Rodin, once out of favor, is in again

FROM roughly 1920 to about 1950, it looked as though Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) might end up on the dustheap of art history. Everyone had heard of him, of course, and knew that his sculpture ``The Thinker'' was one of the world's most famous. It was also common knowledge that he had shocked Victorian sensibilities with the frank eroticism of his marble ``The Kiss,'' that he had produced a controversial statue of Balzac, and that kings and important statesmen felt honored to be received by him in his studio.

All that counted for very little, however, in the face of more recent modernist opinion that he and his work belonged exclusively to the past, and that his vision and approach had been superseded by those of Brancusi, Arp, Gonz'alez, and Calder. Let the public and a few museum directors and collectors think what they might, insisted most of the influential tastemakers of the time: Rodin's importance for the 20th century was very close to nil. In fact, if truth be told, it was against him that most of the truly innovative sculptors had rebelled.

Rodin's reputation began to improve by the mid-1950s, however, thanks largely to critical reappraisals by Albert Elsen and Leo Steinberg and to a major exhibition of 20th-century sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, in which Rodin was featured as the percursor of modern sculpture. By the 1960s, his rehabilitation had gained momentum, with important retrospectives in Europe and America, and increasingly favorable critical attention paid to his work.

Leo Steinberg summarized this new attitude toward Rodin in 1972: ``Within the Western anatomic-figure tradition, Rodin is indeed the last sculptor. Yet he is also the first of a new wave, for his tragic sense of man victimized is expressed through a formal intuition of energies other than anatomical. . . . For, while modern art was in the making Rodin seemed irrelevant. And now . . . it is relevance that astonishes us as we look again.''

That relevance -- as well as the quality of Rodin's work -- had a particularly powerful effect on a young man just out of the army and back in New York to resume his career in the securities business. B. Gerald Cantor was so impressed by Rodin's ``Hand of God,'' which he had seen during a 1945 visit to the Metropolitan Museum, that he purchased another version of it. But that was only the beginning. Over the next 40 years, Cantor gave unqualified support to Rodin studies, assembled the world's largest and most comprehensive private collection of his work, and donated a large portion of that collection to various museums and universities. Among the recipients was the Metropolitan Museum, which in 1983 received 31 sculptures as well as funds to build a 10,000-square-foot gallery for special exhibitions.

``Rodin: The B. Gerald Cantor Collection,'' currently at the Metropolitan, serves both as the inaugural exhibition of that gallery and as an impressive vindication of Cantor's commitment to Rodin. Its 70 works include a few of the artist's major pieces, as well as portraits, studies, prints, drawings, and photographs. Of particular interest is the new bronze cast of ``The Burghers of Calais,'' which dominates one large room, and which was commissioned especially for the occasion.

It was Rodin's first completed major public sculpture. It commemorates an incident during the Hundred Years' War, when six leading citizens of Calais offered to give themselves as hostages to King Edward III of England in return for his lifting the 11-month siege of the city. Rodin depicts them as they are about to leave the city to march to the king's camp and their execution (which was not carried out, however, because the queen pleaded for mercy for them).

The monumental ``The Gates of Hell'' also plays a significant role in this exhibition, but only because of the inclusion of numerous studies for its various details. In many ways, these reveal Rodin's gifts at their purest and most effective. No one before him, certainly, had ever attempted anything similar to ``Fugitive Love,'' ``Danaid,'' or ``Despair.'' And ``Crouching Woman,'' while somewhat reminiscent of Michelangelo, is pure Rodin in its ability to convey both dignity and suffering through the highly compact form and agitated muscular activity.

It was in his studies of dance movements, however, that Rodin was most original and ``modern,'' for they focus almost exclusively on the shapes and patterns created by movement and pay little attention to anatomical accuracy. Unlike Degas before him, who had been attracted to classical ballet, Rodin found only modern dance to his liking. Both Isadora Duncan and Nijinsky posed for him. His tiny, unfinished plaster of the latter, in fact, is one of the highlights of the show.

Was Rodin a great sculptor?

I doubt that anyone can deny it. ``The Burghers of Calais,'' ``The Gates of Hell,'' and ``The Kiss,'' alone, argue convincingly that he was. And yet I, for one -- though impressed and occasionally awed by his work -- have never been greatly moved by it. Perhaps it's because his larger bronzes are so aggressively and unremittingly heavy and project a confusing surface sheen. Perhaps it's because they fail to register as clearly defined, memorable images -- in the way Degas' stunning bronze ``The Little Fourteen-Year Old Dancer'' does so beautifully.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art through June 15.

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