You look at me and what do you first notice? My size? My shape? The colour of my eyes? My glasses? My hair? My attitude? The size of my ears? How I’m dressed? What you see is pretty much the finished product. Yes, superficially I might decide to go blonde again, or pile back on the pounds, but the essence of me will still be recognisable.
Think of what a sculptor sees when he looks at a block of granite or marble. To the untrained eye, it’s a block of stone. To them, though, it has form, shape, and essence, all of which they need to bring to the surface so that other, less-trained eyes, can see them too.
In hindsight, my rather tame reaction to seeing one of the world’s most acclaimed masterpieces might well have stemmed from the fact that I’d spent the previous few hours touring the Musée Rodin on the other side of the Seine. I’ve always been a great fan of his, and number The Kiss as one of my all-time favourite statues. One day, when I have money, I’ll have a copy in my living room that I can enjoy every day. Right now, I’m settling for a framed poster from the gift shop.
Rodin himself wasn’t all that impressed by it, calling it a ‘huge knick-knack’, but there we differ. I was taken with it the first time I saw a copy and could look at it for hours.
The Kiss originally represented Paolo and Francesca, two characters borrowed, once again, from Dante’s Divine Comedy: slain by Francesca’s husband who surprised them as they exchanged their first kiss, the two lovers were condemned to wander eternally through Hell.
The museum was undergoing renovations so I’m hoping that’s why it was stuck in a corner that didn’t do it justice. I’d hate to think that everyone else sees it as a knick-knack, too.
Out in the grounds of the Musée Rodin, along with a series of other individual pieces, many of which end up on the famous Gates of Hell, is the even more famous of Rodin’s creations – The Thinker. He originally had the poet Dante in mind, but the statue apparently evolved to represent all poets and creators. Just the male ones, obviously. It’s a curious piece to see up close and in person. I’d never realised that the muscle detail was so obvious and in a certain light, it didn’t take much imagination to fancy he was real.
The detail in each bronze sculpture was extraordinary. The day was wet and overcast. It was raining. The ground was muddy and the visitors few in number. Perhaps that added to the eeriness of the place, a setting that would, I’m sure, be so much different on a bright, warm, summer’s day. But this seemed more appropriate somehow.
Each statute took us one step closer to seeing the Gates of Hell, the ultimate collection of over 200 pieces that Rodin created separately, a collection which was not cast in bronze until after his death. He never saw for himself what so many enjoy today. It’s stunningly grotesque. There is a tangible pressure from those who simply come to take its photo to cut your scrutiny short – to get out of the way. Best ignore it. Take time to digest, to explore, to see, and despite the damp cold, to feel the heat from the flames of hell.
Rodin began drawing at the tender age of 10. And although he had talent, the École des Beaux-Arts, a prestigious Parisian art school, refused him admission three times. He spent a couple of decades as a decorative brick-layer, and it wasn’t until he was in his forties that he started his artistic work.There’s hope for me yet.
He considered his best piece to be a statue of Honoré de Balzac, which he described as ‘the result of a lifetime, the very pivot of [his] aesthetic’. He eschewed the idea of a poet/writer in contemporary dress, quill poised over paper, and took the more ballsy approach of cloaking Balzac and his belly in the dressing gown he usually wore while writing. A minor uproar ensued when the piece was unveiled in 1898 at the Salon. It was rejected by the commissioning body who said that it ‘regrets to have the duty to protest against the rough model exhibited at the Salon by M. Rodin, which it refuses to recognise as the statue of Balzac.’ Admittedly, it didn’t do a whole helluva lot for me either, but then again, me and Balzac aren’t on a nodding acquaintance.
Still though, I have to admire Rodin’s courage to challenge society and convention, to stay true to his convictions, and to stand by the product of his beliefs. In a week that has been thought-provoking and somewhat life-altering, I’m grateful to have Auguste Rodin as an inspiration – late bloomers are beacons of hope on what at times might seem a pretty flat horizon. And his work is a strong reminder that inside the ordinary lies something special.
If you’re in Paris, Musée Rodin is worth a visit.