Rodin: Expression and Influence

Revelation is an incremental and collective event--that's what you glean from Rodin: Expression and Influence, currently presented in the the Baltimore Museum of Art's Cone Focus Gallery. Auguste Rodin, now one of the undisputed greats in the annals of art, was once a novice forming his own ideas from predecessors like Michelangelo. From Michelangelo's sculptural portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, Rodin would, in 1880, borrow the 16th-century artist's pathos and the duke's pose and disrobe all to reveal his most recognized work, "The Thinker." For Expression and Influence, a life-size casting of "The Thinker," in the BMA's holdings since the 1930s, greets you to this show of 19th-century works collected from storage.

Originally planned as a model of Dante, the iconic "Thinker" morphed into the sinewy, world-weary figure we first confront in the foyer. He bears in his stance all of poetry's empathy, obligation, and impulse. "The Thinker" established the elements of Rodin's style: a fondness for exaggerated musculature emphasized in the bulging, rippling, purposeful daubs of wax or clay with which the sculptor made his virile male figures pulsate with life; externalized human attributes and achievements weathered and monumentalized into lumps and crags. The human form becomes as abraded and imperious as the earth itself.

Further into the gallery, Rodin's acrobatic female sculptures, smoother of flesh, assume a complementary pliable if impenetrable eroticism next to the male subjects. With a few exceptions, Eve being one, Rodin's renderings of female subjects are largely diversions relative to his masculine subjects--river stone compared to the igneous rock of his male portraiture.

Ten years into Rodin's experimentation with defining life essence and force for an ultimate skin of bronze, the French Society of Men of Letters selected him to create a postmortem portrait of Balzac. Although the Men of Letters were abstract literary genius themselves, they were intellectually unequipped for what Rodin gave them in his radical interpretation of Balzac. The society consequently made the artist, over the course of seven years, produce more than 50 complete studies in an effort to satisfy their mutual ideal of the subject. Fortunately, most of Rodin's subsequent efforts to please the society are extant and form a body of unparalleled study on a single theme. BMA curators have placed four later castings of his various attempts at Balzac to help us consider how he approached his subject.

Balzac was being honored in part for his literary oeuvre, The Human Comedy. An extensive tome on "the distinctions between humanity and animality," Comedy arose from Balzac's study of philosophers such as Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, and Machiavelli. Balzac wrote in the book's foreword, "Those who insist on reading in me the intention to consider man as a finished creation are strangely mistaken."

In each rejected sculpture honoring the writer, Rodin was further inspired by and faithful to Balzac's assertion. His ongoing attempts served as demiurges for an evolving style as Rodin depicted Balzac as an unfinished creation himself.

On the theme of unfinished creations, Oliver Shell, the BMA's associate curator of European painting and sculpture, has organized this Rodin show around a plot to orient visitors to the art era that Matisse would soon be entering. This show is basically an opener for an upcoming, large-scale exposition of the museum's perhaps most remarkable holding, the largest Matisse collection in the world.

The current exhibition is essentially a didactic appetizer tray. Along with several Rodin sculptures and blown-up photos of the artist himself, his "The Gates of Hell," and Balzac, Expression and Influence also vets a number of works from the BMA collection that the title doesn't signal. Local Parisian reaction and influence is discreetly sprinkled throughout the gallery with works by Rodin contemporaries. Maillol's powerful, self-possessed bronze bathers, Degas' ubiquitous bronze dancer, a demure Charles Despiau sculpture of Diana, and the Picasso bronze "Woman Plaiting Her Hair" assist to engorge the mélange. Much of the show's explanation is found in Shell's key gallery text, which assumes that everyone will read it to gain their bearings.

It's not that it isn't a fine little academic show, but Expression and Influence feels, well, sort of unsuitably named for touting a colossus like Rodin, dotted as it is with a sampling of unmentioned but eminent extras. This installation would have been better served by identifying its actual scope. Embodied by the other notable 19th-century interpreters of human countenance, each addition is an instance of an artist who has labored to animate a shape, a surface, an essence of his own creation. Each approaches his subject with a distinct consideration, such as Maillol, who depicts a potent awe, integrity, and fertility in his slightly swollen, majestic, if static, female figures, whereas Rodin may have advanced impressionistic masculine pathos but inclines his mannerist female to seduction and allegory. It may seem a peevish complaint, but you can't count on the public to read more than the large print, and worse, you can count on some, unfortunately, to go away with the idea that a Maillol is a Rodin.

 

 

Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper