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Tucson Weekly Bronze Mettle

Rodin in all his brilliance and mediocrity.

By Margaret Regan

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  LOOKING TODAY AT Rodin's "The Thinker," which strikes us as the epitome of artistic cliché, or at one of the artist's sentimental sculptures of doomed lovers, all writhing arms and furrowed brows, one is hard pressed to understand what all the fuss was about a century ago.

Even Rodin's groundbreaking sculptural techniques--the artist's fleshprints preserved in the yielding clay and reproduced in sturdy bronze--have been so much imitated that we fail to register how innovative they once were. Yet in his early days Auguste Rodin was a radical artist, an outrageous rebel against classical sculptural tradition. In the declining decades of the 19th century, the French arts establishment--including the Academy and the Ecole des Beaux Arts, which three times rejected Rodin as a student--saw Rodin's naturalistic figures as an affront to the loftiest aesthetic ideals.

A crowded new show at the University of Arizona Museum of Art traces Rodin's changing fortunes from art-school reject to idolized éminence grise. A photo reproduction even captures his grandiose funeral in 1917. Rodin: Sculpture from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collection offers up dozens of bronze castings of Rodin's work, some of them in miniature versions, dating from 1876 to 1910. (Castings are made from the clay originals owned by the French government.) The show highlights some of the artist's signature works, including the much-reproduced "Thinker" as well as other figures originally intended for his famous "Gates of Hell." There are elements from his monumental "Burghers of Calais," and assorted versions of the portrait of Balzac. Along the way the exhibition persuades doubters, jaded by years of Rodin reproductions and sentimental rip-offs, of the singularity of his achievement.

The show begins with "The Age of Bronze," an 1876 nude that was the first piece Rodin ever exhibited. (The nude, Rodin once said, was "a real religion with me," and he stayed with it his whole career.) To a modern eye, this heroic male looks eminently noble, eminently respectful of tradition. But it broke just about all the art rules of the day. Like the Impressionists, his painterly contemporaries, Rodin came of age at a time when French neo-classicism had deteriorated into stultifying rigidity (he was born in 1840). Sculpted figures were supposed to be of ideal proportions, not the lumpen dimensions of ordinary mortals. They had to allude to historic or mythological events, and though nude they were to be spiritual, not sexual; restrained, not emotional. For "The Age of Bronze," Rodin used the proportions of a normal man (furious critics accused him of making a casting from a real-life human). Moreover, the fellow's just a nude and nothing more; he carries no symbolic arrow and wears no allusive garments--no Greek helmet, no Roman toga--to elevate him beyond mere flesh.

It's a fine little piece, but it doesn't begin to suggest the passion and sexual energy of Rodin's subsequent work. An 1875 trip to Italy made of the Frenchman a fervent disciple of Michelangelo's billowing, muscular bodies. "Michelangelo," he wrote, "freed me from academism." Like Michelangelo, Rodin was happy to distort the body when it served his purposes, exaggerating the ripple of muscles across a back, enlarging hands to gargantuan size. Even "The Thinker" has a powerful muscularity that simultaneously suggests profound thought and robust physicality.

Despite his innovations and bad-boy reputation, Rodin began attracting public commissions by the 1880s. He often struggled with these paid jobs, grappling between his creative impulses and the hidebound expectations of those holding the pursestrings. In "Balzac Athlete 'F,' " he tried to compress the noted French author's prodigious literary and sexual energies into a single form: a fat, muscular man with a leonine head, his hands hovering over his penis. Not surprisingly, this version created an uproar. A tamer one, with Balzac conventionally clad in a robe, a pile of books beside him, apparently failed to satisfy the artist. The extraordinary final version, pictured here only in a photograph, concentrates on the author's huge head, all fleshy lips and wild hair; it's placed atop a stark figure that heralds the stripped-down forms of modernism.

But, straddling the centuries, Rodin seemed torn between the old ideas and the new. He was capable of penetrating psychological studies, like the Balzac, but he also indulged repeatedly in tired mythological subjects. He returned numerous times to the theme of doomed lovers, such as "Paolo and Francesca," an 1889 work based on Dante characters. Goofy cherubs romp in the 1876 "Idyll of Ixelles." The perfectly awful "Call to Arms," 1883, a maquette for a war memorial, features a shrieking female harpy with wings. (Rodin didn't get the commission.) It's hard to reconcile these almost trivial pieces with Rodin's more serious works, masterful solitary figures that evoke what the French like to call the human condition: sexuality, loneliness, death. "Head of Sorrow," 1882, a head thrown back in grief, is a beauty. So is "She Who Was the Helmet-Maker's Beautiful Wife," 1887, a compassionate portrait of a woman's body in old age. "Meditation," 1885, is its counterpoint: a young female nude, lovely and ripe.

The transcendent figures of "The Burghers of Calais" (1884-1895) prove that when Rodin wanted to, he could rise above pedestrian public expectations. The town of Calais had commissioned the work to commemorate six heroes of the Hundred Years' War of the 14th century: These worthies had offered up their own lives to the English in exchange for an end to the siege of the starving town. (An English queen ultimately spared their lives.)

Rodin could have made the sort of hail-fellow public monument of the kind that nowadays has its echoes in corporate reports' smarmy photographs of their titans. Instead, he made riveting portraits of six men about to die, deftly moving from their particular historical anecdote toward the larger theme of humanity's inevitable march toward death. The men are at varying stages of life, and they edge toward death separately and alone. They're not in conventional heroic postures, either: They bow their heads in sorrow, in meditation, in regret. The show includes only a photograph of the final grouping, but the individual sculpted figures are here. Their faces, especially the "Monumental Head of Pierre de Wiessant," are some of the most beautiful, most profound, human heads ever sculpted.

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