I know nothing about sculpting, though I like looking at sculptures. So I found Tate Britain’s exhibition, The Making of Rodin, fascinating, focusing as it does on HOW Rodin went about creating his works. Outside the exhibition is a version of The Kiss, but the show itself begins with a bronze, the only bronze sculpture in the exhibition, the rest are in plaster. This is The Age of Bronze, the figure of a young Belgian soldier named Auguste Ney and it replicated real life so perfectly that Rodin was accused of making the cast direct from Ney’s body rather than modelling it. Rodin refuted the allegations of ‘cheating’ with a passion, having photographs taken of Ney to demonstrate the differences between the subject and the sculpture. Thereafter he was to move away from the conventions of classical sculpture, with its ideal of human beauty.
Rodin worked by modelling in clay, then casting in plaster and dipping the resulting casts in plaster slip or ‘lait de platre‘, which softened the sculptures, smoothing their angles and filling their craters. But a perfect finish was not what he was after and he left seams visible between joints as well as gouge and nail marks. Multiple casts of a single piece, or part of a piece were made and used in a variety of ways ( see the Giblets or abattis laid out in one vitrine, arms, legs, torsos originally to be part of The Gates of Hell, but used for many other works ). He reworked his casts, remodelling parts of them, with elements being used in any number of larger works, dismantling and reassembling existing sculptures in endless combinations. So The Head of a Slavic Woman appeared in multiple works, repositioned and rotated. The Son of Ugolino moved from prone point of death to an aerial figure.
Rodin took repetition to another level when he included multiple casts of the same figure to form a sculptural group. So The Three Shades consists of a single figure, originally to represent Adam, presented in a group together (see left). He also changed the scale of pieces and the exhibition has some truly large versions of elements of other sculptures, Rodin was said to be particularly fond of the undulating surfaces created by enlargement. We see the head of one of the Burghers of Calais, but twice the size, a massive version of The Thinker and a super large plaster version of Balzac. The versions of this last sculpture are particularly illuminating, showing a nude figure in various sizes and a head in various forms, plus the dressing gown (so accurately represented it seemed that the fabric would fold in your hand), which were used to inform the final work.
There are some of Rodin’s drawings in the exhibition too. The exhibition guide tells us that Rodin used drawing to study movement and the internal dynamics of the body, asking his sitters to move around the studio. The works on show are all of impersonal female nudes in graphite and watercolour and they are full of movement. I liked them a lot. As with his clay sculptures, Rodin would use the sketches again and again. The drawings on display are annotated with his notes, rotating the pages around to show the figures differently depending on aspect. The other element I admired was his use of antique artefacts – a very modern concept – though Rodin used the real thing, not copies, thus effectively negating the work of the original potter, or ceramicist (not so admirable).
One room contains a life-size ( i.e. bigger than actual life ) plaster model of his famous Burghers of Calais, such a fabulous and powerful sculptural group, the bronze version of which stands outside the Houses of Parliament. This made me want to go and see that sculpture again, but the plain white of the plaster version somehow renders the self-sacrificing burghers even more exposed than their bronze equivalents. Other rooms are dedicated to works depicting the Japanese actor and dancer Ohta Hisa – Rodin made over fifty busts and masks of her face – and Helene von Nostitz, his aristocratic German friend.
The exhibition made me think about the ‘real’ and how an imperfect representation of it could illuminate a greater truth. Rodin sometimes deliberately removed part of a sculpted body, a lower limb or a hand as well as making marks on the surface. This reminded me of Henry James’ short story The Real Thing, which prompts similar ruminations, though from a completely different perspective. I also speculated how a sculptor might have a different view of the human body to the rest of us. Rodin was a lover of women, the exhibition acknowledges his numerous relationships and one wonders how his day job impacted upon how he saw and reacted to his lovers, particularly Camille Claudel, a fellow sculptor.
An engaging and, for me, fascinating, exhibition, it runs until 21st November at Tate Modern and tickets cost £18.