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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: The Making of Rodin at Tate Modern

    The Making of Rodin exhibition opened at Tate Modern in May after lockdown restrictions were lifted. Born in Paris in 1840 Rodin worked on the cusp of the Modern era and he is known as the father of modern sculpture. Today the exhibition of over 200 works inspired by the Classical era, mainly loaned from the Musée de Rodin may seem too staid to be on display at Tate Modern (compared say to Kara Walker’s recent politically charged Turbine Hall installation). The exhibition focusses on Rodin’s working process and nearly all the works on display are made of plaster, cast from his clay models. He favoured its brittle nature fracturing into creative possibilities.

    In Room 1 is Rodin’s sculpture of a young man The Age of Bronze (one of the few bronze works in the exhibition), which he created at the age of 30. Prior to that Rodin was working as a studio assistant /stone mason as he didn’t get into the Ecole des Beaux Arts. The Age of Bronze seems very lifelike and Rodin had to convince his critics it was not cast from real life. The experience lead to a revolutionary change of direction in his working practice.

    In 1900 Rodin staged a retrospective of his plaster casts at the Place de l’Alma, Paris in a specially designed pavilion. The aim was to provide an insight into his working process and a walk through his studio. This display here is recreated in a well lit room enhanced by natural light featuring some of Rodin’s most famous works.  It was a surprise to see the array of unfinished works, some chipped and discoloured. Chances are the Paris audience back in 1900 were equally surprised at the unusual display.

    We see a finished life-size plaster cast of The Thinker, a separate sculpture of his head, a small preliminary clay model by Rodin and a large scale plaster cast of the Thinker’s foot. The Thinker was intended as a portrait of Dante from The Gates of Hell to decorate the doors of a new museum in Paris. The museum was never built but Rodin repurposed the sculpture as an individual piece.  

    There is his plaster cast of the controversial statue of Balzac. It was Rodin’s aim to capture Balzac’s personality as opposed his physical appearance and it was rejected when first unveiled in 1898. Rodin departed from tradition by producing the different elements of the composition in separate layers. On display is a plaster cast of Balzac’s head and a headless, round bellied figure study as well as his empty dressing gown which appears to be floating. Rodin draped the dressing gown dipped in plaster across Balzac’s figure to capture its fall. 

    Rodin was meticulous in rendering his subjects: viewing them from all angles, from above and in motion. He moulded miniature clay models of his subjects which provided a template for multiple plaster maquettes. He created mash ups or assemblages of these plaster maquettes such as The Muse and the Sculptor and several featuring 'imploring women'. Rodin enlisted the help of studio assistants and plaster casters to enlarge figures from the plaster models. He would often use the same figure in a work in repetition The Three Shades which departed from the notion of a sculpture as a unique object.

    Rodin built up a stockpile of plaster torsos and limb fragments from The Gates of Hell and mixed and matched these until he was content with the final pose. A highlight is an eery display of various small plaster hands arranged in rows which he referred to as giblets or ‘abattis’. They look so true to life they may be twitching in their glass case.

    There is a focus on the Rodin’s female muses with a series of portrait busts of the German aristocrat Helene Von Nostizt and the tragic Camille Claudel. Claudel, a gifted sculptor in her own right, was Rodin’s studio assistant whom he later cast aside. The cast of Claudel’s head retains the plaster seams giving the end result an unfinished appearance contrary to the Classical ideal of a perfect finish. A series of masks and busts of Japanese actor and dancer Ohta Hisa (Hanako) in plaster and terracotta capture her intense and anguished facial expression during a performance in Marseilles.

    The Burghers of Calais (1898) is a culmination of all Rodin’s methods. A life-size plaster cast of the sculpture is on display at eye level in a room filled with natural light. The original bronze sculpture stands on a plinth near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. It records a historical event when England’s King Edward III in 1346-7 invaded the port of Calais, and depicts the six town leaders who were willing to sacrifice their lives to protect those of the townspeople, although they were ultimately spared.

    As we walk around the sculpture’s twisted figures wearing long robes, there is a sense of movement about the work. Rodin has again draped garments dipped in plaster over the figures and the same left and right hand fragments are repeated for the figures of Pierre and Jacques de Wissant.

    Here the heroic figures are afraid of their impending fate apparent in their facial expressions and in every sinew of their bodies. At once there is a sense of common humanity but the work also manages to transcend the everyday. Rodin has achieved a monument that continues to be pertinant while the relevance of many statues is currently being questioned.

    Rodin didn’t take photographs himself but he had his work photographed by Eugène Druet. The purpose was to view his works from a different perspective, to reveal creative accidents.

    There is a fragile beauty to these plasterworks although some people might prefer to see the works in their finished state in bronze or marble. We’re given a view into Rodin’s working processes and a rare opportunity to view his works close up. We’re also given an insight into how he didn’t conform to prevailing ideals on sculpture and proceeded to carve out an image for himself as a rebel genius.


     Ends 21 November 2021




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