A review of his sculptures: The Bronze Age and Bust of Young Balzac
Francois Auguste Rene Rodin, 1840-1917, a pioneer in the world of sculpture is credited by most art historians and critics alike for "restoring sculpture to a major art form while creating a style that led to the development of Expressionism (Russell 356)." Rodin's sculptures combined the use of light, shade, color, realism in appearance, the sensation of motion, with the artist's personal expression of emotion and meaning.
Rodin was born to a family of meager means, in a town of "flaking buildings on little narrow and dank streets along the left bank of Paris." The only formal art school attended by Rodin was The Petite Ecole. He attended this school during his late teenage years. A technique taught by Horace Lecoq de Boibaudran to Rodin and his fellow students stayed with him (Rodin) throughout his career as an artist. The technique, Training of Graphic Memory and the Forming of an Artist, "combined the precise study of a subject with freedom from rote in reproducing it (Hale 39)." This method required students to observe and study carefully, in detail, the subject of an art project, and then reproduce it from memory. Students had to rely on their own response to what they saw and learned. This was to become one of the key techniques used by Rodin in creating the works discussed in this paper.
The first of Rodin's work following his journey to Italy was The Age of Bronze submitted to the Salon in 1877. The posture of The Age of Bronze is similar to Michelangelo's Dying Slave (Hall 51); both share similar qualities in the twist of the body creating the sensation of frozen in motion. The right knee is bent, head forward and just slightly tilted up, the right arm raised and bent indicating some arrested motion. Some observers were concerned with this sculpture looking too true to life. So real was this piece, that Rodin was accused of creating this work by making direct castings from the model; that the piece was not a sculpture at all (Cheney 469). These same critics claimed that this work must be a fraud and nothing more than a surmoulage (Hale 51). He eventually dispelled the challenges to this piece by taking casts and photographs of the original model showing that the statue differed significantly.
As a model for The Age of Bronze, Rodin hired a young soldier named Auguste Neyt from the Brussel's Garrison. Rodin made an intense study of his model's anatomy. Rodin wanted to capture and reproduce the realism of "a man" without simply copying the "original man" (or model). The theme of this sculpture has been in question and the source of debates. This debate has been fed by the successive titles Rodin gave this work: The Vanquished, The Man Who Awakens to Nature, Primeval Man and, finally, The Age of Bronze (Hale 50). Rodin said that he had in mind "man arising from nature." It is suggested that the final title, The Age of Bronze, was in reference to the Bronze Age when "men discarded primitive stone tools and began to work with metal, and it was also in the Bronze Age that writing came into relatively widespread use (Hall 51)." It is reported that this figure originally wore a "fillet and carried a spear in the left hand (Tancock 344)." The furrow left by the fillet can still be seen on the left side of the body. Later in life, Rodin made reference to this piece of work as being simply a "piece of sculpture without reference to subject (Hall 51)."
The subject of The Age of Bronze has both hands clenched. The right hand on the subjects head, the left is raised, forearm perpendicular to the ground, fingers clenched in such a way as to indicate holding an object such as the spear from the original sculpture. The right arm is raised and bent at the elbow, the right hand grasping the hair on top of the head. The body is of lean, muscle and well proportioned. The right leg is slightly bent; the right heal is raised off the ground. The eyes are closed as if in thought. The expression on the face of the subject is calm, almost trance-like or maybe, as many believed an awakening or realization of some great truth. The dark blackened color of the most outward surfaces and high points of the statue reflect the room's light. The curves of the muscles and clearly visible rib cage allow the light and bronze to create many shades of bronze color. Without real knowledge of the model's specific body symmetry, it is easy to see how some of Rodin's critics believed that this piece was too real to be a true original sculpture.
In 1891, Rodin received a commission to create a memorial to the great French novelist Balzac. The problem for Rodin was that Balzac died in 1850, when Rodin was only ten years of age. Balzac was a short fat man of swollen features. This real image of Balzac was less than acceptable to Rodin for this monumental project. Rodin acquired a description of Balzac from the poet Alphones Lamartine. Lamartine described Balzac's face as, ". . . an element - a force of nature - and of a bearing so grand that it overcame obesity: there was so much soul that it carried him lightly: the weight seemed to give him force, not take away from him (Hale 120)."
It was in this description Rodin found the image he desired to portray. Rodin made a study of Balzac, taking pictures, sketches and descriptions of the great writer from various sources. Rodin went as far as to try and find persons that were purported to look like Balzac. Rodin compiled all this research and began creating a series of portrait sculptures of the novelist reflecting Balzac as he may have looked throughout his life (Busco 110). One of these works was the Bust of Young Balzac.
The Bust of Young Balzac creates the impression of a noble young man in his late 20's, in somewhat of a traditionally poised frontal look. The hair is somewhat thick and "spike-like" similar in fashion to Rodin's earlier piece called Bust of Father Eymard. Father Bymard rejected the bust of himself for that very reason. He (Bymard) felt that the "spiked-hair" gave him a "devilish-look," something he felt was unflattering and contradictory to the image he wanted to portray of himself (Hale 42). Molding the hair in an imperfect appearance, as if combed through with extended fingers of the hand in different directions, is one of the ways Rodin creates the impression of movement; even in something as limited as a portrait sculpture. The shoulders form the base of the bust, supporting the proud and confident face.
The cuts, angles and surface changes of the Bust of Young Balzac play with the available light, produce depth and density to this face. The bust is somewhat hollow except for the material built-up behind the eyes and at the top of the head. The eyes and ears are cut deep. The eyes hollowed out as if to allow you to see deep inside the subject, creating intensity, a dark piercing stare from the bust. The features are striking. The mustache is trimmed tight to the upper lip, a tuff of trimmed hair hanging down from the lower lip. The neck is thick particularly under the chin. The head is relatively life-size, based on the known size and height of the real Balzac. The hair is tossed from left to right, not neatly as is with the mustache but combed as if with the extended fingers of the hand. The back of the bust sculpture shows shoulders that are somewhat smooth and rounded, not muscular as is with the Age of Bronze. The hair on the back of the head is thick and course. The forehead is smooth, and except for a slight horizontal depression above the eyebrows, giving the impression that the young Balzac is in deep thought. The head is just so slightly tilted up. The lips are closed, the mouth showing just a hint of tension as if on the verge of speech.
Of course there are similarities and differences between these two sculptures: for interest, there is the difference in the dark bronze finish and the highlights of the numerous ridges and hollows, angles, cuts, and curves; some catching the light and others creating variations of shadow and shades of color between the two selections. The head of hair on The Age of Bronze is similar to the Bust of Young Balzac, but not as thick. The face of The Age of Bronze is not as detailed. The young soldier's head is tilted up just slightly, eyes closed - lips, mouth slightly parted. His right arm is raised and grasping the hair on the top of his head. The Age of Bronze is a full-figured sculpture, as opposed to the head and shoulder Bust of Young Balzac. Moderately muscled, lean and very realistic, The Age of Bronze left arm is bent at the elbow with hand raised perpendicular to the floor; fingers curled inward as if grasping something. This shape results in very deep shadows in the hollows of the chest and under the leg. The depth of the cuts, subtle and not so subtle angles in the face of Young Balzac, create an intensity and depth to this sculpture, reflecting Rodin's idea of the character of his subject. The Age of Bronze requires the whole of the statue to create the intended expression and emotion. As to the facial expressions of these two sculptures, Rodin uses the eyes, brow, and mouth to create the idea of the character and confidence in his subjects. The subject of the Age of Bronze has been expressed as pain withdrawal, restless energy, and the will to act without hope of success. The young face, eyes closed, can also be interpreted as expressing an awakening or realization of some concept or fact. The expression of Young Balzac is clearly a look of certainty. There is a proud and confident expression and image created by the deep-set eyes, the tight intense appearance of the eyelids, and forward jutting brow.
Impressionism in Rodin's work is suggested through his efforts to capture the attitude of the subject or the possibility of movement. Rodin's sculptures' were more "colorful than ever before by molding his statues' surfaces with minute variations of boss and hollow. He gave a new meaning to an old saying that the trick in sculpture is to create interesting arrangements of mass and shadow (Cheney 469)."
In Rodin's pursuit of naturalism, it was customary for him to have his models wander around the studio freely, as opposed to the traditional stationary posing. "Unlike most sculptors of his day, he usually relied on his eye rather than on calipers to check the accuracy of the clay outlines against the original (Hale 9). According to Rodin, the model "teaches us what we should do . . . (Hale 9)."
Rodin's view on art - "I obey nature in everything, and I never pretend to command her. My only ambition is to be servile faithful to her. He said this in a conversation with Paul Gsell. He expressed the same idea in speaking with Henri Dujardin-Beaumetz: "I say plainly that I have no ideas when I don't have something to copy; but when nature shows me forms, at once I find something that is worth saying and even developing. It was through the technique of contour modeling that this exact copying was achieved. When I begin a figure, I first look at the front, the back, the two profiles of right and left, that is, their contours from four angles. Then, with clay, I arranged the large mass as I see it and as exact as possible. Then I do the intermediate perspectives, giving the three-quarter profiles. Next, successively turning my clay and my model, I compare and refine them. The body always expresses the spirit whose envelop it is (Tancock 20)."
Many of the exhibitions in museums are replicas of Rodin's original works. Rodin, as a matter of routine, would have his assistants duplicate many of his sculptures in larger and smaller versions. Each of these copies had to have Rodin's personal approval before it was stamped with his name. In accordance with Rodin's Will, the Musée Rodin was given the right to cast Rodin's sculpture posthumously. In life, Rodin closely scrutinized the enlargement and reduction replications of his work. If they were not executed perfectly Rodin rejected them. When Rodin was 76 years of age, he gave the French government the rights to his work, as well as, other items of art he collected. Currently, these items occupy the Hotel Biron in Paris as the Musee Rodin.
Rodin created expressive poses that remain in the observer's mind. He communicated his message and idea through the combining of realism and the manipulation of plaster, angles, light, and the resulting color. Obviously Rodin endeavored to emulate the power and emotion of the Michelangelo's work. But, in the view of many critics, he is attributed as the first to achieve a recognizable level of success in this task. Strength and realism are equally apparent in both of these sculptures, even in an obscure sculpture like the Bust of Young Balzac. Auguste Rodin's work conveys emotion, feelings, and the intensity of a moment frozen in time through facial expressions, hands, and body angles. He carved and molded his materials to create strong shadows and textured surfaces in order to catch the varying levels of light and darkness. These efforts resulted in gradients of color, strengthening the image's realism, and sense of movement and emotion. Rodin was fortunate to enjoy a significant level of his fame and recognition during his lifetime. Rodin's departure from traditional sculpture, along with his ability to create power and drama in his sculptures, helped to determine the course of modern sculpture and setting the stage for expressionism.
Russel, Stella Pandell. Art in the World, Fourth Edition, Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1993 356-7
Cheney, Sheldon. Sculpture of the World: A History, New York: The Viking Press, 1968 454, 468-71, 473
Hale, William Harlan. The World of Rodin 1840-1917, New York: Time-Life Books, 1969 8-9, 38-39, 41-42, 50-51, 76, 79, 119-120
Busco, Maria, Rodin and his Contemporaries, New York, Abbeville Press, 1991 110
Tancock, John L., The Sculpture of Auguste Rodin, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976 17, 20, 23, 126, 342-44, 432