One of the great joys of walking up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway towards the Philadelphia Museum of Art is passing by Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker outside the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. The Thinker muses upon the mass of humanity and traffic passing by through all the seasons. (The snowbound Thinker always amuses me. A snow globe from the Rodin Museum allows me to winterize him anytime.) Born November 12, 1840, Rodin created some of the most enduring sculptures in modern history, such as The Kiss (above, from 1901-4). The fascinating thing about The Kiss is that their lips aren’t actually touching. The woman’s shoulder hides the fact that their lips never truly meet. I’ve read somewhere that there is no angle from which you can actually photograph their lips—perhaps a sign that Rodin wanted to keep that intimacy private.
Like Virginia, Rodin is for lovers. So many of his images show men and women locked together in an embrace, such as his Eternal Spring (above; also known as Eternal Springtime; modeled 1881, marble executed 1906–7). Some of those embraces seem more like life and death struggles. Works such as I Am Beautiful, Possession, Shame (Absolution), and Youth Triumphant show relationships from every angle. Sadly, Rodin himself couldn’t build a lasting relationship, choosing instead a life of philandering. Once, when his wife confronted him about his latest affair, Rodin picked up a piece of clay and began to mold it, never taking his eyes off of her as she berated him. When she finally stopped for air, Rodin lifted the work in his hands and said to her, “This is what you look like when you’re mad.” Perhaps the Mask of Madame Rodin came from that exchange. The sculptor Camille Claudel, with whom Rodin had a tempestuous affair, never looks too happy, either.
While making life a hell for the women in his life, Rodin worked on his conception of the underworld in his epic construction, The Gates of Hell (above, from 1880-1917). So many pieces of The Gates of Hell took on lives of their own as individual masterpieces, especially The Thinker, who sits atop the gates and ponders the suffering beneath. The Kiss was originally intended to represent Dante’s doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca but was removed from the final conception. In The Gates of Hell, Rodin challenges Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment for the last word on the apocalypse. Michelangelo’s art haunted Rodin, a subject the PMA explored in a 1997 exhibition, the catalogue for which, Rodin and Michelangelo: A Study in Artistic Inspiration, I still keep handy. Rodin’s Mask of the Man With a Broken Nose is a attempt at a portrait of Michelangelo, who allegedly had his nose broken by another artist that he had criticized. In The Gates of Hell and other works, including The Age of Bronze, Torso of a Man, and The Walking Man, Rodin confronts Michelangelo and the whole Renaissance, breathing new life into those forms for the modern world.
I have so many favorite sculptures that Rodin, as must be obvious from all the works I’ve linked to. Limiting myself to just a few images was hard, but I couldn’t resist showing Rodin’s Bust of Gustav Mahler (above, from 1909), which captures all the pathos and weariness of the dying great composer. Rodin’s sculpture portraits vary in mood so beautifully, somber at one moment for Mahler and then almost comic at another for the great novelist Honore de Balzac, who is actually sculpted naked beneath the great enveloping cloak. Rodin envelops all his works with his unique charm and bold, passionate humanity, towering over all other modern sculptors and rising to the ranks of the Renaissance greats.