If you went to a museum in 2017, chances are you ran into an Auguste Rodin special exhibition. From the sculptor’s hometown of Paris to Berlin, London, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and even Cleveland, reminders of the hundredth anniversary of Rodin’s death were everywhere. In New York, two major Rodin shows are still up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, each comprised of works from the respective museum’s permanent collection. Although both shows paint Rodin as a rebellious modernist and revolutionary, each takes a completely different approach to that conclusion, with the Met proving the sculptor’s influence through juxtaposition with his contemporaries and the Brooklyn Museum focusing on the uniqueness of his craft.
Rodin at the Met‘s sculptures range in materials from marble to bronze, plaster, and terracotta, many donated to the museum by Rodin himself in 1912. The works are divided into themes, like nudes and muses, as well as sections focusing on his most famous works and the studies that led to them — “The Burghers of Calais,” “The Gates of Hell,” and “Monument to Balzac.” Interspersed among the Rodins, the exhibition curators, led by Denise Allen, include works by his contemporaries, fellow modernists like Renoir, Monet, and his student, muse, lover, and model Camille Claudel. Most numerous are the paintings by Rodin’s friend Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, providing an allegorical context for Rodin’s many sculptures based on ancient mythology. The curators also cleverly added a few artists championed by the Academy at the time — like Gustave Moreau’s “Oedipus and the Sphinx” — showing just what kind of work left Rodin so conflicted about his three rejections from the Academy.
In a smaller adjoining gallery, the Met situates Rodin further into historical context, this time within larger cultural trends. A book of Charles Baudelaire poems illustrated by Rodin points to Les Fleurs du mal‘s influence on “The Gates of Hell,” while a Steichen photograph of the “Monument to Balzac” and Rodin facing “The Thinker” place the sculptor in the forefront of the new art form of photography. (Steichen also championed Rodin’s drawings and sketches, arranging for a special exhibition at Stieglitz’s gallery in New York in 1908 and 1910, when the Met bought many of the drawings also on display here.) Letters from Rodin to the Met complete the picture of the sculptor as cultural icon.
On the other side of the East River, Rodin at the Brooklyn Museum: The Body in Bronze presents more versions of “The Gates of Hell” and “The Burghers of Calais,” as well as a much more expansive showing of “Monument to Balzac.” Curated by Lisa Small, this show may include many of the same works in various different forms as the Met exhibition, but somehow the Brooklyn Museum is able to pack much more emotional heft. The exhibition centers around “The Burghers of Calais,” one of the first monumental anti-monuments, with bronze casts of three of the giant, anguished nobles who offered up their lives to save the city of Calais during the Hundred Years’ War. They stand in a circle, with maquettes, fragments, and reductions of the figures surrounding them. A full-scale nude study of one of the Burghers stands at the door of the exhibition space, creating a unique line of sight between the clothed and unclothed figure of Pierre de Wiessant, his fingers spread apart, as if attempting to shield himself from his fate.
Between the two Pierre de Wiessants, Small creates a historical context for Rodin not through his contemporaries, but instead through the ancients, with fragments of Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, similar to the ones Rodin himself collected, leading to an up-close comparison of hands, feet, faces, and torsos. In the adjacent glass vitrine, a particularly memorable grouping of eroticized sculptures shows studies for “The Gates of Hell,” while the far side of the gallery space focuses on heads and portraits, concluding with a video on the inner workings of Rodin’s studio and his numerous assistants, in a sense debunking the myth of the solitary artist as sole creator.
While both shows focus largely on Rodin’s most famous works and the revolutionary novelty of his style in rescuing sculpture from what many perceived as mediocrity, the Rodins in the Met’s exhibition feel almost crowded out by the others, with the “Fallen Caryatid Carrying an Urn” in one corner as the most memorable focal point. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Museum’s focus on the sinewy anguish of Rodin’s figures provides for a more profound consideration of the craft of the artist, striving for an analysis based on aesthetics, not just history.
Rodin at the Met continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 4.
Rodin at the Brooklyn Museum: The Body in Bronze continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through April 22.