Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Moulded by Kisses and Caresses: Warm Flesh of Rodin's Sculpture


When Augustus Rodin’s contemporaries in painting were transcending naturalism to ring in modernity in painting, he was literally chiselling away habits of classicism to push sculpture to modernity. Sculpture, by definition, has a brute materiality about it. This materiality helped prolonging the grand themes of classicism – stability, mythical subjects and a condensed other worldliness – longer than, say, painting or music. It fell on Rodin to bring in movement, fleeting moments, unfinished surfaces, in other words – ‘embrace of ambiguity’ through ‘ a conflicted allegiance to grandiosity and intimacy.’

         Rodin has been labled as grandiose, ostentatious and even corny. His reputation dipped immediately after his death in 1917 when the new breed of sculptor (many of whom worked under him eg.. Maillol, Brancusi, Bourdelle, Pompon etc.) started preferring ‘meaningful Canons of form & Vision’ over Rodin’s searing emotions expressed by hyper detailing. While benefitting from Rodin’s paving of the way from classical themes, they focused their own voices on achieving a less detailed or complicated form, reaching core in a quieter way. Today, however, Rodin stands a undisputed harbinger of modernity in sculpture, often compared to Michelangelo in impact and stature.

Classicism was grand and sure. A realized truth with scriptural certainty. It conveyed a fully formed reality cast in stone. This was called ‘monumentality’ i.e. representation of completeness of a divinity, an era, impact of king, nobleman or a mistress. Rodin who had a ready access to the art of past. Found a potent weapon to subvert the grand tradition. This weapon was doubt. He was lucky to be at the intersection of ‘19th century amplitude’ & ‘20th century doubt’. His equivocation, his insistence on capturing the fleeting moment – a work in progress sensibility brought a rupture. A rupture that is brought forth only by epoch – shaping artists.

His ‘anti-monumentalism’ was a natural corollary of his stubborn rejection of completeness. In ‘Les Bourgeois de Calais’, a depiction of six wealthy citizens of the French town who offered themselves to the attcaking army for execution as a price for safety of their fellow citizens, the moment that Rodin chose to depict was neither the surrender nor the execution (which never took place) but a moment when they were alone after the spark of initial heroism had passed. The art work is not recreating a landmark moment but a void with a promise of movement and uncertainty. Doom, despair and surrender to fate is still a work in progress before getting to its horrible, chaotic finality.

This rejection of completeness reached a new level during his mature years in works like hands or head less torsos. These disembodied works left scope for possibilities. The telos, the final cause remained hidden but, quite clearly, the moving force in this melee of incompleteness. A moving force propelled by entropy and renewal. Robert Hughes found in these incomplete figures ‘expressive power of the non-finito’ and savage force of the human form to express emotion. Hughes wrote “his use of the "partial figure"—the headless striding man, the ecstatically capering figure of Iris, Messenger of the Gods—went beyond such conventions as the body not yet released from its mass of raw stone, or even the broken antique fragment. It was a way of asserting the power of reduction, a demonstration that the expressive power of human form could be so concentrated as to drop, without loss, such usual signifiers of emotion as the head.” Incompleteness is a sure indicator of movement. This kinetic fuel is another hallmark of the break that Rodin effected from stable unmoving glory of classicism. Unfinished conundrum of Iris, Messenger of the Gods or Walking Man and his distinctive musculature created tension in his stones or bronze that signified movement. Talking about the this kinetic appeal in the ‘Walking Man’ Peter Schjendahl of The New Yorker wrote “Walking becomes lurching. The effect is simple, but it electrifies as the sign of an intelligence that comprehends, and can gainfully subvert, the fictive language of figuration in sculpture. You get, in a flash, that Rodin could have played no end of Picasso-like games with givens of the medium, had he been more of a sophisticate.

While his transmogrifying and cross feeding sculpture reminded of Picasso’s inventiveness, his most potent playfield was flesh - the surface. Rodin said “to any artist worthy of the name, all in nature is beautiful, because his eyes, fearlessly accepting all extension truth, read there, as is an open book, all the inner truth”. There he is closest to great British artist Lucian Freud, for whom flesh was ‘mound of feelings’. This fascination with speaking flesh has brought forth a sexual frankness in both Freud’s and Rodin’s work. While Freud kept on working the texture and tone his model’s flesh, Rodin’s surfaces are his most thoroughly finished incompleteness. Gaping sexuality of ‘Iris the Messenger of God’ fascinates more by pulsating coarseness of the texture then its exposed boldness. He achieved a very real surface for his work. His ideal was captured by Paul Gsell. Rodin when talking of Venus de Medici, swooned “It is truly flesh! You would think it moulded by kisses and caresses! You almost expect, when you touch this body, to find it warm”. This ‘warm’ flesh is one more definitive indicator of his subversion of Classicism, a period of idealized surfaces. His reputation for eroticism often bordered on sensational. His quest to recover ‘freedom of instinct’ led to many experimentation which were even termed ‘exploitative’ use of his models. For Rodin there was no visual compromise, he sought to avoid stage effect in his nudes. ‘I know why my drawings have this intensity. It is because I do not intervene. Between nature and paper, I eliminated talent. I do not reason. I simply let myself go.” Like Goya, like Picasso and like Matisse, Rodin exemplifies primal force of nature where talent appears eliminated simply by it all pervasiveness. Rodin is an undisputed master and his absence for last hundred years has made it clear beyond any doubt.          

Dhiraj, 26 Dec, 2017                           

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful piece of writing. I never knew the beauty of incompleteness, the force and power behind it. Thanks for introducing Rodin to me and getting to understand this powerful idea of incompleteness being the moving spirit behind his sculptures. Great.
    Rajesh K. Jha