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Nineteenth-century French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) is the prototype artistic genius, a larger-than-life character who transformed the art of his era and left a legacy that echoes through the ages.
That he was outspoken and possessed by a tempestuous personal life only enhances Rodin's 21st-century appeal. His obsession with his beautiful and tormented student Camille Claudel was even popularized in a 1989 film starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu.
All of the artist's most intriguing qualities are evident in "Rodin: In His Own Words," at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. The show's title is a tipoff to its originality. Each of the 35 bronzes, which range from fragmentary body parts to an over-life-sized sculpture of a fellow artist, is accompanied by vivid quotes from Rodin's writings and conversations. The words and sculptures amplify each other, highlighting the moral, philosophical and psychological effects that Rodin sought to embody in bronze.
Art of this importance is rarely seen at Midwestern colleges. Gustavus got the show thanks to the excellent art-world connections of Hillstrom Museum director Donald Myers, who worked at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Rodin's work also nicely complements the college's extensive collection of bronze sculpture by the late Paul Granlund, a Gustavus artist-in-residence influenced by the French master.
Burghers of Calais
Rodin spoke with particular eloquence about one of his most famous sculptures, "The Burghers of Calais," represented here by a pedestal-size preliminary model of the sculpture as he initially conceived it in 1884. A famous symbol of resistance and self-sacrifice, the sculpture depicts six men from the French city of Calais who in medieval times volunteered to save their compatriots by sacrificing themselves to the English, who had besieged the town. Rather than depict the men as brawny heroes, as sculptural tradition dictated, Rodin portrayed them as gaunt starvelings, isolated, stumbling and tormented by their imminent fate.
As he explained in a 1914 publication quoted, they are torn "between their devotion to their cause and their fear of dying. ... their soul pushes them onward, but their feet refuse to walk."
While the show occupies just one large gallery, it offers a remarkably rich survey of Rodin's work. Born in 1840 to a working-class Parisian family, he was conventionally trained as a maker of architectural ornamentation and decorative designs, even supporting himself for a while as a designer of Sèvres porcelain.
He was nearly 40 before he gained attention for his more experimental works such as "St. John the Baptist Preaching" (1878), a half-length version of which is included. A powerful male nude that he had modeled after an Italian peasant, "St. John" bristles with a kind of animal energy that Rodin said expressed "all the violence, but also the mystical character of his race."
At the gallery's entrance stands a marvelous life-sized bronze of painter Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), a boisterous character whose somewhat sentimental landscapes and genre scenes gained him popularity before his death from cancer at age 36. Rodin depicts him as a virtual buccaneer in boots, rough knee-high spats and a caped jacket, clutching a palette and brush while scowling intently at an invisible canvas.
Gates of Hell
Many pieces in the show derive from "The Gates of Hell," a monumental set of museum doors that Rodin worked on for more than 30 years and left unfinished at his death. Depicting scenes from Dante's "Inferno," the sculpture included his famous "The Thinker," the adulterous lovers "Paolo and Francesca" and the treacherous "Ugolino and Sons," whom Rodin depicts crawling like feral dogs.
Other pieces include the female nudes for which Rodin is popularly known and a portrait head of Pope Benedict XV, with whom Rodin apparently had a very testy relationship.
Given the sensational potential of Rodin's life, it would have been easy to emphasize his biography over his art. That temptation was wisely dodged. The show is a model of scholarship and accessibility. Besides the fascinating quotes from Rodin's writings, it includes an excellent film and models that explain how bronze sculptures are made.
The sculptures' beautiful patinas range from gleaming licorice-black to milk chocolate, brassy browns and charcoal flecked with green. That variety testifies to the age of the pieces, some of which were cast during Rodin's lifetime and others fabricated as recently as 1995.
The exhibit scrupulously notes when each piece was modeled and when cast, an important distinction that honors Rodin's willingness to have his work issued after his death while acknowledging recent critics who decry the practice as "fakery." Bronze casts posthumously made from the artist's original clay figures or plaster molds and maquettes aren't fakes; they're authentic Rodin sculptures. But the dates should be noted and explained as they are here.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431