Rodin: A Genius Without Hope
After completing a difficult rotation, I decided to spend the afternoon in the Rodin sculpture garden, and exploring the Rodin collection at Stanford’s Art Museum. First off, I must say that I love Rodin. He is able to masterfully express emotion in his sculpture. As an aspiring psychiatrist, I find such expression powerful.
One of the things that Rodin is famous for, is his ability to show motion in sculpture. My favorite piece that does this is called the Walking Man. The sculpture is after one of Rodin’s favorite models, the man whose face became John the Baptist. It also demonstrates Rodin’s habit of leaving a sculpture unfinished. His earned him much critique in his day, but I think had great effect here. Before Rodin, sculptors had to complete either a bust or a complete sculpture. With Walking Man, there is no head and there are no arms. The entirety of the viewer’s attention is directed at the torso and legs. And Rodin is able to give the powerful illusion that the bronze is in motion. It is a metaphor made of bronze.
This is common in Rodin’s work also: he is less concerned with accurately portraying a person or a character, and more concerned with the idea or ideas they represent. This earned him much malice from those who commissioned him to create a sculpture of themselves. While their friends often agreed that it really did look like them on the inside, warts and all, those who paid for them were often disappointed to have them revealed to the world. Unlike previous sculptors, Rodin would not be perfectly accurate in his portrayal of classic scenes. He would be more concerned with communicating the emotions, the ideas, or the morals of the story.
Regarding emotions, Rodin is a master of masters. He realized perhaps more than any other sculptor I have ever seen, that the whole body expresses emotion. He pays particular attention to hands. Whether it be a defiant fist, or an upturned hand of despair, or hand embracing a lover, there is often more emotion in the hands sculpted by Rodin than the faces sculpted by others. Perhaps my favorite piece, or collection of pieces, are the burghers of Calais. The inspiration of this piece is a situation during the Hundred Years War where the King of England put the town of Calais under siege. Six of its distinguished citizens, called burghers, went out to sacrifice themselves to the King while pleading mercy for their city. The piece demonstrates six approaches to defeat. The Stoic is present, who marches steadfastly into oblivion, gravity on his face, but nothing more. Another of them is despairing, another is confused, another is mourning with his head in his hands. My favorite among them is Jean d’Aire. Jean is defiant. His muscles are tensed, his jaw is tight, and his eyes are looking out with confidence despite his defeat. Of the six, I most wanted to be like Jean; I thought he represented the Christian response to defeat in this world.
I was discussing the piece with a friend, and she noted that Jean did not express joy, so was not really a Christian response. That got me thinking about the rest of Rodin’s work. Despite having an impressive collection, Cantor did not have a single sculpture by Rodin with a smile. Actually, there was one that I found after three hours of looking at Rodin. In his masterpiece, The Gates of Hell, a piece with hundreds of figures, there is a tiny two inch baby with a smile. I began to survey the emotions he did express. His most frequent emotion was sorrow or despair. Sensual emotions were also quite common; some of Rodin’s work is actually quite erotic. Amongst his subjects were Stoics, philosophers, dreamers, and artists. But none of them expressed simple joy. I realized that Rodin, in considering his work as a whole, expresses pre-Christian emotion. Rodin occasionally sculpts Christian subjects, but does not seem convinced them. The emotions expressed by Rodin are like pre-Christian philosophies: they fully express the truth that they see, but do not know the inexpressible joy brought by Christ. The Gates of Hell is perhaps Rodin’s most powerful piece; it captures the horror of the place, it is devoid of hope. Like the Greeks and Romans, I think Rodin was absolutely convinced of Hell, but doubted Heaven. Rodin’s genius in portraying the Gates of Hell may never be surpassed. We must wait for a Christian sculptor of equal genius to attempt The Gates of Heaven.
Because he is a much better writer than me, and because he discusses Rodin also, I will here share Robert Heinlein’s perspective. In his book Stranger in a Strange Land, one of the protagonists describes the rich meaning in two of Rodin’s pieces.
She Who Was the Helmet Maker's Once-Beautiful Wife
Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist — a master — and that is what Auguste Rodin was — can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is… and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be…. and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart…. no matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn't matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired — but it does to them. Look at her!
Fallen Caryatid with Stone
Now here we have another emotional symbol — wrought with exquisite craftsmanship, but we won't go into that, yet. Ben, for almost three thousand years or longer, architects have designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures — it got to be such a habit that they did it as casually as a small boy steps on an ant. After all those centuries it took Rodin to see that this was work too heavy for a girl. But he didn't simply say, 'Look, you jerks, if you must design this way, make it a brawny male figure.' No, he showed it… and generalized the symbol. Here is this poor little caryatid who has tried — and failed, fallen under the load. She's a good girl — look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, but not blaming anyone else, not even the gods… and still trying to shoulder her load, after she's crumpled under it.
But she's more than good art denouncing some very bad art; she's a symbol for every woman who has ever tried to shoulder a load that was too heavy for her — over half the female population of this planet, living and dead, I would guess. But not alone women — this symbol is sexless. It means every man and every woman who ever lived who sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude, whose courage wasn't even noticed until they crumpled under their loads. It's courage, Ben, and victory.