Rodin in the rough. The sculptor's works in progress dwell in rural seclusion amid the hard-hewn beauty of the Columbia Gorge

RODIN the sculptor thought in massive forms. He dealt in elements. Sorrow. Power. Anguish. Movement. The outspoken features of the human condition in extremis. So it should be no surprise to find him here.

The creator of ``The Thinker'' belongs in a region where the earth itself thrusts a shoulder into the sky and moves the weather roughly around. And where the fate of his work still brews a storm of tumult and controversy for the world around it.

To reach this world, you follow Washington State Highway 14 along the lonely Columbia River past the ragged edge of civilization. Nobody and nothing greets you. Across the river, Oregon disappears into unpeopled distances. The promontory road carves its way into a high, empty solitude.

Then you see a mailbox, a driveway, and finally the Maryhill Museum.

Perched on the edge of an abutment, the Maryhill can only be described as a Flemish castle-cum-French chateau. Like a perfect wedding cake, the museum sits in splendid desolation, occupying the high ground above the gorge. A peacock struts across the expansive, neatly manicured grounds. The rosy stone reflects a hard morning light.

More than 1,500 feet below, the Columbia River, all bloated by dams, runs.

In this appropriately dramatic but otherwise unlikely setting, you find one of the world's most interesting collections of Rodin drawings and sculptures: works from his studio. Some finished bronzes, but mostly sketches in plaster, terra cotta, stone; 26 rough drawings and watercolors. Fragments like a hand, a nose, an elbow. In sum, a portrait of the artist as a constant thinker and doer.

A terra-cotta mask and some tentative castings prefigure the heavy-footed sorrow of ``The Burghers of Calais.'' There are studies for ``The Thinker'' and ``Eve.''

The museum houses other collections - some valuable and impressive artifacts from the prehistory of the mid-Columbia, and a highly intriguing chess set collection; but it is for the Rodins that the Maryhill is justly known among scholars and lovers of his work.

``I am one of the fortunate few who have made the pilgrimage to that museum,'' says Kirk Varnedoe, acting director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and an authority on Rodin's work. ``There are things that I would have thought Rodin would never let out of his studio.''

He calls these pieces ``a very idiosyncratic collection, certainly important to Rodin scholars.''

``The Maryhill holds pieces that really show a work in process,'' observes Joan Miller, curator of the world's largest private Rodin collection, the B.Gerald Cantor Collection. ``You find the fingerprint of the artist there.''

You also find the lingering traces of a raging controversy.

In the mid-1970s, the Maryhill came under investigation by the Washington State attorney general's office. The trustees were accused of negligence. There were suggestions of corruption, as valuable Indian artifacts belonging to the museum had been sold off.

Indications were that the Rodin collection had fallen into incompetent hands.

``They made the house carpenter the curator,'' complains Albert Elsen, one of the world's foremost Rodin scholars. ``The trustees commissioned a worthless catalog. Very prominent in the catalog is an acknowledged fake.''

Dr. Elsen, professor of art history and art law at Stanford University, also charges that the plaster cast of ``Eve'' was ``restored too adventurously'' when some of the pencil marks left on the plaster by Rodin were removed.

The trustees have all been replaced through rotation and voluntary retirement. ``My impression is that now things are better run,'' Elsen adds, giving some credit to the new director, Linda Mountain.

Ms. Mountain herself is inclined to write off the debacle of the '70s to ignorance and to ``problems of small museums with boards of trustees'' that made the transition from private to quasi-public institutions. Now, she points out, the Maryhill operates under new bylaws and more sophisticated trustees.

She invites anyone who questions how well the museum came through the crisis of mismanagement to look at the collections and let them speak for themselves.

Certainly, the works on display here speak eloquently on their own behalf. The worked forms of fishing tools and talismans from the Indian collection, for instance, bear a strange family resemblance to the Rodins. The feeling of mass and humanity strikes a similar chord. Petroglyphs, ancient voices frozen in stone, make a heavy statement of their own.

One can only speculate as to how much damage was done to this collection during the ill-advised selling of precious objects. Mountain maintains that the only person who could estimate the loss was the long-since-deceased first director, Clifford Dolth. She adds that lost items were replaced with something of value.

``Our chess set collection was purchased during that time.'' This collection runs from a plastic set of Nixon-McGovern caricature pieces to a death specter 20th-century set by artist George Rataki to the ornate chess calligraphy of artists from India. The whole collection is chock-full of a sorcerer's apprentice creation of forms and characters.

If anything was lost from the Rodin collection, it was probably the continuity of scholar-ship that might have been preserved had the museum been in more experienced hands.

``It is like looking at a grave-robber's haul,'' observes Mr. Varnedoe. ``You've lost the context.''

What is known about this valuable little collection is that it was acquired at the hands of Loie Fuller, a dancer who was a friend of both Auguste Rodin and Sam Hill, a road-builder and empire conceiver. Hill came to the Northwest country in about 1900 and decided he would start an agricultural community - one that he hoped would thrive and get bigger. He named the town he founded after his daughter, Mary.

He built this castle - with ramps running into the first floor, so he could drive the cars he loved to collect into the vestibule of his home. He had a mammoth replica of Stonehenge built across the way, on the Oregon side of the Columbia.

Hill and his town hung out their shingle.

Some people came, but few stayed. This part of the world yields a living only grudgingly. The museum founded on Hill's failed expectations can only stay open from mid-March to September, because it's just too hard to get here in the winter.

But that didn't stop Hill, and it never deterred Loie Fuller, either.

She acquired the works for Hill right out of Rodin's studio.

A small model for ``The Thinker'' bears the pencil-scrawled inscription, ```A Loie. Rodin.'' By the time he died, a tidy collection of valuable works had made their way here. And, context or not, they still tell a compelling story about the sculptor and his concerns.

More than finished bronzes, the studies draw you through the many permutations of Rodin's art. You see him doggedly at the business of finding out how much he could say in stone and metal. ``That's what's wonderful about this collection,'' says Joan Miller. ``The terra cottas, the stone, the plasters bear the patina of the artist more than the finished bronzes. Being exposed to them is wonderful.''

There's ``Christ and the Magdalene,'' for instance, with its twisted torsos and overarching muscularity, framed in a window through which you can see the long, stony shoulders of the Columbia Gorge.

Over the course of the next few months, about 70,000 people will make the pilgrimage to this collection, 90 miles from Portland and a million years back in geologic splendor. It's a strange journey. ``But as the French say,'' Elsen muses, ``it's worth the detour.''

A May 3 article on the Maryhill Museum in Maryhill, Wash., erroneously described a replica of Stonehenge built by industrialist Sam Hill as being on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. The structure is, in fact, on the Washington side.

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