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Towards the end of his life, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) donated his collection to the French nation. As well as works by his contemporaries, and Greek and Roman antiquities, Rodin’s collection included an enormous number of his own plasters and thousands of drawings. In his three-part donation were also bronzes, marbles, a library and a huge archive of photographs, correspondence and news clippings. These works of art and documents became the Musee Rodin, opened to the public in 1919.

Rodin had completed large bronze and marble editions of his work during his lifetime, and, under the terms of the artist’s will, the Musee Rodin was authorised to issue bronzes from the plasters. Many bronzes – and later works in other media – were purchased by the Americans B. Gerald Cantor (1916-96) and his wife Iris Cantor. The Cantors built the most comprehensive private collection of works by the artist. As a result of their enthusiasm and generosity, Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession is the first large-scale survey of sculpture by the great French master to come to the National Gallery of Australia. The exhibition comprises more than 70 bronzes, from intimate studies to monumental finished works.Supporting material demonstrates the complexities of the casting process, and provides an opportunity to explore Rodin’s relationships with other artists and the politics of his time.In Canberra the exhibition is being supplemented by a selection of the artist’s drawings, on loan from the Musee Rodin, Paris and from the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny, and works from Australian collections.

Drawing was an important part of Rodin’s early training at the Petit Ecole – he learnt to work from memory and from the moving model – and he later studied human and animal anatomy.

When he travelled to Italy in the winter of 1875-76, Rodin drew to record his impression of the works of the great Renaissance masters and of Classical art. This trip was crucial to his development. In 1875 Rodin began work on The Age of Bronze (1876), a life-size male nude. Although based on the Classical tradition, it was modelled naturalistically, without the exaggerated musculature of Greek and Roman sculptures of athletes. The critics were suspicious of Rodin’s exquisite rendering and accused the artist of casting from life. Rodin made his next figure, Saint John the Baptist preaching (c. 1880) larger than life. But again Rodin’s contemporaries found the Saint – portrayed without his traditional attributes – improper and clumsy. Part of the reason for the objections was the realism of the figure. His model for Saint John the Baptist preaching had never posed and did not automatically adopt a standard academic pose.Rodin gained immense pleasure from Gothic cathedrals, and his travels took him around France. During these tours, Rodin drew church interiors and architectural features. He expressed his admiration in three-dimensional form. The Cathedral (original stone version executed 1908) is composed of two larger-than-life-size casts of the same right hand, the shape and gesture reminiscent of the soaring interiors of Gothic architecture.

This sort of assemblage was not unusual for Rodin, and often his reworkings had a highly symbolic content or produced extraordinarily innovative sculpture. The Walking Man (1889), for example, was once considered a study for Saint John the Baptist preaching. Rodin combined a version of the Saint’s rugged torso with more smoothly modelled legs to capture the movement of a stride. Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession examines Rodin’s working methods and his championing of the idea that a partial figure, such as a torso or hand, could be a complete, independent work of art.

During the early 1880s, Rodin used drawing to experiment with a range of different compositions for The Gates of Hell. This project obsessed the artist for almost twenty years and he sculpted a bewildering number of single figures and groups. The commission was intended as the entrance portal for a never-built museum of decorative arts. Over two decades, many of the figures originally conceived as part of The Gates of Hell became individual works in their own right. The doomed lovers, Paolo and Francesca, remained until 1886 when Rodin decided that the figures were out of keeping with the rest of his project. This passionate depiction of romantic love became one of Rodin’s most recognised works – The Kiss (c. 1881-82.

In The Three Shades (1880-1904), three casts of the same figure are juxtaposed at slightly different angles. With their heads bowed and their despondent pose, The Three Shades seem to embody the inscription above the gates in Dante’s epic poem: ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’ The Thinker (1880), one of the most well-known sculptures of all time, is a representation of creativity, intellect, and, above all, thought. The exhibition includes both a reduction and a two-metre enlargement of The Thinker, as well as Edward Steichen’s atmospheric photographic portrait of the artist and his work.The Burghers of Calais was Rodin’s next major project, which he also worked on for an extended period.

The town of Calais had commissioned a monument to celebrate the heroism of its citizens, six of whom surrendered to Edward III in exchange for the lifting of the English siege in 1347 during the Hundred Years War.

Although the commission was for a single burgher – Eustache de St Pierre, the first to offer his life – the maquette Rodin submitted in 1884 depicted all six. When his project was accepted, Rodin made additional maquettes, then worked individually on each of the figures. They were modelled first nude and then draped, in progressively larger stages. Rodin gave each burgher a distinct character, paying particular attention to the stance and depth of emotion portrayed in the faces of the hostages. The Burghers of Calais was finally installed in 1895, against Rodin’s wishes, on an elevated platform.

Rodin seems to have neglected studio drawing in the 1880s and early 1890s – a period when he was fully committed to a series of major projects – but when he resumed his work on paper, it was always in the presence of a model or models. Female anatomy is the principal subject of the artist’s late drawings; of more than 7,000 drawings in the Musee Rodin, almost three-quarters depict the female form. He allowed his body to act as a ‘filter’ for sensation, keeping his eye on the model while his hand recorded the movement of the figure. In 1899, Rodin was commissioned by the French publisher Ambroise Vollard to make twenty drawings for a luxury edition of Octave Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des Supplices [The Torture Garden]. This erotic novel tells of the meeting of a petty French Deputy and an eccentric Englishwoman whose affair culminates in a tour of a Chinese torture garden. Rodin’s pencil drawings, loosely washed with watercolour, were drawn and then printed by Auguste Clot between 1899 and 1900. The book was published in May 1902. Each lithograph is overlaid with a smaller outline drawing and text extracts printed on thin tissue. The combination of the skin-toned washes, the textures of the papers, and the imprint of the letterpress complement the erotic narrative. On page 5, the heroine Clara is the typical femme fatale – her gaze is direct, as if luring her prey. Later in the text, Rodin’s exploitation of an accidental watercolour ‘blob’ results in a figure of ambiguous sexuality.

Clot is said to have reproduced the sculptor’s drawings so well that the master could scarcely discern the originals.

Auguste Rodin is the only sculptor of the modern age who is placed on a par with Michelangelo. Like the Renaissance master, Rodin made sculptures with widespread popular appeal, at the same time exploring the possibilities for the expression of movement and emotions in clay, bronze, marble and on paper. Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession is an important cultural event, providing an opportunity for Australian audiences to see the artist’s best-loved works and to explore the major themes of his oeuvre.

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