François Auguste René Rodin (12 November 1840 – 17 November 1917) known as Auguste Rodin, a French sculptor who worked during the 18th and 19th century, was always more interested in representing the human form in a fragmented, rough-hewn style even though he was trained classically and took a very academic approach to his work.

This begs the question – How do we determine when a piece of art is complete?

If Rodin could take a decade to complete a piece of art that a viewer might, at first glance, consider incomplete, then surely it cannot be so. What would art be if it didn’t challenge your notion of what is or isn’t right?

Rodin’s work was often judged brutally by the masses and critics. He never received the academic recognition that he desired desperately. At the time, still an unknown artist, he won a life-changing commission to create a portal inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy by impressing Edmund Turquet, the undersecretary of Ministry of Fine Arts.

 

Rodin, Gates of Hell, Musée Rodin

 

This monumental sculptural group was supposed to be the main entrance of a planned Decorative Arts Museum which was never built. Nevertheless, Rodin continued to work on it as it became a grand stage for his sculptural ideas. He spent almost half of his life working on the Gates. Along with a handful of other students, I was lucky to witness some plaster casts of this iconic piece amongst various other works that were found in Rodin’s studio at the Fundació MAPFRE’s latest exhibition in Barcelona: ‘Hell According to Rodin’.

 

Rodin Exhibition

 

Not only does the exhibition provide insight into Rodin’s image of hell as mysterious, tormented, and torturous place it also sheds a light on Rodin’s life, creative process and the history of this masterpiece.

The Gates, I feel, reflect a condensed version of his stylistic explorations out of which came some of his best-known work such as The Thinker, The Kiss, and Ugolino. Each of these sculptures is now considered to be a genuine landmark in the History of Art.

I wasn’t the only one with opinions, however. Two of the students whom I had accompanied to the exhibition organised by the Academy were kind enough to share their thoughts with me about Rodin and his work.

Nurzada Nussipzhanova:

“I learned about Rodin around the age of 10. Being fond of art, sculpture and his talent, I always dreamed of seeing the famous works that I’ve seen so often in art history books and the Internet with my own eyes. I’m always a tiny bit nervous whenever I’m about to witness an art piece that has left a distinctive trace in the history of art. I always wonder if I’ll be able to comprehend it and like it or if it turns out not to be what I expected. I was thrilled when walking into the room containing the Thinker and the Kiss!

First, I saw the Thinker, one of the original smaller plaster versions. The expression on the face is believable and therefore touching, the hands and especially the feet sculpted with a deep understanding of human form and their gesture pushed to the extreme.

Taking into consideration that the figure is at the centre of the composition of the Gates, it gives a strikingly strong impression of the man deep in his own thoughts while overlooking Hell below him. The Kiss stands out among all the works and studies for the Gates as it is the only composition representing something peaceful and light. It describes the most beautiful and yet tragic moment from the lives of Francesca and Paolo – their first and last kiss.

What stood out to me wasn’t the kiss itself but Paolo’s hand resting on Francesca’s thigh. A gesture so simple, yet it underscores tender feelings the two shared more than anything else. I find these small things to be signs of true mastery.

 

Rodin Exhibition

 

Gabriella Trom:

“The scale of a cast is one of the things that excite me about sculpture. So, I was pretty darn ecstatic when I finally had the chance to come face to face with Rodin’s Thinker and the plaster sections from his Gates of Hell.

Upon walking into the exhibit at the Fundació MAPFRE, my initial plan had been to study how Rodin sculpted hair, but after viewing the first few sculptures I had entirely forgotten about that. The fantastic gestures, the composition of works with multiple figures and the symbolism had me enthralled. By the time I realized the repeating forms scattered throughout his work, I was completely carried away.

I didn’t know much about how other sculptors ran their studios, so I found a documentary film that was shown at the exhibition, coupled with the variety of sketches (clay and pencil alike) to be both informative and quite entertaining.”

 

Rodin, Gates of Hell

 

Personally, what always struck me about the Gates of Hell is just how many figures emerge from the background. For that matter, the doors from behind which these figures creep out are so masterfully sculpted that they appear vaporous. There’s a constant sense of movement and fluctuation amongst them, form takes shape and then dwindles into abstract miasma.

Then, there’s Dante – sitting at the top. He brings the madness around him into stark focus and contrast with his repose. Does that mean that he is contemplating what is in Hell and thinking if he might go there when he dies or is he just using it merely as a form that he had created? This figure also brings to mind how much Ancient Greek, Roman sculptures and Michelangelo influenced Rodin in depicting the human form is as a means of expression – especially the masculine form.

Come and see me tomorrow morning at Meudon. We will talk of Phidias and Michelangelo and I will model statuettes for you on the principles of both. In that way, you will quickly grasp the essential differences of the two inspirations or, to express it better, the opposed characteristics which divide them.” – Rodin’s invitation to Paul Gsell (in Rodin on Art and Artists: Conversations with Paul Gsell, “Phidias and Michelangelo”)

Throughout his career, Rodin took risks and created art in his own unique way,  as unconventional as it was at the time. As a result, Rodin set a standard for generations of artists that would come after him. As the Father of Modern Sculpture, I think it’s fair to say that a piece of art is only done when the artist says it’s done.

Ayuesh Agarwal