SALEM, Mass. — Speaking very generally and just of figurative art: sculpture creates a world around itself, and painting creates a world inside itself. Paintings you look into, and their frames close them off. Sculpture, however, is in our world and thus alters our own space by its presence. Where a metaphor for painting is distillation, for sculpture it is generation; by corollary, where painting acts mostly on the brain, like an intoxicant, sculpture acts mostly on the body, like a lover or a toddler.
All of this makes the exhibition currently at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, Rodin: Transforming Sculpture — depending on your disposition — a tense and exhausting or giddy and stimulating experience. The show includes a staggering 175 works in a full range of sizes, mostly sculptures in clay, plaster, bronze, and marble from every stage of the artist’s career, that reach into our space and don’t let go.
The focus of the exhibition is Rodin’s process, which began with Rodin modeling in clay, often from a live model. Once dry, the sculptures were cast in plaster. The “original,” the sculpture actually modeled by Rodin’s hands, was destroyed in this process, leaving a mold from which an unlimited number of identical works could issue. Through the technique of pointing, these could be scaled up or down as directed by the artist. Upon creating these different forms, Rodin went on to reuse whole sculptures and strategic fragments in endless variations, his studio a slurry of parts from which he constructed new compositions.
One result of this technique is that there is no lack of Rodin’s sculptures in the world (there are 28 full-size iterations of “The Thinker,” 1888). Thus the effect of the exhibition is not so much the sensation of seeing the unique beloved — like encountering, for instance, Michelangelo’s “David” — but rather going to a well-attended family reunion. “Thinker”? Check. “Kiss”? Check. “Gates of Paradise,” “Adam,” “Walking Man”? Check, check, check. “Burghers of Calais”? Only part of the group could make it, but they bring the best wishes of the others.
And like a reunion, the show allows you to see family traits. The central one is an elemental, strenuous beauty. Muscles are often in tension, limbs extended or clasped tightly to the body. As in “Meditation” (1885), Rodin liked to find a straight line in the body, from hip to shoulder, for instance, and from shoulder to neck, and just as much to engineer the curving, complex space created by the contraction on the opposite side.
Along with this beauty is a deep seriousness of intent. Subjects are never trifling. The body is for him a medium of expression to convey ancient and weighty themes of life and death, action and repose, alienation and reconciliation. Figures are not abstracted — as later artists like Picasso or Giacometti would do — but literally pared down. The “Large Torso of the Falling Man” (1904) lacks arms, legs, head, and neck, as if to test how much expression he could wring from how little of the body, in the process both referencing and one-upping the power and fragmentation of the famous classical “Torso Belvedere.”
Within his expressive vocabulary, Rodin uses the male and female body very differently. Looking at Rodin’s work in comparison with David’s “Oath of the Horatii” (1784) — a foundational image in the French Academy — we can see that his male figures have evolved from pugilistic sword-wielding clones into thoughtful, even poetic individuals (“Age of Bronze,” 1877; “Thinker”) but his women continue to signify through sensuality and pathos. His main innovation is to heighten the reality of their sexuality. In some sculptures, he replaces the smooth pubic triangle that has served as the cipher for female genitals in Western art since the Ancient Greeks with a lifelike pudenda that sometimes even winks open at the viewer, as in “Iris, Messenger of the Gods” (c. 1895).
Rodin’s gendered thinking also led him to integrate figures with different elements such as columns and vessels. The men, of course, usually get the columns, and the women the vessels. This is so in a series of small-scale figures placed into an array of vases, like “Galatea Cut Off at the Thighs in a Cup, after a cast of an ancient Boeotian vessel” (1895–1905). These he called “flowers,” and they do suggest sad and buxom bouquets, though they also anticipate the corny popular culture trope of the “nude in the martini glass.” Some of my generation and older are probably already miffed at Rodin because of how caddish and suppressive he was in the film Camille Claudel 1988); the flame of this sentiment is fanned, wittingly or unwittingly, by display of the “flowers” under actual bell jars.
Appropriate to the focus on Rodin’s process, the installation seeks to recreate the visual effect of Rodin’s studio, which was amply recorded in photographs. (The camera loved Rodin — with his wide clear eyes, strong nose, and engulfing beard — and his sculptures, which did the young technology the service of staying very still.) The smaller sculptures are densely installed to suggest studio clutter, and, to further evoke the homey and improvisational ambiance of the atelier (though the effect is a little more bridal shop than workshop), the gallery is hung with floor-to-ceiling white curtains and furnished with little velvet settees.
In part to suggest the men and women who modeled for Rodin, a troupe of dancers is dispersed throughout the exhibition to perform all day long. Dressed in short “nude” colored floaty shifts (the women) and dance shorts (the men), they gamely set in motion Rodin’s curving, hyperextended poses with the closed expression of anyone obliged to work behind a window. It’s hard to look at the dancers, gyring away without music, and not feel like a creep. On the other hand, to ignore them feels wrong, too, worse than not acknowledging the guy who’s filling your water glass at a restaurant.
All the contingency of their lived bodies (tattoos, body hair, skin tone) — not to mention the complete set of limbs and a head — creates an instructive contrast with the sculpture, however. The power of these works, it is clear, is not only in their being lifelike, but in the intense life Rodin gives them as artworks. As artworks, also, the sculptures give us license to examine them; our viewing is invited, unfettered by social restraint, and, once drawn into the gravitational pull of the works, well-nigh compulsory.
With his puppeteer’s command over his models and proto-Photoshop-like control over the scale and combination of the plaster casts from which he worked, it’s easy to envision Rodin as God. Rodin might have done so as well: the exhibition opens with a series of sculptures of large hands holding small figures, immediately calling to mind the creation story of God’s molding Adam and Eve from clay. He is shaping the space around them, as well, and in doing so, he is molding us.
Rodin: Transforming Sculpture continues at the Peabody Essex Museum (East India Square, 161 Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts) through September 5.