Pleasing himself

Peter Campbell

  • Rodin: A Biography by Frederic Grunfeld
    Hutchinson, 738 pp, £30.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 09 170690 4

In his grand old age Rodin became a notorious toucher. One account has it that ‘in the course of a conversation he would embrace every breast and phallus within reach,’ his large hands recapitulating the act of modelling – unless it was modelling that recapitulated touching. Frederic Grunfeld suggests that Rodin’s tactile exploration of the world was in part at least a consequence of his congenital short sight. Whatever the truth of that, the bodies he made were not a product of clinical objectivity, and Pygmalion-like ambiguities concerning the relation of flesh to clay abound. It makes it hard to place him: he had allies among the Impressionists, but his work makes more sense when viewed in a tradition which includes Carpeaux, or even Sargent.

When he was modelling a head he would circle his sitter and check out the shape from above and below in order that profiles from all angles might be reconciled. (Pope Benedict XV didn’t like being seen in the round and frustrated Rodin by insisting on facing him the whole time: ‘he had positioned himself in what he regarded as the most flattering pose and made it impossible for me to see anything of his sacred ear. I did my best to move to a different point of view, but as I moved, so did he.’) Full face, three-quarter face, side and back views may look different, but they are all part of the same head. Grunfeld has taken profiles for his portrait of Rodin from documents. Some comments are contradictory, but his portrait, like the best of Rodin’s, adds up. The character he has drawn has the vivacity of a study done from nature. He is concerned with narrative, not interpretation, but themes in the life are absolutely central to an understanding of the work and the contradictions it seems to contain.

First there is the matter of the years he spent as a brilliant, if stubborn craftsman working on other men’s projects. For half his working life he spent most of his sculptural energy adding to the frothing wave of architectural ornaments and emblematic figures which give such high production value to the façades and interiors of pre-World War One buildings. Then there are his relations with the mistress-models (Rose Beuret, Camille Claudel, Gwen John, Claire de Choiseul and others) whose faces and bodies figure as prominently in his sculpture as their feelings for him did in their lives. And there are details of studio practice. The stages whereby a malleable clay face or figure metamorphosed into marble or bronze, grew larger, and was put in new combinations under new titles are crucial to an understanding of the status of the different manifestations of each work. Almost as important are the mechanisms of public patronage, which was the immediate cause of Rodin’s most ambitious projects, and his relations with private patrons who in the end brought him great prosperity.

Rodin was the son of a police officer. At 14, when, as he later put it, ‘a poor boy begins to learn a trade,’ he chose his. His father thought, a sculptor was a ‘kind of high-class stone-mason. He learned they received a good salary.’ So there was no objection. He failed to get into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and did not pursue other connections (with, for example, the animal sculptor Barye). But at the Petite Ecole de Dessin – a trade school in its origins and something of a poor relation to the Beaux-Arts – he learned to draw and discovered a passion for modelling. It came easily: ‘I modelled with as much ease as I do today. I was in ecstasy.’ The most remarkable legacy of this time was a highly-trained visual memory: the result of the teaching he had from one Père Lecoq, who made his pupils look intently and logically at paintings and sculpture and then wait for days or even weeks before reproducing the image held in the mind’s eye. Rodin would eventually go to the other extreme, and elide the gap between looking and drawing by drawing while looking – all eyes for the model and none at all for the paper.

And then began that other education, work. Fashionable and successful sculptors, whose names no longer ring bells (but which may begin to do so as the Musée d’Orsay’s wide-angle view of the 19th century becomes familiar) were churning out work. One of Rodin’s principal employers was Carrier-Belleuse: he assisted with the official portrait busts, architectural ornaments, figures and so on which were the stock-in-trade of this ‘sculpture machine with verve’. Carrier complained that Rodin ‘has worked for me for ten years and I have not been able to print myself upon him.’ Rodin himself was ambivalent, but late in his life said that although Carrier was a ‘paltry’ artist, he owed him ‘the power to do whatever I want to do with my hands; that’s how one should begin.’

Meanwhile he was making sculpture of his own. The Man with the Broken Nose was completed in 1864, The Age of Bronze in 1876. It was not until 1882, when he was 42, that he finally signed off at the Sèvres factory and became entirely his own man. By close observation of nature he cleansed his mind of the habits of commercial sculpture. The job was too well done for an easy road to official recognition to be opened by his independent work. The Age of Bronze was accepted by the Salon, but the accusation that it was in part a life cast began to circulate. It seems the figure was stripped of artifice to the point where many felt it must literally be an impression of a living body. This was the first of many public battles and rejections. It was also the beginning of life as a public sculptor. The Burghers of Calais, the statue of Balzac, and the Gates of Hell (the last a kind of sculptural Penelope’s web, always being taken apart and put together again) were all public commissions. In England, government support of the arts was coloured by the ethos of the Great Exhibition and the art-school-museum-design-for-industry network. In France, there was the remains of a system of royal patronage. Rodin worked at Sèvres in the erstwhile royal factory, and had a studio in the Deépôt des Marbres, the state marble store which had provided grace and favour workspace for sculptors since the reign of Louis XIV. The Gates of Hell was commissioned for the Museum of Decorative Arts, which was to be modelled on the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In 1864 he met Rose Beuret, a seamstress who became his model, his mistress and, at the very end of his life, his wife. When success came, she took on the role of a jealous eccentric housekeeper who would not sit at table with company and appears as a spectre in memoirs of various feasts. She bore him a son, who did not do well. At the end of Rodin’s life, during the winter of 1917, when his property was safely bequeathed to the state,

those who now looked after his affairs on behalf of the government decided that the time had come for Rodin to marry Rose ... ‘The days that followed were lovely,’ Tirel [one of the staff] reports. ‘Since neither friends nor ministers had sent an ounce of coal the poor old people were suffering from the cold. They stayed in bed from morning to night, holding each other’s hands from his bed to hers, as they talked of their life of hardship and their younger days. It was a quaintly original honeymoon.’

Camille Claudel came into his life in the early 1880s. She was a pupil, who became a sculptor of merit. Rodin was one of the tutors to a colony of students – mainly young English women – whom Claudel gathered around her; she became his assistant and mistress, and was the mother of two children who were probably his. She modelled a bust of him, he portrayed her as Thought. For five or so years she was the most important woman in his life.

He was a man who pleased himself. If he could at the same time please others he would. His selfishness, self-absorption, and truth-to-self were all aspects of a belief in unmediated response. The implication in sculptural terms was that the veil of style would hide truth if one did not dedicate oneself to the observation of nature. The cost of attending to the imperative of instinctual feeling in human relations was paid in the common coinage of jealousy and pain. The pain was usually not Rodin’s. Rose’s rage and Camille’s isolation and eventual (probably cruelly unjust) incarceration in an asylum for the insane were heavier prices than he paid. Gwen John, who made fewer demands and had a talent for solitude, was able to match the master’s talent for living for the day with her own self-sufficiency. Claire de Choiseul, an American married to a Frenchman (in calling herself ‘Duchesse’ she made rather more of her husband’s aristocratic blood than the facts merited), was a good deal jollier. Most of Rodin’s friends thought her very vulgar, but she did wonders for his income by showing him, with a Duveen-like understanding of the American market, how much more could be asked for priceless genius than for professional skill. A number of English women seem to have managed to reject the advances of the aging Pan while being amused and flattered by the attentions of the Genius.

His attachment to Claire de Choiseul was just one area in which Rodin proved that he did not have instinctive good taste. He had the same confidence in his ability to judge antiquities as he did in his ability to model – with, it proved, less reason. He often made mistakes; the aesthetic charge he got from fragments of old sculpture and Greek pots was a fallible guide to their authenticity.

In his own work the basis of action was feeling; rational discrimination and analysis were avoided. Method and work were not. The Balzac vindicates the belief Rodin had in his ability to make a monument whose power was commensurate with Balzac’s genius. He prepared for it by collecting photographs, portraits and measurements. He even tracked down Balzac’s tailor and had a suit made up to the right pattern. He found powerful big-bellied models (one of whom threw work into disarray by disappearing) and produced a series of nude figures in various poses. He decided to show Balzac as he was when he worked, in a dressing-gown, and arrived at a treatment for this by draping plaster-soaked fabric over the versions of the nude figure. He stalled the committee which had commissioned the piece for years while he worked through to a version which met his demands.

He did not abandon fluency, but perfected his performances like a conjuror – repeating, adapting, inventing, simplifying, until they came right. The practice, and in the portrait sculptures the product, remind one of how Whistler and Sargent (both of whom Rodin knew) worked: scraping down and starting again if something went wrong, preserving the spontaneity of handling which translates into the vivacity of a telling likeness. Art becomes a performance in which the final result, while expressing seemingly magical skills of co-ordination and manipulation, is a function of preparation. The discarded studies, the fully-realised naked figure below the folds of Balzac’s dressing-gown have given the piece authority. The performance is economical because the preparation was rigorous. In Sargent the final result is brilliant, immensely enjoyable, but unchallenging. Rodin held out for solutions which were novel and extreme enough to be controversial until, through some small change in public taste, they became hugely popular. This transformation, which took place in his own lifetime, dates him. The emotion of The Kiss, the eloquence of the Burghers of Calais, the iconic clarity of The Thinker link Rodin with the sentiment of 19th-century Romanticism. Nothing dates Degas’s little statue of girls and horses in the same way.

The comparison ignores the degree to which the titled works became the public face of a private activity which had less well-defined products – sketches, maquettes, alternative versions. He would sometimes take a work to one finished conclusion, have it cast in plaster to preserve that state, then carry on working on a clay ‘squeeze’ taken from the plaster mould. He would introduce change into the process of composition by shaking up a box of little figures to see what new copulations might arise, and simplify the content and change the focus of a piece by slicing chunks off it. If all that remained of Rodin’s work were the large monumental pieces he would be a great 19th-century sculptor. The open-ended, exploratory nature of the other part of his work points to the 20th. Grunfeld’s biography shows the man, his private life and his working life, whole. It is a good book.