Auguste Rodin: Prophet of Modernism

The sculptor eschewed cool, classic style for a rougher, more turbulent approach

The French sculptor Auguste Rodin's works are seared into our collective cultural awareness in the same way that painter Claude Monet's masterpieces are - as one of the earliest incursions into modernism. The irony is that what seemed revolutionary in the late-19th century now appears almost docile.

A great cache of Rodin sculpture is now on view at the San Diego Museum of Art. The exhibition treats viewers to several final full-scale versions of famous works that everyone recognizes, such as "The Thinker" and "The Kiss." The pieces are on loan from the B. Gerald Cantor Collection, based in Los Angeles. It is perhaps the most comprehensive and respected private collection of Rodin works in the world.

Rodin, like his contemporary Monet, overturned accepted styles and assumptions. After being rejected from the official French art academy, the cole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Rodin worked in decorative masonry until a trip to Italy in 1875 introduced him to Michelangelo's sculpture.

Later, Rodin took on the French art establishment when he abandoned polished and classical approaches to the human form. He wrested bodies, hands, and heroes out of gnarled, spiky, and agitated surfaces, hoping to suggest some descriptive, archetypal energy behind the object, rather than simply depicting the object.

The exhibition covers the period between 1860 and 1908, considered the artist's most productive years. During this time, Rodin broke with the conventions of strict realism and began making the evocative work that we now associate with him. (Whether Rodin "borrowed" and then claimed the style from his gifted and impassioned student Camille Claudel is a question that lingers as you take in this show.)

From these years come works such as "The Age of Bronze," directly inspired by Michelangelo. The male figure demonstrates how drastically Rodin modified, and parted from, the 2,000-year-old tradition of Greco-Roman figuration. Also on view are figures from the sculptor's ambitious project "The Gates of Hell."

Inspired by Dante's "Inferno," the gates were to have formed the main entrance leading to a proposed museum of decorative arts to be built in Paris.

According to the artist's designs and the figures he actually executed, the monumental doors were intended to include hundreds of figures bound together compositionally. The bodies were to be caught in twisted, intense postures that would carry the eye into the architecture.

Rodin's famous "Thinker" was designed to sit in the panel above these enormous doors. Unfortunately, neither the doors nor the museum were built, yet fragments from the project have become major contributions to the forward momentum of art history.

Besides the ubiquitous "Thinker," whose image even made the television circuit as the icon for the goofy "Dobie Gillis" show in the 1960s, this excellent San Diego exhibition includes less mainstream works and some rarely seen and very fine fragments from "The Gates of Hell," which occupied Rodin intermittently until his death in 1917.

More academically respected works such as "The Burghers of Calais" and Rodin's insightful portrait of 18th-century writer Honore de Balzac also appear in the show as full-scale versions and smaller studies.

This excellent and unexpected treat of an exhibition, tucked into Balboa Park in downtown San Diego, is filled out with a sprinkling of generic portraits, symbolic figures, splendid anatomical treatments of huge poetic-looking hands, as well as single and multiple figures and maquettes (small preliminary models that are to sculptors what a sketch is to painters).

The maquettes are fascinating because they show the step-by-step creative process in which Rodin "found" and perfected his approach.

When we are afforded this opportunity to look back at Rodin, and he strikes us as somewhat less than revolutionary, it is important to remember that he set the stage for generations of sculptors to come, from Picasso to Giacometti.

* 'Rodin: Sculpture From the B. Gerald Cantor Collection' continues at the San Diego Museum of Art through March 31. It will be shown at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb., July 15 to Sept. 30 and the Albuquerque Museum in Albuquerque, N.M., Oct. 15 to Jan. 10, 1997. Other venues are under discussion.

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