The Timely and The Timeless

“…within Rodin there is a dark perseverance which makes him almost nameless; a still, superior patience; something of the great goodness and perseverance of nature… ’One mustn’t hurry,’ said Rodin to his few close friends when they urged him on.”  From Rainer Rilke’s RODIN

The Gates of Hell mark the entryway to what may be finest collection of Rodin’s sculpture this side of heaven and is certainly the largest assembly of the great French sculptor’s work this side of Paris.  Philadelphia’s prestigious Rodin Museum was the last passion of movie-theater mogul Jules Mastbaum who began collecting Rodin sculpture in 1923, six years after the artist’s death.  By 1926, Mastbaum had amassed an array of sculpture that would have done Paris proud.  He hired two French architects Jacques Greber and Paul Cret to design a museum for the city of Philadelphia so the public could enjoy Rodin’s work.        

The architects could not work fast enough to enable Mastbaum to realize his vision.  But Mastbaum’s untimely death did not put an end to his dream.  The collector’s widow saw the project to completion and the Rodin Museum was dedicated on November 29, 1929, three years after its founder’s death.

A person can have a hard time completing his own greatest works.  Just as Jules Mastbaum’s pet project was not finished by the time he died, Rodin himself never completed his monumental The Gates of Hell.  This work is Rodin’s sculpture and design, but he never stopped revising it, and there might have been no end to the revision were it not for the artist’s own mortality.  The work was not cast in bronze until 1925, eight years after the artist’s death, perhaps allowing enough time to ensure Rodin would not return to make further revisions.

November 17, 1917, the date of his demise, was the only deadline Rodin could be compelled to meet.  His difficulty with deadlines was legend in his time.   Rodin was producing timeless works, yet was expected to do so in a timely manner.  His Burghers of Calais was finished nine years later than anticipated, and his memorial to Balzac took seven years instead of the proposed year and a half.  The Gates of Hell, commissioned in 1882 for the entrance to the Paris Museum of Decorative Art, remained in the purgatory of Rodin’s workshop for the rest of the artist’s life. 

Rodin’s failure to meet deadlines was not the only aspect of his work to draw criticism.    The value of great art is seldom evident in the light of the standards of its time.  A continuous process of invention, art is always becoming something it is not yet. Those whose works break convention in order to embody this transformation, this growth, are the great artists who must endure the growing pains of art. 

So it was with Rodin.  He spent his lifetime (1840-1917) doing something that was much bigger than life and was criticized for it at every turn.  In his youth, Rodin’s natural unconventional style earned him refusal from the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts three times.  When his early realistic figure The Age of Bronze appeared too realistic, he was accused of having cheated by working from a cast of a model’s body rather than fashioning the work by hand.  By producing a larger than life-sized Saint John the Baptist, Rodin provided incontrovertible evidence of his virtuosity.  As Rodin’s sculpture grew away from realism, he was again criticized for non-adherence to accepted standards. 

In 1884, officials of the French city of Calais wanted Rodin to pay sculptural tribute to the valiance of the heroic citizens who offered their own lives to save their city in the English siege of 1347.   Those who commissioned the work envisioned a single figure of Eustache de St. Pierre, the leader of the heroic group, presented in the accustomed way, on a pedestal.  Rather than having one figure represent all the heroic Burghers of Calais, Rodin’s tribute comprised not one figure but six placed at ground level.  The city officials were not pleased that Rodin gave them so much more than they expected in terms of sculptural figures; they might have preferred more defiance be expressed and less torment, and they certainly wanted it done earlier than 1895 when Rodin completed it.    

Despite the criticism, there was great demand for Rodin’s work.  Demand is desirable for any artist, but its drawbacks should be obvious.  Naturally, demand can become extremely demanding.  Those who commission art works have certain expectations regarding design parameters and time constraints.  Art by its nature resists such conditions and constraints.  The art of Rodin met resistance in Calais and even ridicule in Paris for the Balzac monument he did for the Societe de Gens Lettres.  The officials of the Societe might have anticipated that they would not get the conventional “figure on a pedestal.”  (Rather than having them mounted on a pedestal, Rodin preferred to have his figures emerging from rock as if to remind them of their roots.)  What Rodin gave the Societe was beyond their aesthetic imaginations and sensibilities.  He did not deliver the formally dressed dignified literary figure set to look down on them for eternity, but a rough-hewn, heavily cloaked, disheveled Balzac, caught in the throes of his own powers, surging like a wave against a rocky coast.  The sculpture was denounced as a poor likeness, even a caricature. 

Rodin’s morality was scrutinized as are the lives of today’s celebrities, but by the much less tolerant culture of his time.  His relationship with Rose Beuret was frowned upon for decades because it lacked the sanction of matrimony.  His brief affair with Camille Claudel, a student half his age, was doubly objectionable as a betrayal of a longstanding illicit relationship.       

By the turn of the twentieth century, Rodin had learned the cost of fame, endured its high praise accompanied by low criticism.  By the time he met Rainer Rilke, the sculptor and his work were caught in the merciless bombardment of public and “expert” opinion.

The 26 year-old Rilke was assigned to write a monograph for art critic Richard Muther’s publication Die Kunst in 1902 about the 61 year old sculptor.   Rilke came to the project favorably predisposed, having listened attentively to his new bride, Clara Westoff, who had been a student and admirer of Rodin.  The monograph became a rhapsodic homage to Rodin’s work.   Clearly, Rilke was writing under the influence, in the throes of the rapture of great sculpture.  But Rilke’s article was not to be written off as mere ramblings of a dazzled young poet, for Rilke was already a great writer, and the article was exquisite albeit wanting impartiality.  

It is understandable that Rilke’s advocacy was welcomed by Rodin.  Here at last was unadulterated adulation, beautifully articulated and untainted by the reservations, rebuffs and recrimination Rodin suffered at many a less capable hand.  It served to counterbalance the critical mass that weighed as heavily on Rodin as it has on any great living artist.

Rilke made lush poetic observations of Rodin’s approach to his work. “To create a likeness was for him to seek eternity in a given face…  nothing escapes him… he knows only what he sees.  But he sees everything.” 

Rilke saw clearly in the controversial Balzac sculpture “a grandeur which possibly overshadows the stature of the writer… a broad, wide-striding figure that that had lost all its heaviness in the fall of its cloak… Balzac in the fertility of his abundance…”

Rodin fashioned hundreds of plaster body parts and kept this collection of his “limbs” in drawers so he could use them to build various figures.  But he found building a whole figure was not always necessary.  One of Rodin’s innovations was to make an entire sculpture of part of a figure: a face, a hand.  His sculptures of single hands drew resounding applause from Rilke:

“There are hands in Rodin’s work: small, independent hands which live without belonging to any body.  Hands which leap up, irritated and spiteful; hands whose five bristling fingers seem to bellow like the five throats of a hell-hound.  Hands that walk, sleeping hands, and hands that awaken.  Criminal hands, cursed with heredity, and those that are tired, that no longer want anything, that have laid themselves down in a corner like sick animals who know that no one can help them.”

Rilke acknowledges that Rodin, who “knows that the body consists wholly of showplaces of life, and that life can become individual and great in any of the body’s places, has the power to give the independence and fullness of a whole to any part of this vast oscillating surface.”

The erotic aspect of some of Rodin’s most graceful sculptures only reinforced the criticism of his morals.  Works such as The Kiss that have figures coupled in an embrace raised eyebrows and ire.  But as far as Rilke was concerned:

“One feels that waves are passing into these bodies from their touching surfaces, shuddering of beauty, intimation and power.  This is why one seems to see the rapture of the kiss in every part of these bodies; it is like a sun that rises, and its light shines everywhere.” 

Rodin was changing the nature of sculpture, managing to imbue static figures with a miraculous dynamism.  Rilke’s monograph refers to a “…deep and inward excitation… this rich, astounding unrest of the living.  Even stillness, wherever there was stillness, was composed of hundreds of moments of motion counterbalancing one another.” 

More than any sculptor before him, Rodin manipulated the external surface to express the internal workings, making the tensions, the stresses, the turmoil below the surface appear on the surface as well.  The ways Rodin fashioned surfaces to utilize the light and even the space about them inspired Rilke to comment:

“For Rodin the involvement of the air has always been of particular significance.  Surface by surface he released all his things into space, and that gave them their magnitude and independence… he could create… things which were embraced not merely by the nearest surrounding air, but by the entire sky.” 

Rodin’s sculptural innovations affected that of the great sculptors who followed, notably Aristide Maillol and Constantin Brancusi.  Rilke’s poetry was also greatly influenced by Rodin.  Rilke absorbed from the sculptor’s commitment to the work.  He admired the ability of the sculptor “to work as nature works, and not as men…” requiring “no inspiration, only labor.” 

Rilke further benefitted from Rodin’s sense of the thing, as Rilke put it, “something permanent, the next higher order: a thing… itself not beautiful”  but endowed with all of beauty’s potential.   According to Rilke, “No one has ever made beauty.  One may merely create friendly or lofty conditions…  Guided by a compulsion toward the fulfillment of benefits beyond his grasp, [the artist] knows only that there are certain conditions under which beauty may perhaps consent to come to his things.  And his calling is to learn these conditions and to achieve the ability to call them forth.” 

Such conceptualization and contemplation of “things” resulted in the change in aesthetic perspective that enabled Rilke to produce his “thing-poems” featured in his works Neue Gedichte and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

As the young Rilke was influenced by Rodin, the young Rodin had been influenced by the literature of Dante and Baudelaire.  This is how art works.  It develops as artists interact with each others’ work and sometimes with each other.         

Rilke related what Rodin had discovered in Baudelaire’s poetry: “In these verses there were passages that leapt out from the page, passages that did not seem written but sculpted; words and groups of words that had been smelted in the poet’s burning hands… Darkly he began to sense that where this art abruptly stopped it thrust on the beginning of another…”  

Rilke’s laudatory monograph so impressed Rodin that, in 1905, he hired the young writer to be his secretary, a job that was only to require a few hours of the writer’s time each day.  Figuring this   would enable him to work for the artist he admired and still allow plenty of time for his own literary pursuits, Rilke took the position.  Although Rodin would turn out to be a much more difficult and demanding employer than Rilke had hoped and their work relationship would be curtailed in 1906, Rilke’s admiration for Rodin continued.

It is not surprising that Rodin would not be easy on his secretary.  For Rodin, life was never an easy thing.  As a young boy, he struggled with extreme nearsightedness that made learning to read and write a slow and painstaking process.  Still, he managed to use his artistic talent to help his family financially by working on public decorative art projects from the time he was 18 years of age.  He worked on commercial projects by day and his artistic pursuits at night. 

The struggle of art in life, as part of the struggle of life itself, is implicit in much of Rodin’s sculpture.  When we look at The Thinker, for instance, what we see is not a man rapt in comfortable contemplation.  Sitting on a rock or some hard place, his right elbow extended to lean on his opposite knee, his wrist bent, the hand contorted as if grasping at some frustratingly elusive idea, this Thinker is not enjoying a moment of leisurely musing.  He is thinking hard.

The widely-recognized sculpture has been interpreted as a representation of Dante in particular, of humanity in general, of Rodin himself.  There is certainly an element of self-portraiture in this intense figure a cast of which Rodin had placed by the tomb of Rose Beuret.  Rose died in February of 1917, only a few weeks after she and Rodin had wed, and less than a year before the sculptor himself would be buried at her side to rest in the eternal company of The Thinker.  

By Mike Cohen