Rodin: Thinking About Form

            Auguste Rodin is a famous French artist from the Modernist era, most notable attributed to great works of sculpture such as his The Thinker (1879-1889). This essay will however be focusing its attention on two of Rodin’s other sculptures: St. John The Baptist Preaching (1878) and Paolo and Francesca (1887-1889). The context of this essay will be a compare and contrast in the elements and use of light and dark, form, function, cultural significance (if any) and the overall affect of the statues.

            St. John The Baptist Preaching (1878) is a study of the male nude form. This is Rodin’s second attempt of a male nude statue (the first being The Age of Bronze 1877). Since it is Rodin’s second attempt at a male nude, the viewer should find it important to note the contrast from first to second sculpture and the progress in between them. This sculpture allows for a freedom of movement that had not been witnessed in Rodin’s earlier work. Another thing of great interest to the viewer is that Rodin (akin to Michelangelo’s David) has made this sculpture larger than the usual proportions of a man. The statue stands at 6’7”; with such a drastic change of features in the form the viewer may place special significance to this larger than life man. Indeed, perhaps Rodin is trying to use the statue’s height in a symbolic fashion –making a statement of the importance of Christ’s cousin who was beheaded. In this vision, John sacrificed himself – could the sculpture then be in small part a self-portrait of the artist? While Rodin had been criticized with his first statue The Age of Bronze of surmoulage he wanted to ensure to his viewers that this second sculpture had no such connotations. Thus, this second sculpture was set up for Rodin to prove himself to the art world and in this way perhaps the statue is a self-portrait – a way in which Rodin could express his desires of being a great sculpture and finding his way without having his head removed from his shoulders (as this sculpture shows John the Baptist as fully functioning).

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            The sculpture St. John the Baptist Preaching has the man walking toward something that is left of the artwork. Perhaps the statue is walking toward the viewer. The interesting part of this sculpture is that while John’s feet are both on the ground Rodin manages to have the sculpture appear to be walking. This is accomplished by that Greek invention of contrapossto – of the S-curve of the body. The man’s hips are shifted showing a body weight distribution from one side to the other – and although this is done in slight measures with no great emphasis (as say in the sculpture the disc thrower in ancient Rome) the viewer is able to discern the desired affect.

            Although the title of the work has a religious theme, the statue is given no environment or object in which to otherwise decide any religious context. One can imagine that perhaps the model brought to the mind of the artist a slight resemblance in demeanor or stance of John the Baptist and because the Church did not commission the artwork, the viewer is left to question what the artist had in mind when he came up with the title. Despite this quandary, the statue stands as a great piece of art in other regards.

            Rodin’s function of the body is obvious to the viewer when gazing upon this early example of his work. The body’s tone and muscle movement all pinpoint to one fluid motion of the hips twisting and the body repositioning itself into that lifting of the leg into a purposeful gait. The body is not tense, as can be seen with the relaxed shoulders and the fact that Rodin does not have John running. The statue is somewhat inviting as there is no aggression in the facial expression. However, the viewer may be reminded of those looks on the early Roman faces in which stoicism was the ultimate goal of any feeling in a sculpture’s work. Indeed, John the Baptist seems to be peering out into a void ready to walk into the depths of hell but his facial expression gives nothing of fear away. If this would be considered a self-portrait, one would wonder if the look in the Saint’s eyes was the same look in Rodin’s as he set forth with this second sculpture to prove to the art world that he did not caste this sculpture from a model as he was accused of doing but rather, the look of John’s eyes set forth to prove the worth of himself against the odds of the world. This is perhaps Rodin’s sentiment in pursuing this sculpture.

            While there is nothing notably religious about Rodin’s St. John the Baptist Preaching excepting the title of the work, there is something rather strongly religious, or at least literary in Rodin’s sculpture Paolo and Francesca. In fact, the religious connotations take place in Dante’s The Divine Comedy in Canto V. It is in the writer’s and Virgil’s journey into the second circle of hell that they come in contact with carnal sinners. That is, sinners of the flesh, as Dante relates,

One day we reading were for our delight
Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral.
Alone we were and without any fear.

Full many a time our eyes together drew
That reading, and drove the colour from our faces;
But one point only was it that o’ercame us.

When as we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne’er from me shall be divided,

Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.
Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it.
That day no farther did we read therein.” (Dante Canto V).

In the story, the two lovers are caught by Francesca’s husband (Paolo’s brother) and are slain, so, in eternity they are constantly slain or whipped by the black air around them. However, in Rodin’s sculpture, or depiction of these two lovers, they are rendered prior to their deaths and stygian fate. Rodin has chosen to capture the two lovers in a time as their passion is at its height. The lovers are rendered in bronze and are given that same hue of something akin to obsidian as the St. John statue. The sculpture has the two lovers tossing about in frantic passion; one figure looms over the other awash with desire. It is this moment of passion and carnal love which so inspired Rodin.

The bodies of the lovers catch the light in such a way as they appear to be moving. Despite the attention to detail which Rodin gave to the sculpture it is this movement of light over the bodies which is so captivating to the viewer. Although Rodin’s St. John piece has the same elements in it as this one (the bronze, the movement of the muscles over the action of the figures) it seems that the position of the bodies are so alluring that despite that these two end up in hell together for these actions, Rodin has given the audience something to envision: Passion.

The viewer immediately knows that Rodin cared very much for this sculpture. As can be seen with his attention to details in the looming figure poised over his prize; Francesca’s body looms over Paolo’s form as the light of the museum reflects off of their bodies as though it were sweat glistening. These may seem like romantic details but the view and the fact that Rodin created the moment between the lovers as still holding each other, make this a remarkable sculpture.

In comparison with St. John, this sculpture does not boast a more than life size structure. Indeed, the sculpture is only 11 13/16 x 25 x 12 in. The fact that there is so much action in this tiny sculpture makes it that much more full of life than the slow but purposeful walking of the Saint. The struggle of the bodies against each other and for each other captured in mere inches makes the viewer come closer to the sculpture in order to gather in the smallest details which in turn makes them peer harder and makes the viewer a voyeur. Rodin has successfully made the viewer a voyeur in this artwork while in the Saint work he makes them an art patron appreciating form. There is a message in this second sculpture: that of not wanting to commit a sin but being entranced by others who do. There is no moral lesson that Rodin is trying to teach in either of his works: he is not preaching to the viewers, he is merely creating great art through bronze. There are no political suggestions and although both works have religion as their theme perse, they are not proselytizing works commissioned by the Church.

There is a certain dynamic which Rodin is portraying in this sculpture that cannot be seen with his John sculpture. That is, that of the division of male and female. There is no temptress diversion as with most artists who are depicting the fall of man with Eve tempting Adam into eating the apple. The way in which Rodin has positioned the bodies on top of each other in this sculpture it is clear that the love and thus the sin of the love and the act of sex that will follow is orchestrated by both male and female. While the enforcement portrayed in Rodin’s The Kiss with Francesca slinging one leg across Paolo’s hips thus emphasizing the male’s hesitation with the affair, in this sculpture there is no aggressor. The way the bodies form across each other in supine grace the viewer is not assaulted with a barbaric forcefulness but rather their bodies are like water moving across each other – that is to say that the bodies compliment each other.

There does seem to be a look of in the faces of the lovers akin to that of John. All three subjects bear this stoic glance. Although both sculptures have their subjects depicted as moving toward something – either in love or toward something unknowable to the audience, their faces give nothing of their feelings or geography away. It seems that while Rodin was a master of the body and of giving the slightest and subtlest of movements to his art, he did not extend that subtlety to the physiognomy. Neither the lovers nor John’s face give signs of anger, love, passion, betrayal or fear and it is this stoicism that is so hard to grasp when considering how beautiful the sculptures are and in consideration of Rodin’s other masterpieces. Being a voyeur to the lover’s scene and gazing into John’s face an unsettling feeling overtakes the viewer as though they are staring into their destiny sans fear. That is what combines these two great works; the actions of the subjects despite their destinies or fates. John becomes a martyr as do the lovers for their love and no where in their facial expressions are the sculpture’s permitting fear to mark their decision.

In either work it is clear that Rodin is shaping his figures from a great artist’s love for the human form – whether that form is involved in a sinful love or involved in the simple movement of walking. The stoicism which has marked this paper as a main element in the facial expressions of Rodin’s subjects is one in which this viewer cannot but imagine that Rodin desired no sympathy for the choices his subjects made in their real or literary lives but rather to take the shape of his forms as beauty even with the connotations of hell or beheadings are the destinies of his subjects, it makes them nonetheless beautiful in the moments he has imagined them in. Suffice it to say that Rodin, the French sculpture is as great as Michelangelo was and in saying that with the consideration of knowing full well the significance of the statement, Rodin was an artistic genius. His sculptures as discussed in this essay allow the viewer to become a voyeur and participate in the subject’s movements and passions as if they were their own. The way in which Rodin included a variance of sizes for each form greatly contributes to this thesis. In conclusion, either sculpture exudes some sort of recognized genius, from St. John’s exact details to the passion of the lovers living together in hell.

Bibliography

Dante, A. “The Divine Comedy”. Online. Accessed 5 May 2009.

            http://www.rodin-web.org/works/1880_kiss.htm

Elsen, Albert. “The Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin.” Google Books. Online. Accessed

5 May 2009. http://books.google.com/books?id=ORSsAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA20&lpg=PA20&dq=Auguste+Rodin,+%22Paolo+and+Francesca%22&source=bl&ots=sspAqXckNQ&sig=Ch_xkrDe_jI_16uXLQYjpLULTdg&hl=en&ei=U6__SYnzGIOOjAeA-Yj_Bg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5#PPP1,M1

 

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