100th anniversary of Rodin's death
Left, top left: Portrait of Rodin 1880 Left, top right: Rodin with a model in his studio Left: Rodin in his workshop with the Monument of Victor Hugo, 1898 (Paul Dornac) All images: © Collection Musée Rodin
It was a cold winter’s day in Paris but as I was about to visit somewhere I’d been dying to see for at least six months I hardly noticed the cold as my friend and I traversed the Parisian boulevards. We were on our way to the Musée Rodin, which is housed in a private villa and has been a museum of his works since 1919. But in 2016 the museum was completely overhauled and it was this that I had come to see, and find out more about the celebrations planned for the centenary of his death in 2017.
The museum is home to a large number of Rodin’s sculptures and drawings, as well as pieces from his own personal collections. In 1916, a year before his death he said: “
I give the State all my works in plaster, marble, bronze and stone, and my drawings, as well as the collection of antiquities that I had such pleasure in assembling for the education and training of artists and workers. And I ask the State to keep all these collections in the Hôtel Biron, which will be the Musée Rodin, reserving the right to reside there all my life.”
So Rodin donated all of his works and belongings to the French State and in exchange, the State purchased the Hôtel Biron and its estate with the commitment to transform it into the Musée Rodin.
The Hôtel Biron was built in the early eighteenth century by Jean Aubert and in 1820 it was purchased by the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who created an educational establishment for young girls. This institution was dissolved in 1904 and the house was surrendered to the State, which then rented it out to artists. Writer Jean Cocteau, painter Henri Matisse, poet Rainer Maria Rilke and dancer Isadora Duncan were all tenants of the building. And thanks to Rilke, Rodin discovered the property in 1908 and rented four rooms on the ground floor. Three years later he was the sole occupant. The house is hidden by high walls with a large garden, and early photos show just how wild the garden was in the days when Rodin lived there. Nowadays, the house lies in the suburbs of Paris, but when Rodin resided there it was on the outskirts of the city.
Rodin’s bequest to the State also included copyright royalties, thus providing the museum with significant operating resources and financial autonomy. The Musée Rodin is the sole national museum to entirely self-finance its operations.
Life of Rodin
What I hadn’t appreciated before visiting this beautiful museum was the fact that until Rodin was aged forty, he had never earnt a living as an artist. It was not until he was given commissions from the French State in 1880, that his reputation began to take hold, notably thanks to the legendary Gates of Hell.
This work inspired Rodin for over thirty years; it formed the basis for The Thinker, a universally recognised iconic piece which ensured the artist
immense international acclaim and placed him among the great names in the history of Western art. However, this masterpiece was not unanimously praised when installed in front of the Pantheon, receiving insults and called a ‘pithecanthrope’, (which refers to a fossil found in Java in 1891). Since then, The Thinker has become a true ambassador of France, an official emblem: it has stood in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1993, in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 2003 for the fortieth anniversary of the Élysée Treaty, and in Rome in 2007 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome.
Rodin was born on the 12 November 1840 in the Rue de l’Arbalete, which is described as a poor but lively district of Paris’ 12th arrondissement (today’s 5th). He is said to have been a lack-lustre pupil who received a mediocre education. However, his gift for drawing persuaded his father to allow him from the age of 14 to attend the École Imperiale Spéciale de Dessin et de Mathématiques. However, he failed the entrance examination to the École des Beaux-Arts three times which meant a slow start to his artistic career.
In 1877 he was accused of using a life cast for his statue The Age of Bronze (on display in the museum), which could have been a disaster for him, but instead it became a cause célèbre, and helped to establish his reputation as a sculptor. But throughout his career his works often caused a scandal, which can be hard for us to fathom today. A statue of Balzac caused so much controversy that it was refused by the Société des Gens de Lettres when it was shown, as well as his most well-known piece, The Kiss, which was also slandered by some but loved by others.
In 1880 he received his commission for a monumental doorway for a future museum of decorative arts, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy -
The Gates of Hell. Rodin went on to work on these Gates for the rest of his life and there is a special exhibition at the house based on his drawings and trial castings.
In 1900, at the age of sixty, he mounted an independent exhibition of his works which was a changing point for him. Finally he was recognised for the exceptional artist that he was, and at last he
was financially secure and showered with tributes. His final battle was to establish his own museum which involved a lengthy and complex series of negotiations with the French State, which came to fruition in 1916. Due to the delays with the first World War, the museum was finally opened to the public on the 4 August 1919.
Although an admirer of his works for many years, it wasn’t until my visit to the Musée Rodin that I heard the name Camille Claudel for the first time. But many in France know her name, and the fact that her life will be forever intertwined with Rodin. It is known that Rodin took on a number of pupils throughout his lifetime, and is said to have had many affairs with them. In 1882 he took on Claudel and is said to have been entranced with her fiery temperament and outstanding talent. She later became his assistant, mistress and muse.
Knowledge of her affair greatly upset her mother, who had always wanted a male first-born child and disapproved of her work. When her father, who had always supported her work died in 1913, Claudel was not informed of his death, and eight days later, on the initiative of her brother and mother, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. In one of the greatest tragedies possible, Claudel was left in the hospital for 30 years, despite recommendations from the hospital that she be discharged. When she died in 1943, her remains were buried in a communal grave at the asylum.
The story of Rodin and Claudel could take up many columns, but the Musée Rodin has a room of her work, which to a layman such as myself, seems every bit as stunning as the work of the master sculptor. A gorgeous piece, the Age of Maturity is said to show Claudel trailing in the wake of Rodin, while other works show her working with onyx and bronze. Her craftsmanship is exquisite and her story so sad.
The centenary of Rodin’s death
This year, 2017, marks the centenary of Rodin’s death, and there is going to be a number of events throughout the year to celebrate the artist and his works. The museum is using the opportunity to highlight less well-known aspects of his works and
to celebrate the man who laid the foundations of twentieth-century sculpture. A special exhibition will be held at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in Paris entitled Rodin, The Centenary
Exhibition showing how he changed the course of sculpture through his innovation, exploring of human passions and using body language to create unexpected assemblages. Whilst we think of him most often as a sculptor, his cut and pasted drawings actually preceded Matisse and Picasso, while his relationship with photography foreshadowed that of Brancusi. His works is also said to be seen in the works of Giacometti, Richier, Cesar, Fontanna, De Kooning, Baselitz, Lupertz and Gormley.
The Musée Rodin is also celebrating the centenary by working with renowned artist Anselm Kiefer. This exhibition is based on highlighting the way the two artists loved to experiment and it will change the current pieces on display to show entirely unknown works by Rodin for the first time that are said to reflect the shared concerns of the two artists and their aesthetic combat. Films and documentaries are also planned throughout France and Rodin’s work will be showcased in other museums around the world.
When visiting the museum, you should allow yourself as much time as possible. The house is full to bursting with hundreds of pieces of his work together with pieces from his own collections. This means that there is an awful lot to see and take on board. There are numerous casts of one piece, for example, the Balzac statues, or models for The Kiss or The Gates of Hell. And once you have finished with the house, there are the grounds to explore. One of Rodin’s most famous commissions is The
Burghers of Calais, can be found in the garden, along with individual pieces from the group sculpture on their own.
They are very powerful pieces and even a cold and wintery day does nothing to dissipate the effect that they have. Luckily there is a café in the gardens too, which you can retire to when you need to digest all that you have seen and appreciated. And as often the case in Paris, their hot chocolate is to be highly recommended.
Top: Rodin’s The Thinker on the Gates of Hell Middle: Rodin’s The Kiss Left: Rodin’s controversial The Age of Bronze
Above, left: Claudel at work and a portrait taken in 1884 Above, right: The beautiful Shakuntala by Claudel