Antoinette Le Normand-Romain
Photo : A. Rzepka
The sculptures kept in the Museum at Meudon, only some of which are on display, form what is known as a "studio collection", that is to say, all the sketches, studies, maquettes, variations and original models carefully kept by the artist thoughout his life and, in the case of Rodin, donated to the French State in 1916. Most of them are in plaster. For a long time, plaster was not considered to be a noble material and had little value. However, it is of vital interest when studying 19th century sculpture for a plaster model is usually the first visible stage of a work-in-progress and, consequently, the closest to the hand of the sculptor.
Since the practice of direct carving had been abandoned in the 19th century, the sculptor was above all a modeller. He searched for the first idea of his composition in clay. He made his study by working with balls or sticks of clay which he shaped with the help of his thumbs, sometimes leaving very visible imprints, like the incisions made by a knife or roughing-chisel to emphasize certain effects. The next step was a more accurate maquette or model, mounted on an inner armature, which had to be wrapped in a damp cloth between working sessions to keep the clay malleable.
View of the interior of the Meudon Museum
Photo : E. & P. Hesmerg
This is the great advantage of clay. Nothing is easier than to change, remove or add to the material as required. However, clay is very fragile until it is fired, and even then, only small studies can be fired without risk. As soon as the sculptor is satisfied with his model, he has an impression made. Since the initial model is nearly always destroyed during the casting operation, the plaster cast extracted from the mould is the first permanent shape of a work. Only one copy can be made from a "creux perdu" mould (hence its name) as it has to be broken open to remove what is known as the original plaster. On the other hand, "bon creux" casting does not entail destruction of the mould for it is composed of several pieces made from the original plaster and assembled together like a puzzle. This type of mould can used over and over again. The network of slender strips and seams visible on the surface of many plasters show where the various pieces of the mould were joined together. It is therefore possible to identify the examples cast from this type of mould which was widely used by Rodin. Casting requires great skill both in taking the first impression and extracting the model. In the case of large-scale works, such as, for example, the Monument to Victor Hugo, the mould consisted of forty six parts, in turn formed of an infinite number of pieces. Each fragment is therefore prepared separately and then assembled together, a process which can be quite difficult for each piece must fit perfectly.
Rodin was one of the last sculptors to be assisted in a studio where the tasks were distributed according to the skills of each person. Although he sometimes allowed his best students to execute certain parts of his sculptures, especially the end pieces, a greater role was played by the casters, including Eugène Guioché, Paul Cruet and many others. Rodin loved working with plaster even more than with clay, and he increasingly turned to this technique, which was very new for the period, as he advanced in his career. He made a series of copies of each of his creations in plaster, and sometimes in clay, for the latter also lent itself well to casting operations. By preserving the evidence of each phase of his work, he had at his disposal a source of plasters which he could, at will, change, transform or assemble to others. Some show traces of pencil marks, others were modified with plastilina or directly on the plaster, or even embellished with an additional detail (a branch or a piece of fabric, see Assemblage of Two Eves and the Crouching Woman), and in most cases the seams have remained clearly visible, thus helping to recognize works derived from the same mould.
Assemblage of two figures of Eve and the Crouching Woman
96,5 x 55 x 36,5 cm
Photo : E. & P. Hesmerg
The series on Clemenceau is thus composed of about thirty different busts, for Rodin started each session from scratch using a plain plaster. He was not "superstitious either about bronze or about marble", noted Chéruy, one of his secretaries. "Since he was only interested in the form and the modelling, he preferred plaster and had taken great care to keep only fresh casts in his 'museum' despite the great expense ... Three casters were employed permanently ... His only regret was that plaster was fragile and could get dirty easily. 'How wonderful it would be" if one day an unbreakable plaster could be invented', he once told me" (arch. Rodin Museum). Rodin was not particularly attached to the "original" either. For him, one model had as much value as another, and a dirty or damaged plaster cast only deserved to be destroyed - and renewed. He therefore looked after his moulds very carefully, and in turn the Museum, aware of their value, also took great care of them, even completing them as time went by. Consequently, whenever it is decided to release a new "subject", a copy is first made from the old mould which can be sent without risk to the foundry where it undergoes the necessary preparations for casting. It is coated with an unmoulding agent, usually in a dark colour, and cut, before being cast again. This practice not only ensures absolute fidelity to the original but also preserves the old plasters which are obviously more valuable since they were made during the lifetime of Rodin.
As a working material, plaster is in principle merely a preliminary phase leading either to a bronze or a marble work. Just as a bronze is entrusted to a bronze caster, marble is carved by a practicien, often a sculptor who eventually makes a name for himself as an artist (Bourdelle, Despiau, Pompon, ...). Some of the plasters displayed (The Dream, window 2) were used as a model for carving the marble version and still show the reference marks, base points and small crosses in pencil which helped the practicien carve the desired form out of the block of marble. Nonetheless, unlike the traditional approach which implied that a marble version would be a faithful copy of a perfectly finished model, Rodin worked with great freedom, moving directly from small plasters to the final marble works. The maquettes are therefore simple indications, serving as a guideline for the pointers and practiciens whose work was closely supervised by the artist.
In Meudon, the large-scale sculptures are exhibited in the centre of the Museum on a platform inspired by the one seen in old photographs, while the smaller pieces are displayed in six showcases standing between the windows which allow light to stream through.
Of all these plasters, the most spectacular example is the one for The Gates of Hell on which Rodin worked throughout his career He kept it near him all the time, first at the Dépôt des Marbres and later in Meudon. This is the plaster which was exhibited in 1900; the small groups were detached from it during the winter of 1899-1900 in order to be transported. In actual fact, Rodin never put the figures back in their original place. He had by now gone beyond the principle of illusionary and perfectly defined relief, inherited from Italian Renaissance art, to concentrate on his search for immaterial space - even though it was suggested by the circles of Dante's Inferno - so that he could be free to express the most turbulent dreams of his contemporaries. The two showcases on each side of the Gate display some of the groups removed from the leaves. They still bear the reference marks which would enable them to be returned to their original place.
Rodin and Henriette Coltat sitting in front of The Gates of Hell
gelatin silver print
22,8 x 17,3 cm
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
The works presented in the showcases trace the progress of Rodin's creative process.
"... different parts of the body which, because of some inner necessity, belong one to the other, which for him (Rodin) are ordered on their own into one organism. A hand resting on the shoulder or thigh of another body no longer belongs completely to the person it comes from. Together, the hand and the object it touches or seizes form a new thing, something that is nameless and does not belong to anyone, and all is then focused on this specific thing which has defined limits. This discovery lies at the origin of Rodin's way of grouping shapes. It explains how the figures are linked together in an unprecedented manner, how the shapes hold together, and do not let go of each other at any cost" (R.M. Rilke, Auguste Rodin, 1928).
For Rodin, assemblage in all its forms was an unlimited and endless means of creation. He could, in any way he liked, articulate or disarticulate, take off or put back again, and freely arrange the figures with gestures which are often repeated or unexpected, compositions in which the figures escape from the traditional laws of weight. Pedestals rise while figures are turned over, constantly defying the legitimate order of things and their organization in space.
The subjects presented in window 21 in Meudon, including The Eternal Idol, the figures of the Danaid, Sorrow, Meditation and the Centauress, are excellent examples of this working method. The Eternal Idol of 1889 is one of the numerous subjects made in the 1880s on the theme of the couple, in connection with The Gates of Hell, and it was translated in several sizes. The small group, the study, the re-use of the female figure on her own or accompanied by a small branch of box tree, the assemblage of the male nude with a leaning female nude, are all variations of recognizable figures from the original group, presented in a new context.
The Inner Voice
58,8 x 26,7 x 24,8 cm
Photo : A. Rzepka
Rodin often returned to the figure of the Damned Soul made for The Gates of Hell around 1882-1885. This figure appears in different attitudes (sometimes male and sometimes female), with a protective gesture around a small crouching woman, or the figures of Adam and Eve who are no other than the man and woman in The Eternal Idol (The Creation). In another version, the figure is thrown backwards next to a standing female nude, or on the side to represent a triton in pursuit of a mermaid. It is this same figure holding a fauness tightly in the right arm in Desire, seeming to drag a standing old man backwards, rising into the air in the Prophetess, or escaping out of a panel in the company of a female nude.
Executed towards 1905 and acquired by August Thyssen, The Dream was translated into marble after a small plaster model which still shows reference points. This is in fact an assemblage, made around 1899, of two existing figures, Sorrow N° 1 presented in a horizontal position facing the ground, and a figure of a RecliningWoman, in this case with wings and thrown back, slightly grazing a sleeping figure with her gentle breath. The figure for Sorrow was modelled for The Gates of Hell and can be seen, in a standing position, at the top of the right leaf.
The figure of Meditation was also made for The Gates of Hell (tympanum) and again used for the Monument to Victor Hugo. It can be recognized as The Inner Voice in the maquettes for the monument exhibited on the platform.
The Centauress of 1889, initially called The Body and the Soul, is formed of an assemblage of the body of the horse from the Monument to General Lynch of 1886, and a female torso with outstretched arms. Rodin returned to this isolated torso, adding a right arm or placing it horizontally on the arms of the Minotaur. Two works presented separately under a bell, outside the showcase, confirm this innovative aspect of Rodin's art. These are a group composed of two statues of Eve (1881) and The Crouching Woman (1882), assembled in the same composition and set against a plaster panel on which a branch has been fixed. The Dried-up Springs, "two old women in a grotto, (these) women with dried breasts who no longer have any sexuality" (Journal of the Goncourts, 3 July 1889) were presented in Paris in 1889 at the Monet-Rodin exhibition. The figure, front and back, of The Old Helmet-maker's Wife (1885) was included in this group.
As a man who loved women, Rodin turned the female body into the main theme of his most intimate work. "The body is a cast on which passions are imprinted", he told Judith Cladel. Just as he rapidly noted the poses of models moving freely around the studio, he modelled in clay a countless number of fragments of the female body.
He eliminated from his works all that was not strictly necessary for their expression. Deprived of a head - for features diverted attention to the detriment of the body - of arms or legs, the torso became the hearth of a creative energy, the source and origin of life (Twisted female nude, kneeling). Several small seated female torsos are in reality variations made from the same model : the small headless female torso cradled in the cast of Rodin's hand comes from a group entitled Aurora and Tithonus. Enlarged and cut at the thighs, it was placed by Rodin on two points of plaster resting on a small wooden board, to produce a totally novel effect.
10,5 x 13,6 cm
10,6 x 13,5 cm
Rodin did not hesistate to use his figures again, even the most accomplished ones. Originally executed for the decor of a play inspired by the novel Aphrodite by Pierre Louys, performed at the Théâtre de la Renaissance in March 1914, the figure of the same name had its arms cut off in 1913. The same small crouching female nude is sometimes accompanied by a branch of holly or immersed in plaster milk to soften the shape and placed in a bowl, or even multiplied by three. After having removed the head and feet of the nude known as Dawn, Rodin obtained an extremely mobile torso freed from all constraints. The sculptor then represented the figure springing out of an antique vase from his personal collection. The "small floral souls springing out of antique vases" (Rilke to Rodin, Capri, 8 March 1908) are particularly attractive examples of Rodin's work.The innumerable possibilities of arranging forms are illustrated by a series of variations on The Female Sphinx. There are many different versions of this small figure: with her head leaning forwards or turned to the side, she is known as The Crouching Nymph.
She can also be seen on a small column with which she forms one piece; this assemblage was probably made by Rodin for the major retrospective of his work at the Pavillion de l'Alma in 1900. Again, the figure was placed in an antique cup with a mass of plaster pouring out of it to represent overflowing water and transformed into The Little Water Fairy (maquette and marble version exhibited in Paris).
The Female Sphinx on a Column
91,5 x 15,5 x 23 cm
Photo : A. Rzepka
The Dance Movements (exhibited at the Hôtel Biron) form a series apart. These small and very free works, made around 1910 - their precise date is very uncertain - were never shown during the lifetime of Rodin. He was particularly interested in the most modern styles of dance, as performed by Loïe Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Nijinsky or French Cancan dancers. The Cambodian dancers, whom he had the opportunity to watch in Marseilles during the Colonial Exhibition of 1906, were also a source of inspiration.
Rodin had a basic language which served as the foundation for all his sculptures and it is an important key to understanding his work. The "abattis", as he called his series of small heads, arms, feet, hands and legs, were used like construction elements. These small carefully kept fragments were cast in series depending on the needs of the sculptor and formed a repertory of forms which he could constantly draw upon to complete his fragmentary figures, make variations based on existing works or create totally new compositions. The display of a selection of these body fragments plunges us into the very heart of Rodin's work. "Small things", reported Sir Gerald Kelly, "half life-size, and he never threw away a single one ... They were arranged in shallow drawers ... which had to be opened with great precaution so that they did not get stuck, and there were all these tiny hands, I loved to look at them. And he (Rodin) showed me the hands, and we picked one or two that were particularly good. I remember him holding a small hand in each of his and saying 'How good they are!' with a big smile".
Among the numerous hands by Rodin, one can distinguish between the studies for specific figures and those sculpted as autonomous pieces. Rodin often resorted to practiciens to produce studies of hands and feet for his figures, and he probably confided this type of work to Camille Claudel for The Burghers of Calais. This was not an insignificant task for Rodin himself insisted on the need to make "big feet" to give his figures solid support and stature. Likewise, the sculptor attached special importance to hands, both plastic and symbolic, to give full expression to the gesture he wished to protray.
"It is up to the artist to make from a lot of things, something else that is unique, and from the smallest part of something, a world. There are in the work of Rodin "small independent hands which, without belonging to a body, are alive. Hands that rise, irritated and evil, hands which seem to be barking with their five fingers bristling, like the five throats of a dog from hell. Hands that walk, that sleep, and hands that wake up ..." (R.M. Rilke, Auguste Rodin, 1928).
Rodin installing the plaster of a Clenchd Hand and Imploring Figure
gelatin silver print
16,7 x 11,7 cm
Conceived as works in their own right - Hand of a Pianist, Clenched Hand, right and left, small and big - they have a unique and independent quality. A large number of small-scale studies in plaster and clay complete this series. Rodin used these variations to make maximum use of the expressive power of the hand. Several of them clearly suffer from a disease and are deformed. Whether they are studies or independent works, the hands Rodin modelled were used repeatedly for new compositions. It is in the hand of Pierre de Wissant, one of the Burghers of Calais, that he placed a man and woman to represent The Hand of God (1902, marble, exhibited in Paris). Following the same principle, a female nude rests in the upturned Hand of a Pianist. Elsewhere, two hands are assembled together, as in the Study for The Secret, with a concern that was first and foremost plastic. Some of these assemblages later took on a new allegorical or symbolic meaning (The Hand of the Devil, 1903; Hands of Lovers, 1904; The Cathedral, 1908; The Secret, 1909, marble and stone, exhibited in Paris). All this creative work is reflected, and in a way summarized, by the cast of Rodin's hand taken a few weeks before he died, in which was placed a study of the same small female torso exhibited in the next showcase.
Rodin the Sculptor - Rodin the Sketcher - Rodin the Painter and Engraver
Rodin the Collector - Meudon - Archives - Photographs - Camille Claudel