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Promenades of an Impressionist By James Huneker Characters: 12225

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The first and still the best study of Rodin as man and thinker is to be found in a book by Judith Cladel, the daughter of the novelist (author of Mes Paysans). She named it Auguste Rodin, pris sur la vie, and her pages are filled with surprisingly vital sketches of the workaday Rodin. His conversations are recorded; altogether this little picture has much charm and proves what Rodin asserts-that women understand him better than men. There is a fluid, feminine, disturbing side to his art and nature very appealing to emotional women. Mlle. Cladel's book has also been treasure-trove for the anecdote hunters; all have visited her pages. Camille Mauclair admits his indebtedness; so does Frederick Lawton, whose big volume is the most complete life (probably official) that has thus far appeared, either in French or English. It is written on the side of Rodin, like Mauclair's more subtle study, and like the masterly criticism of Roger Marx. Born at Paris in 1840-the natal year of his friends Claude Monet and Zola-and in humble circumstances, not enjoying a liberal education, the young Rodin had to fight from the beginning, fight for bread as well as an art schooling. He was not even sure of a vocation. An accident determined it. He became a workman in the atelier of Carrier-Belleuse, the sculptor, but not until he had failed at the Beaux-Arts (which was a stroke of luck for his genius) and after he had enjoyed some tentative instruction under the great animal sculptor, Barye. He was never a steady pupil of Barye, nor did he long remain with him. He went to Belgium and "ghosted" for other sculptors; indeed, it was a privilege, or misfortune, to have been the "ghost"-anonymous assistant-for half a dozen sculptors. He learned his technique by the sweat of his brow before he began to make music upon his own instrument.

How his first work, The Man With the Broken Nose, was refused by the Salon jury is history. He designed for the Sèvres porcelain works; he made portrait busts, architectural ornaments for sculptors, caryatides; all styles that are huddled in the yards and studios of sculptors he had essayed and conquered. No man knew his trade better, although we are informed that with the chisel of the practicien Rodin was never proficient-he could not or would not work at the marble en bloc. His works to-day are in the leading museums of the world and he is admitted to have "talent" by the academic men. Rivals he has none, nor will he have successors. His production is too personal. Like Richard Wagner, Rodin has proved a Upas tree for many lesser men-he has reflected or else absorbed them. His closest friend, the late Eugène Carrière, warned young sculptors not to study Rodin too curiously. Carrière was wise, but his own art of portraiture was influenced by Rodin; swimming in shadow, his enigmatic heads have a suspicion of the quality of sculpture-Rodin's-not the mortuary art of so much academic sculpture.

A profound student of light and of movement, Rodin, by deliberate amplification of the surfaces of his statues, avoiding dryness and harshness of outline, secures a zone of radiancy, a luminosity, which creates the illusion of reality. He handles values in clay as a painter does his tones. He gets the design of the outline by movement which continually modifies the anatomy-the secret, he believes, of the Greeks. He studies his profiles successively in full light, obtaining volume-or planes-at once and together; successive views of one movement. The light plays with more freedom upon his amplified surfaces-intensified in the modelling by enlarging the lines. The edges of certain parts are amplified, deformed, falsified, and we see that light-swept effect, that appearance as if of luminous emanations. This deformation, he declares, was practised by the great sculptors to snare the undulating appearance of life. Sculpture, he asserts, is the "art of the hole and the lump, not of clear, well-smoothed, unmodelled figures." Finish kills vitality. Yet Rodin can chisel a smooth nymph for you if he so wills, but her flesh will ripple and run in the sunlight. His art is one of accents. He works by profile in depth, not by surfaces. He swears by what he calls "cubic truth"; his pattern is a mathematical figure; the pivot of art is balance, i.e., the oppositions of volume produced by movement. Unity haunts him. He is a believer in the correspondences of things, of the continuity in nature; a mystic as well as a geometrician. Yet such a realist is he that he quarrels with any artist who does not see "the latent heroic in every natural movement."

Therefore he does not force the pose of his model, preferring attitudes or gestures voluntarily adopted. His sketch-books, as copious, as vivid as the drawings of Hokusai-he is very studious of Japanese art-are swift memoranda of the human machine as it dispenses its normal muscular motions. Rodin, draughtsman, is as surprising and original as Rodin, sculptor. He will study a human foot for months, not to copy it, but to possess the secret of its rhythms. His drawings are the swift notations of a sculptor whose eye is never satisfied, whose desire to pin on paper the most evanescent movements of the human machine is almost a mania. The French sculptor avoids studied poses. The model tumbles down anywhere, in any contortion or relaxation he or she wishes. Practically instantaneous is the method adopted by Rodin to preserve the fleeting attitudes, the first shiver of surfaces. He draws rapidly with his eye on the model. It is a mere scrawl, a few enveloping lines, a silhouette. But vitality is in it; and for his purposes a mere memorandum of a motion. A sculptor has made these extraordinary drawings not a painter. It will be well to observe the distinction. He is the most rhythmic sculptor of them all. And rhythm is the codification of beauty. Because he has observed with a vision quite virginal he insists that he has affiliations with the Greeks. But if his vision is Greek his models are Parisian, while his forms are more Gothic than the pseudo-Greek of the academy. As

W.C. Brownell wrote years ago: "Rodin reveals rather than constructs beauty… no sculptor has carried expression further; and expression means individual character completely exhibited rather than conventionally suggested." Mr. Brownell was also the first critic to point out that Rodin's art was more nearly related to Donatello than to Michael Angelo. He is in the legitimate line of French sculpture, the line of Goujon, Puget, Rude, Barye. Dalou did not hesitate to assert that the Dante portal is "one of the most, if not the most, original and astonishing pieces of sculpture of the nineteenth century."

This Dante Gate, begun more than twenty years ago, not finished yet, and probably never to be, is an astounding fugue, with death, the devil, hell, and the passions as a horribly beautiful four-voiced theme. I saw the composition a few years ago at the Rue de l'Université atelier. It is as terrifying a conception as the Last Judgment; nor does it miss the sonorous and sorrowful grandeur of the Medici Tombs. Yet how different, how feverish, how tragic! Like all great men working in the grip of a unifying idea, Rodin modified the old technique of sculpture so that it would serve him as plastically as does sound a musical composer. A deep lover of music, his inner ear may dictate the vibrating rhythms of his forms-his marbles are ever musical; not "frozen music" as Goethe said of Gothic architecture, but silent swooning music. This gate is a Frieze of Paris, as deeply significant of modern aspiration and sorrow as the Parthenon Frieze is the symbol of the great clear beauty of Hellas. Dante inspired this monstrous and ennobled masterpiece, but Baudelaire filled many of its chinks and crannies with writhing ignoble shapes; shapes of dusky fire that, as they tremulously stand above the gulf of fears, wave ineffectual desperate hands. Heine in his Deutschland asks:

Kennst du die H?lle des Dante nicht,

Die schreckliche Terzetten?

Wen da der Dichter hineingesperrt

Den kann kein Gott mehr retten.

And from the "singing flames" of Rodin there is no rescue.

But he is not all tragedy and hell fire. Of singular delicacy, of exquisite proportions are his marbles of youth, of springtide, and the desire of life. In 1900, at his special exhibition, Paris, Europe, and America awoke to these haunting visions. Not since Keats or Swinburne has love been sung so sweetly, so romantically, so fiercely. Though he disclaims understanding the Celtic spirit, one could say that there is Celtic magic, Celtic mystery in his work. He pierces to the core the frenzy and joy of love and translates them in beautiful symbols. Nature is for him the sole theme; his works are but variations on her promptings. He knows the emerald route and all the semitones of sensuousness. Fantasy, passion, even paroxysmal madness there are; yet what elemental power in his Adam as the gigantic first homo painfully heaves himself up from the earth to that posture which differentiates him from the beasts. Here, indeed, the two natures are at strife. And Mother Eve, her expression suggesting the sorrows and shames that are to be the lot of her seed; her very loins seem crushed by the ages that are hidden within them. You may walk freely about the burghers of Calais, as did Rodin when he modelled them; that is one secret of the group's vital quality. About all his statues you may walk-he is not a sculptor of one attitude, but a hewer of men and women. Consider the Balzac. It is not Balzac the writer of novels, but Balzac the prophet, the seer, the great natural force-like Rodin himself. That is why these kindred spirits converse across the years, as do the Alpine peaks in that striking parable of Turgenieff's. No doubt in bronze the Balzac will arouse less wrath from the unimaginative; in plaster it produces the effect of some surging monolith of snow.

As a portraitist of his contemporaries Rodin is the unique master of character. His women are gracious, delicious masks; his men cover many octaves in virility and variety. That he is extremely short-sighted has not been dealt with in proportion to the significance of this fact. It accounts for his love of exaggerated surfaces, his formless extravagance, his indefiniteness in structural design; possibly, too, for his inability, or let us say lack of sympathy, for the monumental. He is essentially a sculptor of the intimate emotions; he delineates passion as a psychologist; and while we think of him as a cyclops wielding a huge hammer destructively, he is often ardent in his search of subtle nuance. But there is breadth even when he models an eyelid. Size is only relative. We are confronted by the paradox of an artist as torrential, as apocalyptic as Rubens and Wagner, carving with a style wholly charming a segment of a baby's back so that you exclaim, "Donatello come to life!" His slow, defective vision, then, may have been his salvation; he seems to rely as much on his delicate tactile sense as on his eyes. His fingers are as sensitive as a violinist's. At times he seems to model tone and colour. A marvellous poet, a precise sober workman of art, with a peasant strain in him like Millet, and, like Millet, very near to the soil; a natural man, yet crossed by nature with a perverse strain; the possessor of a sensibility exalted, and dolorous; morbid, sick-nerved, and as introspective as Heine; a visionary and a lover of life, very close to the periphery of things; an interpreter of Baudelaire; Dante's alter ego in his vast grasp of the wheel of eternity, in his passionate fling at nature; withal a sculptor, always profound and tortured, translating rhythm and motion into the terms of sculpture. Rodin is a statuary who, while having affinities with both the classic and romantic schools, is the most startling artistic apparition of his century. And to the century he has summed up so plastically and emotionally he has also propounded questions that only the unborn years may answer. He has a hundred faults to which he opposes one imperious excellence-a genius, sombre, magical, and overwhelming.

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