Rodin – the precursor of Modern Sculpture

Hi viewers, welcome to MOOC’s online course
on ‘Introduction to Modern Western Art’. Today is the first lecture of the third week. And this third week, and all the five lectures
in this third week are entirely devoted to the study of modern sculpture. The first lecture in this week is on Auguste
Rodin who is considered to be the precursor of modern western sculpture. Rodin was born in 1840 and he lived till 1970. So, major part of his carrier happen in 20th
century, the third and the fourth quarter of 20th century, and when you look at his
sculptures, maybe in the beginning his sculptures do not really I mean from today’s perspective
his sculptures do not really look like very modern. In the sense that when you have a look at
his sculptures, he, they look like pretty classical from the point of view of his concerned
with anatomical accuracy, proportion his academic dexterity and all that. But then when you study his sculptures deeply,
you gradually realize that he was actually paving way for the later developments in the
modern western sculpture. Not only that he was breaking certain norms,
but Rodin was also creating new norms of sculpture in tandem with more liberal ideas of modernism,
and as opposed to the conservative ideas of the traditional sculpture, Rodin’s father
sent him to petite ecole at the age of 14, a school that trained craftsmen and decorative
artists. So you can very well imagine the kind of skill
he acquired at a very young age. And at the age of 17, Rodin began earning
his living as a studio helper on ornamental detail for other sculptors. The earliest known sculpture of Rodin is a
bust of his father, Jean Baptiste Rodin first modeled in clay in 1860. Now these random information’s give us a
clue to the fact that Rodin was right at the outset a sculptor, an artist who was academically
very well trained. So, the whole story of Rodin tells us how
he was trying to transgress or overcome the academic trainings that he received and how
he was trying to develop his own sculptural language. Now, if you look at this particular example,
which is supposed to be the first recorded work by Rodin and apparently it was first
modeled in clay and later it was cast in bronze. And this bust of his father clearly reveals
that Rodin was very well trained in the traditional classical style of sculpture making which
made it imperative for him to learn the modeling very well. Modeling in clay and he also learned various
other techniques like stone carving, then bronze casting, plaster casting, all kinds
of traditional techniques of sculpture. And we shall gradually see where exactly he
was trying to break the traditional norm and becoming a modernist. Now, look at this sculpture by Rodin which
has a very strange title called ‘The man with the broken nose’. And no wonder why it was rejected at the Paris
salon, but it was later accepted under the title ‘A portrait of a Roman’. First of all the title itself was not acceptable,
I mean you can’t have a title of a sculpture which clearly suggests some deformity of a
facial feature. So, as opposed to the idealism of classical
sculpture, this sculpture suggests expressive naturalism a) and b) as far as the facial
features are concerned, this particular sculpture defies the norm of traditional aesthetic idea. The ideal beauty or ideal aesthetic norm which
usually expects a face to follow certain classical ideas, instead Rodin doesn’t hesitate to
make a broken nose and therefore, introducing an element of non-beauty, a kind of ugliness,
and hence in the beginning at least, this sculpture was not accepted. He portrayed this face with features characteristic
of Greek sculpture, like blank eyes and classically modeled hair, but with a broken nose. So, this is his first kind of attempt at doing
something new outside the norms of the classical traditional western sculpture. Now later he did another wonderful work called
‘The age of bronze’. Once again, the title does not help us to
identify either the person or the emotional state of the person or even any social identity
nothing, probably it is based on a model real model, but it is not a representation of any
one specific person. In fact, it is an experimentation with bronze. And that is one of the reasons why he titled
this sculpture as the age of bronze. In fact, as many art historians and art critics
have noticed, this sculpture shattered the convention of classical idealism. No doubt it was modeled naturalistically which
makes this sculpture look pretty close to the classical ideal beauty or norm of human
representation. Without the exaggerated musculature of Greek
and roman sculpture of course, now Rodin submitted in 1877 this work now titled the bronze age
to the Paris salon, but it was rejected again due to certain rumors. Critics accuse Rodin of casting it from life,
because on the, you see the contradiction on the one hand, on the one hand this sculpture
looked pretty nontraditional, non classical and in a certain way non academic. On the other hand, the realism embedded in
this work is so stunning, so convincing that it led or mislead the critics to think or
rather to accuse Rodin of casting this entire sculpture from real life. So, that was very interesting. But then when Rodin comes up with something
like this, this is an absolute and clear statement of a modern sculpture. Anybody who is more comfortable with traditional
sculpture would find this sculpture first of all incomplete, if not mutilated or broken. Because this figure if you call it a figure,
it is expected that a figure ideally speaking should be having a head two limbs and of course
two legs the whole body, but this sculpture is devoid of head, it is devoid of two hands,
this figure consists of only the torso shoulders and two legs in the posture of walking. But Rodin conceived this sculpture as not
representation, but as a visual idea corresponding to the walking man, because Rodin was not
concerned at all with any specific identity of any person, because Rodin was not at all
interested in any realistic affirmation of details of the features of the body, because
Rodin was only concerned with a particular gesture of walking. So, he made this very, very bold kind of an
attempt by getting rid of the head the entire head from the torso from the figure. Now I don’t know whether it is possible
for us today to imagine how radical this sculpture was or look in the context of that time, but
historically speaking, before Rodin did this sculpture, nobody in the entire history of
western sculpture had done a single sculpture without limbs or head, unless and until that
figure represented a beheaded person or something like that. So, of course, Rodin is not suggesting through
this sculpture an image of a beheaded figure, not at all. He is not making a mutilated or an incomplete
body. He is leaving the entire image up to our imagination. And he has done several such sculptures where
Rodin refuse to conform to the traditional norm of a complete sculpture. He deliberately keeps the sculptures quote
unquote “incomplete”, because now as a modernist sculptor the Rodin is more concerned
with the idea rather than a full representation of a form. Apart from this new idea about form or about
a new sense of, or a new definition of what a complete sculpture should look like, he
is also introducing a new kind of surface treatment, which looks extremely rough, once
again incomplete and definitely the surface, the way he treats the surface of his sculptures,
they do not look so well finished. Now, this very look that his sculptures do
not look well finished is one of the chief characteristic features of many Rodin’s
works. And thirdly, as you can see in this sculpture
that when Rodin deliberately leave certain portions of the sculptures undone, as if he
is yet to tap it out from the stone, that again makes a modern statement. It is again a very bold and a very contemporary
way of looking at the whole language of sculpture. Only once or twice we have seen in the past
somebody was doing that and it was Michelangelo either before him or after him, nobody has
dared to keep the stone, the original stone intact on leaving undone, beside the form
that is emerging out from the stone, but Rodin is doing it, which again suggests that somebody
like Rodin is equally interested in the to show to maintain to retain the presence of
the original raw material, that is stone along with the form, in this case it is the head
of a figure. So, whether it is the age of bronze that you
see on the right side, or his famous piece of sculpture called ‘The thinker’ that
you see on the left side, Rodin makes this very, very clear right at the outset after
he has done his father’s bust or a couple of other sculptures which are direct portraits
of living persons. Otherwise whenever he is doing these sculptures
representing human figures, Rodin makes it very, very clear that these figures do not
have any specific identity. They do not have any specific names. This anonymity that these figures are anonymous
these figures could be anybody, allows the sculptor to probe the psychological aspects,
to probe the surface treatment, to probe the gesture and posture without getting bothered
with the identity or the social background or the specific character of the figure that
he is modeling. In fact, this very approach very clearly suggests
that Rodin is not representing any person. For him the figure is or a body is a form
which is potentially full of ideas, full of sculptural possibilities and Rodin explores
that. Now, this is very much a modernist position,
where you are exploring the human body as a site or as an idea full of possibilities. Now look at this image of the thinker once
again it was designed in 1880 for the tympanum on the region immediately over the two doors
of Rodin’s ‘Gates of hell’ we shall see images of gates of hell right now. And so, originally this sculpture to thinker
was a part of a larger project almost like a monument, a huge monument called Gates of
hell, which Rodin made during this time around 1880s. Now, highly inspired by the work of Michelangelo
and his own work ‘ugolino’ Rodin made this sculpture. It is possibly a symbolic representation of
creativity intellect and above all thought. So, if somebody asks me, what is the meaning
that is embedded in this sculpture, I would not be able to tell you any story, because
by and large most of the works by Rodin are non narrative. They do not embody any story. They do not fulfill the desire of a story,
but they definitely suggest some idea. And in this case, it is the power of human
being to think the capacity of human being to be thoughtful is the theme of this sculpture. So, in that sense it is a very intangible
and abstract idea that Rodin is trying to encapsulate and capture in a very tangible
form made of bronze and originally modeled in clay. Similarly, when he does this wonderful almost
monumental sculpture of Balzac, the famous French thinker philosopher author writer,
and he is not making a realistic life size portrait of Balzac, but basically he is glorifying,
he is trying to capture the glory the he is valorizing the huge monumental status of Balzac
in French culture. So, he decides to get rid of the details. He decides to put more and more emphasize
on the huge massive form of Balzac, and thereby elevating the status of Balzac into a monumental
presence in the French culture. So, once again if somebody is trying to find
out a realistic correspondence between this figure of Balzac and how Balzac really looked
like in real life, one will be utterly disappointed. Because that was not Rodin’s idea also Rodin’s
intention was something different it was an abstract intention, but nevertheless Rodin
has been highly successful in capturing the so called abstract idea regarding the monumental
presence of Balzac in French sculpture. So, we come to this famous monumental work
by Rodin it is called The Gate of hell. And in this incredible sculpture he has over
200 individual figures engraved in the gates Rodin chose Dante’s inferno as his theme. The construction consists of the two heavily
undulating panels, depicting the bodies vainly struggling falling or even clasping each other
tightly. So, it is a very agonized world, a world full
of tormented people and that gives Rodin an opportunity to deal with this idea of torment
agony and anguish. And once again as we have already seen in
his earlier sculptures, his very special interest in treating the surface not realistically,
but in a in a very organic manner becomes very useful here. So, Rodin sense of the human tragedy was maximized
in this sculpture called the gate of hell, and Rodin arranged and rearranged the figures
in a variety of scales and depths and of course in a variety of movements, postures. So, the thinker this is where the thinker
was originally placed, this sculpture remains though this monumental sculpture called ‘The
gates of hell’ remain incomplete when he died it was casted in bronze the way it was
after Rodin’s death. Many of his independent sculptures derived
from the smaller relief within this great composition. So, on the one hand the gates of hell was
conceived as one single complete monumental work, and on the other hand from the various
details of ‘The Gates of Hell’, later Rodin derived a number of ideas for independent
and individual sculptures; now when you look at Rodin’s drawings and studies and watercolors, Once again you can see that you can see two
things basically number one you can see that, that the presence of an academically trained
artist who was brilliant in terms of his academic skill. And secondly, simultaneously and at the same
time you can see how he was so powerful, so skillful to overcome the academic restraint
and explore the possibilities of experimenting with the human form, human gestures and the
power of the body, including the power of the erotic energy of
the body not only in his sculptures, but also in his drawings, in his watercolors like this
one as well. Now, here Rodin is even more powerful in his
drawing which is not really a depiction, but an impression or translation of an idea, of
a human being in a particular posture into watercolor and drawing with a light tint and
there are innumerable drawings by Rodin which are testimony to this a highly experimental
and skillful part of Rodin’s talent. So, because Rodin right at the beginning could
overcome the bindings or the restrictive norms of the idea about a complete sculpture. So for him, it was really then not difficult
to come up with sculptures which consisted of nothing but maybe a pair of hands, maybe
one single hand or just the face. So, by creating this kind of sculptures again
and again, repeatedly Rodin was able to kind of establish this idea that you can have a
sculpture which shows one single detail may be of a hand, or a pair of hands or just one
portion of the face. Yet, because the emphasis is not on the representation,
but the emphasis is on the idea the sculpture or this kind of sculptures would never look
incomplete. One of the most significant technical contributions
of Rodin as I told you already was his unique method of treating the surface of the sculpture. Though the forms in his sculptures are often
close to the real and conforming to the rules of realism, like anatomy, proportion etcetera,
the surface treatment visible in Rodin’s sculptures is far from the optical reality
because he was not concerned with the optical reality. It is driven by an artistic impulse that responds
to the dynamic nature of life and refuses to align with the more stable classical norms. So, this lack of stability is in fact one
of the main characteristic features of Rodin’s works. When you look at this detail from the gates
of hell it is evident that Rodin was interested not in realistic representation, but in exploring
the more intangible and conceptual ideas like the dynamic quality of life, like the energy
of life, like the a life that is in flux. And in this case in the context of ‘The
Gates of Hell’ life was in flux, because of a huge grand tragedy. Again and again you can see that when you
look at the details of his sculptures. And this pair of hands very simple sculpture,
but extremely intense. In terms of not representation, but in terms
of the way this sculpture is able to encapsulate a certain idea of intensity. In fact, this is what makes Rodin the precursor
of modern sculpture. Because modern art in general, right from
the point impressionist started working or even before that, during the time of realism
and romanticism, most of the artists were interested in addressing the idea, rather
than the form. For them at least for many of them was a pretext
to explode an idea. So, this shift from representation to idea,
from the form to an intangible feeling was first seen in the sculpture of Rodin. And that is the reason why Rodin is considered
to be the precursor of modern western sculpture. The first person to have really challenged
the traditional norms of sculpture making and exploring the other possibilities: and
therefore, paving the way for the succeeding generation of the modern sculptors to come
gradually immediately following Rodin. Thank you.

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