Modernizing Sculpture

Peter Schjeldahl claims that Auguste Rodin “or his hand, as his mind’s executive—wrenched figurative sculpture from millennia of tradition and sent it tumbling into modernity.”

He admits that There’s a stubborn tinge of vulgarity about Rodin, inseparable from his strength.” Yet even when we are put off by vulgarity, “your gaze is going to stop, again, and widen at the sight of one or another work of his. What does it is a touch that thinks.”

The vulgarity is related to Rodin’s less than elite origins. Schjeldahl compares him to Renoir: “Both men came to art by way of tradecraft: architectural ornament in Rodin’s case, decoration of ceramics in Renoir’s. Their training in commercial aesthetics, aimed to please, distinguished them from their more privileged and urbane Impressionist and Post-Impressionist contemporaries. They loved flesh, which Rodin sensualized and Renoir prettified, both shamelessly.”

Schjeldahl describes the background and form of Rodin’s 1889 “The Burghers of Calais,” fourteenth-century citizens who volunteered to be killed to liberate the city from English attack:

“the burghers are heroes whose shared moment of heroism—stepping forth for sacrifice—is over. Each man is now terribly alone. One appears resigned, one writhes in despair, and another, tasked with surrendering the key to the city, attempts defiance while palpably trembling on the verge of tears. The youngest pleads with an older one who turns angrily away; but another, forgetting himself, offers comfort. Enlarged hands and feet emphasize the bodies to counterbalance the faces. Light pools and, as you move, flows on the black patina.”

The scene is of course passionate, and Rodin doesn’t hold back. It’s his combination of craft and profit, his courting of popular acclaim, combined with the aspiration to high art, that puts off aesthetes. It’s what makes him popular still, a century later.

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