Auguste Rodin: Everything you need to know

Anna Walker 19 April 2021

Ahead of a new show, "The Making of Rodin" at the Tate Modern, Assistant Curator Helen O’Malley has the answers to all our questions on the master sculptor. 

RD: How would you describe Auguste Rodin’s artwork to somebody completely unfamiliar?

HO: Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) is a figurative sculptor, probably best known for his monumental works in bronze and marble.

One of his most iconic sculptures is The Thinker, 1881 which will be included in the [upcoming Tate] show. However, this exhibition will focus on a different side of his practice: looking at his works in plaster. It will offer visitors an opportunity to explore lesser-known facets of his iconic works, as well as completely new discoveries.  

Auguste Rodin's The Three Shadows scultpture, three men join hands and bend slightly inwards towards each other
Auguste Rodin The Three Shadows, before 1886, Musée Rodin, S.03970

RD: What made Rodin’s work so particularly ground-breaking?

HO: Rodin was incredibly radical in the way that he challenged the conventions of classical sculpture and idealised beauty.

He created a new image of the human body that reflected the ruptures, complexities and uncertainties of the modern age.

The muse crouches on their side, face turned away from the viewer. The Tragic Muse by Auguste Rodin
Auguste Rodin The Tragic Muse, 1890 Musée Rodin, S.01992

RD: How did Rodin become a specialist in sculpture? Why sculpture over any other art form?

HO: Rodin once said "I began as an artisan to become an artist. That is the good, the only, method." At age 13, he enrolled at the Ecole Spèciale de Dessin et de Mathématique, where he studied drawing and painting. After graduating with large ambitions, Rodin applied to the influential Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris three times, facing rejection each time.

Needing to earn a living, he took up work as a craftsman and ornamentor, producing decorative objects and architectural embellishments. He continued his work as an ornamentor for two decades.

Rodin’s true passion and talents were as a modeller. He focused on the sculpting of figures in clay and plaster, with the production of the bronze and marble versions for sale entrusted to skilled craftspeople. Rodin mobilised the industrial processes, learnt during his early training in commercial and decorative art studio’s, collaborating with a diverse range of models, assistants, casters, founders and stonemasons.

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The Head of the Thinker by Rodin
Auguste Rodin Head of the Thinker against a panel, 1880, Musée Rodin, S.01916

RD: What is the focus of this new show, The Making of Rodin?

HO: The exhibition will offer a unique insight into Rodin’s working methods through his most experimental works in plaster. This is exciting because audiences don’t typically encounter these works. Plaster was largely dismissed from art history for a good half of the 20th century, as it was perceived to be a transitional or secondary material. Many of the works featured in the exhibition have not been shown before or very rarely or are still in the process of being documented and researched. Only now are we really getting to experience them fully.

The show is inspired by Rodin’s self-curated retrospective at the Pavillon de l’Alma, which he strategically organized against the backdrop of the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900. This was only the second time, and the first time in France, that he shared his oeuvre with the world in such a comprehensive way, and he decided to do this almost entirely through his plaster works.

Rather than present an academic display of the official salon system, he deployed a crowded and irregular arrangement to conjure up the atmosphere of an artist’s studio. This carefully edited tableau aimed to indicate to visitors that they were being given privileged access to Rodin’s creative working process.

Study for the thinker, showing a man lean on his thigh, cupping chin in his hand
Auguste Rodin Study for The Thinker, 1881 Musée Rodin, S.01168

RD: What insights does the exhibition offer into the thinking behind Rodin’s masterpieces?

HO: Drawing exclusively on the Musée Rodin collection (including a number of works and groupings never shown before), like Rodin’s presentation at the Pavillon de l’Alma, the exhibition focuses on Rodin’s plaster casts.

Through the experience of his plaster works, we are brought closer to Rodin’s insatiable appetite for experimentation, including his practice of fragmentation, assemblage, reworking and enlargement, enabling us to understand why—even in a world so drastically different to Rodin’s—the artist continues to provoke and provide creative stimulus for so many.

sculpture of a group of academic men in long robes, The Burghers of Calais
Auguste Rodin The Burghers of Calais, 1889 Musée Rodin, S.00153

RD: Can you talk us through some of the highlights of the new exhibition? Is there anything in there that may surprise us?

HO: The exhibition will be structured around the range of techniques that Rodin placed at the core of his sculptural practice to challenge and push the boundaries of his chosen medium. Those techniques are fragmentation, multiplication, assemblage and enlargement—they form some of the key organising principles for the show.

As much as the show celebrates Rodin’s spirit in his bold overturning of academic and sculptural conventions, and to think about the enduring legacy and impact of his practice across the 20th and 21st centuries, this is also perhaps a more important time than ever to take on the complexities of a rather mythologised figure in art history. And here self-mythologising played a huge role.

"It required an entire constellation of people to bring Rodin’s vision to life"

Rodin carefully crafted his own image, something we are all increasingly aware of today, in the age of social media and the accelerated usage of digital technologies. He was born in 1840, just two years after Louis Daguerre invented photography. Rodin was an entrepreneur in the way that he used new technologies like photography to build up his practice, disseminate his work but also to present himself, build up a persona of himself to the world as a modernist genius.

One of the things we’re really trying to take a considered approach to is the question of the working environment as a space of collaboration, really trying to nuance that image of the singular male genius; his practice required an entire constellation of people from carvers to mould makers to patinators to bring Rodin’s vision to life. The other thing is to carefully think about the many women and female models in his life and to consider the uneven dynamics between a white male sculptor and the women with whom he worked.

A selection of hands carved by Auguste Rodin
Auguste Rodin Masque de Hanako, type E 1907–10 Musée Rodin; S.00194

RD: What has Rodin’s legacy been in terms of influencing later generations of artists?

HO: This is probably the earliest we’ve gone at Tate Modern, but it felt right to show Rodin because we really see him as representing a cusp moment in art history, right at the turn of Modernism—and we see many of his experiments and ideas ripple across the 20th century.  

Many of the star exhibits of Rodin’s 1900 retrospective, such as the Balzac 1898 and The Inner Voice 1896 will be reunited for this exhibition. In 1891 Rodin began work on a monument to the writer Honoré de Balzac. The figure was draped right up to the shoulders in a simplified robe, weighing up the crowd with a look that was both benevolent yet mocking. The great simplification and exaggeration of the figure’s features provoked strong reactions and the Société des Gens de Lettres refused to commission it. The expressiveness of this piece moved beyond a mere physical translation of the subject; it sought to express his presence.

"Rodin’s use of found and existing objects prefigures modernist strategies such as cubist collages"

The Inner Voice was initially part of a group of three figures Rodin conceived for a monument to the French writer Victor Hugo. The knee was first broken off to fit the sculpture into the monument. Eventually, the figure was enlarged and presented on its own. However, Rodin kept the knee truncated, embracing its removal as part of the object’s history.  In nineteenth-century French sculpture, a figure was expected to be complete, unless it was a portrait bust. By breaching the prevailing codes of representation, Rodin opened the way to a new modernity, challenging the traditional notions of beauty and perfection.

One of the most thought-provoking groups of works in the show is a series of assemblages, described by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke as "floral souls". Rodin was an avid collector of ancient artefacts from Greece, Rome, Egypt, Japan and China. Between about 1893 and 1917 he amassed over 6000 pieces, including Boeotian and Etruscan cups, Roman amphorae and Naqada vases. These works were purchased primarily from Parisian antique dealers and housed in a specially designed building at his home and studio in Meudon, outside Paris. Around 1895 Rodin began to merge these vessels with small plaster figures. Rodin’s use of found and existing objects prefigures modernist strategies such as cubist collages, ready-mades and surrealist objects and assemblages.

Rodin in his studio
Auguste Rodin Main droite de Pierre et Jacques de Wissant 1885–86 Musée Rodin, S.00332

RD: Do you have a favourite little-known fact about Rodin?

HO: Rodin was short-sighted from a young age, and his struggles in the classroom (primarily being unable to see the blackboard) led him to take up drawing regularly, which became a lifelong practice. He actually once said, "my drawings are the key to my work."

The EY Exhibition: The Making of Rodin opens at the Tate Modern 6 May, 2021

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