Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 1, 2019
Catherine Chevillot and Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, eds. Rodin: Le livre du centenaire Exh. cat. Paris: Les éditions Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais, 2017. 400 pp.; 420 ills. Hardcover €49.00 (9782711863730)
Rodin: L’exposition du centenaire
Musée Rodin/RMN Rodin, Grand Palais, Paris, France, March 22–July 31, 2017
Installation view, L’exposition du centenaire, Musée Rodin/RMN Rodin, Grand Palais, Paris, March 22–July 31, 2017 (photograph © Benoit Gaboriaud; provided by Musée Rodin)

To mark the centenary of the death of Auguste Rodin, the Musée Rodin organized a range of events and acted as communication hub for celebratory happenings around the world, which included this weighty (in every sense) and lavishly illustrated book. Its appendices alone comprise an invaluable, clear record of the exhibition, with a detailed catalogue of works exhibited (332 entries), an extensive bibliography, and a list of works alphabetically by sculptor. But the bulk of the book celebrates Rodin in a broad sense, drawing out aspects of his work that have ongoing relevance for modern and contemporary sculptural practice. It is made clear that the book is not comprehensive, but includes a wide range of twentieth- and twenty-first-century works in catalogue number order if part of the exhibition, for easy reference to the catalogue appendix, or in figure-number order (sixty-six images) for related works not exhibited, but relevant to the text. The endpapers comprise stunning close-ups in which the surfaces of Rodin’s sculptures can be fully appreciated—including the flaws, bubbling, abrupt truncation, and cast lines.

In the three prefaces, by Jean-Pierre Aubin, Sylvie Hubac, and Catherine Chevillot, respectively, we are reminded how iconic and pervasive Rodin’s work has become; how he left a massive heritage of seven thousand sculptures, ten thousand drawings, one thousand engravings, and ten thousand photographs; and how influential, innovative, and widely collected his work has been. Chief credit is rightly given to Catherine Chevillot, Musée Rodin director; Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, former chief curator of its sculptures; and Sophie Biass-Fabiani, curator of drawings, whose essays appear throughout the book, alongside writing by French colleagues and Catherine Lampert, an independent art historian.

Chevillot and Le Normand-Romain establish in the introduction the underlying theme: “re-discovering, re-evaluating, and appreciating anew” Rodin’s work. The book’s subtitle Le livre du centenaire indicates this broad approach. In the first paragraph the authors acknowledge the prolific academic output relating to Rodin, but the underlying thread is on the groundbreaking and widespread influence of Rodin on sculptural practice, including his invention of the assemblage and of partial figures as “perfect” works and his avant-garde use of cutouts and collage and drawing and photography. 

Some relatively familiar ground is covered: a brief history of Rodin’s work and its reception, from the Salon refusal of the Man with the Broken Nose through milestones such as the Pavilion de L’Alma exhibition in 1900 to the fact that his work is now celebrated in collections worldwide. The uninitiated are introduced to iconic works such as the Burghers of Calais; Age of Bronze; St. John the Baptist; and The Thinker. However, by the end of the introduction, it is clear that this book is not a traditional read as we encounter Georg Baselitz’s Volk Ding Zero (2009) with its echo (conscious or subconscious) of The Thinker followed by three interviews between Biass-Fabiani and, respectively, Markus Lüpertz, Jean-Paul Marcheschi, and Antony Gormley. Together, they give an enlightening view of Rodin from other practitioners. Lüpertz, for instance, was struck by the Walking Man (as was Marcheschi), but not drawn into art historical debate about whether the figure is classical or modern, but simply states that it is present and alive—a deeply personal, sculptural perspective.

The book is divided into three parts. Instead of traditionally looking at, for instance, the body or portraiture, these sections cover Expressionism, experimentation, and l’onde de choc (shockwave), and in each there is a broad overview followed by thematic or specific “Focus” essays. Rodin’s works are set in explicit or implicit dialogue with artistic heirs including Antoine Bourdelle, Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, Baselitz, Lüpertz, and Eugène Dodeigne, among others. Chevillot also writes of a strikingly international group of sculptors, including Moriye Ogihara (Japan), who studied under Rodin in Paris, Gustav Vigeland (Norway), and Maratka (Prague), within the context of his groundbreaking legacy.

Within the section Expressionnisme, Le Normand-Romain writes eloquently about the emotion Rodin conveyed in many of his works—whether in intense facial expression (Pierre de Wissant), extreme “body language” (Prodigal Son), or in more enigmatic works, such as the Age of Bronze, which convey the universal nature of human emotion. In approaching Rodin’s preoccupation with Dante’s Inferno in his Gates of Hell, the book notably includes lesser-known works in plaster of twisting and turning bodies, as well as drawings. Rodin’s endless creativity is a theme well explored in the context of the Gates of Hell project and how the figures derived from it were further developed, rotated, and recombined, a characteristic of his sculpture but even earlier of his works on paper. Biass-Fabiani’s section on le dessin noir (literally “black drawing,” a term coined by Bourdelle) includes a representative selection of experimental dark drawings by other artists, such as Picasso, Käthe Kollwitz, Germaine Richter, Giacometti, and others (the grounds for their specific inclusion is not always clear).

At the end of Expressionnisme, the focus essay addresses a theme that still shocks today: Rodin’s depictions of old age with sensitivity and breathtaking verisimilitude. The text and images about depictions of old age (pages 112-17) are placed in the middle of the text and related images about the influence of Rodin on an enthusiastic younger generation (pages 106-11, resumed 118-25), but this is a minor issue.

The Experimentation section includes excellent essays on Rodin’s extensive and experimental use of plaster and photography. Examples of Rodin’s annotated photographs reveal his fascinating changes of mind, giving insight into his thinking and working methods. The book jumps forward to Brancusi and others, including Rachel Whiteread and the Trafalgar Square Project (1998)—a little puzzling here—before we are back with Le Normand-Romain highlighting aspects of Rodin’s work and its reception at the height of his fame.

There is an excellent section on his drawings, which were appreciated and exhibited as works of art in their own right, with a focus on the 1902 exhibition in Prague (a milestone following the Pavilion de L’Alma exhibition) where many were exhibited. Returning to sculpture, several texts cover the most avant-garde aspects of Rodin: fragmentary sculpture and changes of scale, with examples of his explicit influence on specific works by Bernard Hoetger, Matisse, Aristide Maillol, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Robert Couturier, Bourdelle, and others.

The final section, L’Onde de Choc, comprises an eclectic group of texts with a sweeping perspective. This part begins with Rodin’s last years and his travels, when he was finally lauded (though still not entirely understood) in France and internationally. Alongside the photographic record of the formal-looking dinner in Rodin’s honor in Prague, an image of the celebratory and lively event in the Café Royale in London, also in May of 1902, would have provided a point of contrast. Picking up on the international theme covered earlier by Le Normand-Romain in terms of Rodin’s clients, here she provides an invaluable survey of the collecting of Rodin’s work in the hundred years since his death. She also discusses collections and exhibitions in major museums, the issue of lack of availability of large works, the multiple versions of some works in bronze in different scales, with the welcome inclusion of images of a number of works in private collections. The final essay (by Biass-Fabiani) on Expressionism today, might have fit well at the end of the Expressionnisme section, but given how influential the Expressionist aspects of Rodin’s sculptures are, it is fitting to end the book here, bringing his legacy right up to date.

In the centenary year, the Grand Palais exhibition and this book are not isolated in juxtaposing Rodin with modern contemporary sculpture. The Victoria and Albert Museum, for instance, placed Rachel Kneebone’s work among Rodin’s. A significant show at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Versus Rodin: Bodies across Time and Space, highlighted Rodin’s approach to the human body and its influence. This centenary book explores fascinating specifics of works as others have done but also the spirit of Rodin’s work and how he worked, exploring the essence of his sculpture, which was well conveyed by the sculptors who were interviewed. The structure of the book with its variety of texts broadly grouped together is a little disjointed in places, but its content is consistently enlightening and the photography is superb. The book is without doubt an impressive and invaluable milestone in the literature on Rodin. The Musée Rodin is to be heartily congratulated for spearheading publication and writing the bulk of the content. The volume as a whole gives a multilayered reevaluation of what was so innovative and impactful about Rodin’s work, how it was seen and collected during his lifetime, and how its influence lives on in work by living practitioners. It sets out a rich framework for further debate about Rodin’s presence, influence, and impact around the world.

Alicia Robinson
Senior Curator, Victoria and Albert Museum