Sculpture remains one of the most approachable of all classical art-forms. Auguste Rodin’s radical – and often sensual – works are now of global renown, conveying moments of intense human feeling in a style the world had never seen before. In this post, we look at why Rodin matters and how his personal methods created Greater intimacy between us, the viewers, and the subjects whose many states of mind he wished to plunge us into.
How do you convey a feeling?
If this is a question that interests you, you’re probably a person.
It’s also the inspiration for some of our Greatest creations: from visual, written and aural art to less obvious emotional outlets, such as the rogue wines of passionate producers and the daring concoctions of restless chefs.
Artists frequently draw inspiration from aspects of the human psyche they’re familiar with themselves, through their own feelings, or have observed with curiosity in others. When an artist’s depiction of one of these feelings interests you – perhaps you find a song comforting, or a poem confrontational – you might even allow yourself to dwell on it for a while.
But what’s most exciting of all is when an artist comes along and reinvents his chosen medium entirely, conveying age-old feelings in a novel way that touches people universally.
And this, in a nutshell, is what’s so special about Auguste Rodin’s emotionally-charged sculptures. He felt his subjects. Check out the video that heads this page to see this sense of feeling demonstrated through one of his most famous works: The Kiss (Le Baiser).
Rodin in Context
Of course, Rodin is far from alone in having had this talent. Caravaggio and Monet, to name but two, were similarly blessed. They, too, felt their subjects in a different way to their peers – it’s the very basis for their genius.
Caravaggio connected with the depth, desperation and (often) darkness of the humans in his scenes, juxtaposing them with striking luminosity to create paintings of solemn beauty. He felt the vivid drama of the stories he depicted intimately, and his empathy is what allowed him to plunge us – the viewer – right into them with such oomph.
For Monet, it was about conveying the delicacy and inter-connectivity he saw in the surrounding world. He deconstructed scenes made up of seemingly distinct elements into minuscule segments, before remixing them in a manner that was both precise and haphazard. In doing so, he freed each element from the constraints of linear form and amplified what he saw as their collective sweetness – each smudge-stroke contributing discretely to the feel of a magnificent whole.
Both Caravaggio and Monet communicated a feeling: the former, thundering and dramatic; the latter, deft and serene.
But that was painted art.
Sculpture, on the other hand, had always evolved at a different pace. For a long time it hardly evolved at all, in fact. Rodin is the guy who returned some peps to the medium, transforming sculpture from something static and situational…
… to something deeply human with a sense of movement, firmly focused on showcasing the human spirit’s beautiful and ugly truths:
When Rodin began sculpting in the 1860s, sculpture was used almost exclusively to convey religious stories and old legends. It often looked like the sculptor was just looking in on these stories from a distance, in a dead-pan manner. Sculpture in the period just before Rodin had grown about as stale as the political sermons of grumpy cabbies.
Yet within a few decades, Rodin had recharged sculpture as an art-form, making it what we now call modern – meaning, something that depicts the subject’s emotions more vividly and denotes movement. He was particularly intent on isolating the fleeting moments of maximum feeling that occur in the split-second before one feeling evolves into another.
The sculptor represents the transition from one pose to another… he indicates how insensibly the first glides into the second. In his work we still see a part of what was and we discover a part of what is to be.
Auguste Rodin (subsequent quotes also by Rodin)
The real stories behind the figures he crafted were often kept private by Rodin. He wished to create an atmosphere of sentimental freedom for us as viewers: he felt there should be no correct or incorrect way of judging the characters laid bare in his work. Instead, Rodin’s concern was to convey the states of mind of his subjects in a way that might, occasionally, speak to us all. For him, this meant avoiding the temptation to embellish the aesthetics of his subjects.
There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say, that which offers no outer or inner truth.
Looking below the surface of the world, Rodin nurtured an acute ability to convey the physical expression of moments of inner turmoil or intense human connection. In many of his busts, he would deliberately craft the eyes of his subjects in minimal detail, as a means of inviting us to peer into – or imagine – their psyches, rather than focusing on the aesthetics of their faces. He was interested in the inner world of feeling and the polarising experiences of passion and despair. In other words: inhabiting an emotional world far removed from the boredom and banality of everyday life he found so intolerable.
Rodin in short
If we summarised Rodin’s work into four headlines, it’d come down to this:
1. Loyalty to nature
Rodin neither idolised nor demonised the characters he depicted, seeking instead to simply capture what is, much as Brassai would do for photography. He wished to expose what he saw in people, and often, what he thought those people saw in themselves. He passionately believed that nature was inherently beautiful, in all its Great and also crappy reality. He used naturalism as a potent emotional vehicle in almost all of his work.
2. Carefully-chosen materials
Rodin sensed that the surface ‘finish’ and contours of his sculptures could add to their emotional impact. His technique for manipulating some of his bronze works was deliberately rugged and expressive. He also worked to make some of them light-catching, to add life to his figures. Given that many of his works were once exhibited under candlelight, this added an uncanny intimacy to them. More generally, Rodin picked different materials to sculpt different figurines from, viewing each material as an extension of the character or feeling being depicted. Hence, many of his most sensual works are in marble or wax, whilst his heavier-themed pieces on the human condition were often cast in bronze.
It’s pretty neat.
3. Sex and sensuality
Rodin is perhaps most famous for his ability to convey the feeling of human connection and romantic movement. Which couple doesn’t feel in some way moved by The Kiss? That moment, one milli-second before their lips meet, in which a woman’s foot arches in anticipation? There’s incredible passion and bonding apparent in his man-and-woman duos, and a clear sense of harmony between the sexes.
For his time – and even for France – some of Rodin’s work was also quite radical in its sexuality, not just sensuality. Putting it bluntly, he felt sex was an ultimate form of art. He was also one frisky Frenchman, by all accounts. So Rodin used sensual contours, the gloss of bronze, and deliberately explicit poses to excite viewers of his work. He was also one of the first to depict lesbianism, too.
It’s pretty meat.
People say I think too much about women, yet, after all… what is there more important to think about?
Rodin was keen to unshackle himself from prior sculptural norms, which he found sterile and suffocating. Unlike his predecessors, he’d start pieces with no clear objective as to how they should evolve. Instead, he allowed himself a certain spontaneity. He frequently omitted body parts from his works and was among the early believers in the idea that an individual body part could be a worthy work of art in and of itself. Modern artists like Matisse would later run with the freedom Rodin had given them in this area.
I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need. Recently I have taken to isolating limbs, the torso. Why am I blamed for it? Why is the head allowed and not portions of the body? Every part of the human figure is expressive.
I’d like to think that Rodin’s work can find resonance with everyone. The emotional intensity of his most famous pieces was Great a source of inspiration for many artists who followed him, including Brancusi and Maillol. Of those I have had the pleasure of introducing to Rodin, I know very few who have failed to be moved by his perceptive recreations of human feelings, and of his own feelings, in sculpted form. To take the time to soak them in is to take a moment to connect to humanity as a whole, in a way that our self-engrossed instincts often obstruct.
This is the work of a man who loved the extremes nestled inside all people; who loved making us more accessible to ourselves; and above all, who loved what he devoted his every day to creating.
Work lovingly done is the secret of all order and all happiness.
On your next trip to Paris, I’d urge you not to miss him.