The Wall Street Journal  |  August 3, 2016

‘Rodin: Transforming Sculpture’ Review

“Transforming Sculpture” makes this, Rodin’s radicalism and innovation, its focus. And, as if to avoid wasting any time with preliminaries, we are plunged almost immediately into Rodin’s most complicated, ambitious and protracted effort, “The Gates of Hell.” This was a commission for entrance doors to a decorative-arts museum in Paris that Rodin received in 1880 and worked on to the end of his life.

“The Gates” is a Last Judgment-style portrayal of doomed humanity whose main inspiration was Dante’s “Inferno.” It is a churning mass of bodies—some 200—presided over by “The Thinker,” Rodin’s idealized vision of Dante himself.

But the “The Gates” is also the crucible of what is arguably Rodin’s most radical innovation: the recombinant figure. Before him, sculptors depicted human beings whole—portrait busts excepted—and as individuals within a group. In “The Gates,” figures are repeated (“Three Shades,” at the top, is three versions of the same figure set together), reused in combination with others and even broken up, the different parts used in multiple sculptures.

This is Picasso’s assemblage approach decades ahead of its time, and the exhibition gives us a vivid sense of the way it enlarged the expressive possibilities of Rodin’s art. A series of trestle tables evocative of an artist’s studio is arrayed before a full-scale photomontage of “The Gates” (an actual cast being too heavy to travel). On it are laid out plaster sculptures where individual figural motifs (one known as the “Crouching Woman,” for example) appear in multiple groupings and guises.

A later section is devoted to Rodin’s 1881 commission for a monument to Honoré de Balzac. He portrayed the author clothed in a capacious robe, head slightly raised and eyes staring fixedly into the distance. Rodin never got over the opprobrium with which the finished work was greeted when exhibited seven years later. Public statuary of this kind was supposed to focus on externals, realistically depicting the individual down to the last detail. Rodin began that way, but as he progressed he became more interested in capturing Balzac’s inner life. The result is a more generalized figure that shows the author as if caught in a moment of inspiration.

We see this evolution unfold in a series of eight clay and bronze models. It’s a powerful installation because as we move from one to the next we are not just tracing the development of an idea. We are witnessing nothing less than the birth of the modern public monument. From “Balzac” on, the artist’s overriding aim would be not literal representation of a subject but the articulation of an abstract idea—in this case, creativity itself.

Later sections are just as revealing, particularly the one devoted to Rodin’s works in marble. These have always been controversial—a critic once called for dismissing them altogether—and in this context it’s clear why. Rodin was a modeler, and so his most compelling sculptures are the clays, plasters and bronzes that reflect the immediacy of the artist’s touch and his keen sensitivity to surface handling. The marbles have none of that, possessing more the character of large lumps of sugar.

Like Rodin’s career itself, the exhibition is not without its strange turns. A section called “Vessels & Flowers” consists of plaster figures the artist placed in vases. Something to do with Rodin’s view of women’s bodies as “flowers blooming and bending,” we are told, yet these works seem arbitrary and eccentric. A reminder, perhaps, that this is an artist still capable of surprising us.

Mr. Gibson is the Journal’s Arts in Review editor.

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