The history of the Auguste Rodin museum began three centuries before he lived. But having had his studio there, he told the French government that after his death, the building should be turned into a museum dedicated to his work. He pledged to donate all his works to France provided his wish were granted. The Rodin museum opened in 1919 two years after he died.
That was then and this is now and in order to meet the standards of a modern museum, the 18th century structure needed an upgrade. The uplift took three years, and now the new/old Rodin Museum in Paris – all 18 rooms, including his collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture fragments – is a done deed.
It may come as a surprise to visitors to find that Rodin collected antiquities because he sought a different way of representing the human form than the ancients – less idealized, more natural, more expressive. He did it with rough and unfinished surfaces and with distortion. But even despite his belief in distortion for the sake of expression, Rodin extolled the virtues of the classical work Venus de Medici to his protégé Paul Giselle, who quoted him this way:
“Is it not marvelous? Confess that you did not expect to discover so much detail. Just look at the numberless undulations of the hollow that unites the body and the thigh…Notice all the voluptuous curving of the hip…and now, head, the adorable dimples along the loins…It is truly flesh…You would think it modeled by caresses! You almost expect, when you touch this body, to find it warm.”
While everyone would agree that what we see is only part of the human experience, critics in Rodin’s day were unprepared for the distortion in his work. They panned his life-size portrayal of the French novelist Honore Balzac, titled “Balzac.” Unlike conventional life-size figure art, there is no indication of Balzac’s form. Rodin aimed to convey the writer’s genius by cloaking him in heavy robes with only his deep-set eyes showing. One critic said that the work was “proof of the degree of mental aberration we have reached at the end of this century.” Others objected to the rough-hewn surface that Rodin gave the work, saying it looked like Rodin excise Balzac’s brains and smear them on his face.
Au contraire, said Rodin. As he told Giselle, “A human head is a universe and the portrait sculptor is an explorer.” It goes without saying that Rodin would have had to be an explorer to capture Hugo who wouldn’t sit for him and would only allow Rodin to observe him in his daily life. This left Rodin to making what he described as “a great number of flying pencil notes” following Balzac around.
Excuses, excuses. Critics just didn’t buy what Rodin was selling. They not only didn’t get his portrait of Balzac, but they also didn’t get his fully formed figures. And they questioned his focus on human struggle and pathos and all the tensed muscles in his work. He took a lot of hits for that.
In the end, Rodin’s demand that France turn his studio into a museum or else forfeit his donation may sound like he felt entitled. But he was a modest man. When someone compared his busts to Rembrandt’s portraits owing to their soulfulness, the sculptor was known for saying, “To compare me with Rembrandt, what sacrilege!”