Didn’t need to think twice about choosing today’s artist, French Sculptor, August Rodin (1840-1917). Well, I did consider Peter Paul Rubens rather seriously, because I was totally spellbound by his Marie de’ Medici Cycle when I visited the Louvre. The collection has its own room and I remember just sitting in there soaking it all up, suddenly understanding why Australian artists like Norman and Lionel Lindsay opposed the coming of Modernist art to Australia. These paintings had such a serene beauty.
However, during my time in Paris I must’ve been immersed in so much art, although I was oblivious at the time…the Louvre, Musee d”Orsay and the Musee Rodin. I experienced an incomprehensible art explosion right inside my head. However, this was just what it meant to be in Paris, and I was there for six weeks in 1992. Rather than the “City of Lights”, they could well rebadge Paris as “the City of Art Galleries”.
It was during this time, that I visited the Musee Rodin. We were staying at the Hotel Henri IV on the Isle de Paris which used to house Henri IV’s printing presses. The tarif included a continental breakfast, which was served in a breakfast room downstairs. This is where we met a couple of Americans. One of them had lived in Paris and became our tour guide, taking us to the Musee Rodin, which knocked my socks off.
It was there that I met The Thinker, whose previous title had actually been: The Poet. In case I haven’t mentioned this before, I was very much a poet back in my university days and that was even my way of communicating with my family and friends…”I’ve got a poem,” my Dad announced in his speech at my 21st birthday. Indeed, while I was in Paris I did a solo reading at the famous Shakespeare Bookshop from my self-published anthology: Locked Inside an Inner Labyrinth.
Auguste Rodin: The Kiss, Musee Rodin, Paris.
Being 22 years old and in the throws of romantic angst, seeing The Kiss was equally electric and it was like a lightening bolt had struck me on the head switching all my neurones on at once…BANG. Fireworks! Being a passionate Keats’ fan, his Ode to A Grecian Urn came to mind, although Rodin’s lovers were froze in an eternal embrace, rather than the frustration of the eternal chase.
Reflecting on The Thinker
, I thought John Farnham’s The Voice
was a suitable musical choice. That The Thinker
indeed has a voice, which I guess is a rather quirky idea for a statue. However, after being stuck inside my own body both through disability or sheer nerves, I understand that just because you can’t move and might be trapped inside your body, that you still have a voice and you need to use it…speak up and speak out.
Before moving on to the inspiration behind these works, I’d also like to touch on The Walking Man…an incomplete state with its head missing. For some strange reason, I find myself mysteriously drawn towards it. There’s also The Cathedral where two right hands of separate people come together. Yet, there is a space between them, which Rodin describes. Parallels may be drawn between the mysterious inner space that seems to emanate from the composition and Gothic architecture. Emptiness was a factor that Rodin used to allow for, and, as Rilke pointed out, “the role of air had always been extremely important” for him (Rilke, 1928). 1.
Auguste Rodin, The Cathedral, Musee Rodin.
It took me many years to appreciate that space could well be equally important as content. Indeed, I had that epiphany when I was in my son’s classroom when I was helping the littlies learn how to write. Most wanted to run all their words together and there was that constant reminder to “leave a finger pace”, which for those young beginners, actually meant putting their index finger down on the page in between the words. It was also a very visual representation of the space, the rest, we need in our daily lives to stay healthy and sane. That even the most active thinkers, need to let the cogs rest and nod off. Sleep isn’t a waste of time.
Both The Thinker
and The Kiss
were part of a larger work The Gates of Hell,
which Rodin was commissioned to create a portal for Paris’ planned Museum of Decorative Arts in 1880. The museum was never built. However, Rodin worked throughout his life on a monumental sculptural group depicting scenes from Dante’s Inferno
in high relief. Often lacking a clear conception of his major works, Rodin compensated with hard work and a striving for perfection. 1.
Edvard Munch, Le Penseur de Rodin dans le parc du Docteur Linde à Lübeck, 1907, [P.7612]
Revisiting The Thinker now, I’m struck by his physical fitness. The veins are literally popping out of his calves and he is buff. He’s quite literally a muscular man of action, a verb, not some weedy nerd too weak to grip hold of his pen. He wasn’t a procrastinator either. Rather, his thoughts were a precursor to action…a combination of the intellect and the physical, which can so often be mutually exclusive. He was the full package.
Meanwhile, in 1887, Rodin produced The Kiss, a marble sculpture
originally representing Paolo and Francesca, two characters borrowed from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Slain by Francesca’s husband who surprised them while exchanging their first kiss, the two lovers were condemned to wander eternally through Hell. This group, designed in the early stages of the elaboration of The Gates, was given a prominent position on the lower left door, opposite Ugolino, until 1886, when Rodin decided that this depiction of happiness and sensuality was incongruous with the theme of his vast project. He therefore transformed the group into an independent work and exhibited it in 1887, when the public called it The Kiss. The French state commissioned an enlarged version in marble, which Rodin took nearly ten years to deliver. Not until 1898 did he agree to exhibit what he called his “huge knick-knack” as a companion piece to his audacious Balzac , as if The Kiss would make it easier for the public to accept his portrait of the writer 3.
Before I launch into my letter to Rodin, I wanted to touch on his friendship with the German poet Maria Rilke. Indeed, I wrote to Rilke two years ago in my first series: Writing Letters to Dead Poets
. I was stoked to stumble across his Letters to A Young Poet
. Indeed, I feel rather ripped off that I didn’t hear about it til I was a middle-aged poet in my 40s. Why didn’t I hear about it at school, or even university? They were too busy teaching the likes of algebra, which are of no use to a poet.
Here’s a poem Rilke wrote about Rodin’s Archaic Torso of Apollo:
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875 – 1926
After covering so much ground, midnight will soon be upon me and another day and another artist will be dawning, before my letter to Rodin is even done.
A Letter to Auguste Rodin
How I wish I could spend even just one day in Paris with you. That said, I don’t even know where I’d start but a cafe au lait and a croissant at Les Deux Maggots would be a great start. There’s something about having a coffee in Paris which truly stimulates and captivates the brain cells.I would love to photograph your hands holding a simple, everyday coffee cup like any other ordinary man. Yes, these very same hands which miraculously created, or is that captured, the very essence of what it means to be human. You have understood us to the marrow. How did you do it? Most of humanity even struggles to make a paper plane that can fly.
How can you stare into a person’s soul and not burn up like a moth into the proverbial candle flame? Too many creatives, see and feel too much and combust, just like Picasso’s dear friend.
I also thought we might go for a walk through Père Lachaise Cemetery. No doubt many of your friends are buried there and we could go and visit Jimmy Morrison’s grave like nearly everybody else who goes to Paris these days of a certain age. I’d also like to go back to the Shakespeare Bookshop, although I’m far from prepared for a reading. However, I would like to tell them abut when I was there last and even give them the photos. I am quite proud to be a part of their history, even if I didn’t even rate a footnote in the book. Then, perhaps we could eat baguette and fromage beside the River Seine. I really have simple tastes but if you’d rather swing from the chandelier and live the high life, I’m more than happy to join you. That said, you’re paying.
PS I thought you might like this portrait of me when I was about 6 months old. I also call it: “The Thinker”
Rowena’s: The Thinker…Clearly a very clever baby and a real philosopher.
A Letter From Rodin
Thank you so much for your letter and inspirational photo, which I would turn into a sculpture myself if I was still around. The Baby Thinker has a ring to it.
There was much discussion around the cafe table here about who was going to be next, and I was most surprised and delighted that it was me. Of course, Renoir thought he was a sure thing. After all, his Bal du moulin de la Galette is hanging on your parents’ wall and much to Nolan’s disgust, could well have displaced his Ned Kelly. With all Renoir’s bravado, Rubens stormed out. He saw you photographing his Self-Portrait at the Museum of NSW only yesterday and was convinced he was the one. So, thank you very much for choosing me. It’s enough to even make The Thinker jump off off his pedestal with an almighty: “Eureka!” You see, although he’s been sitting there brooding on his thoughts all these years, he never was the silent type.
I asked The Thinker what he wanted to say to you, and although I found it rather cryptic, perhaps it will make more sense to you:
“Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about. He’s not interested in how things look different in moonlight.”
Make of that what you will.
Anyway, knowing how much you loved Rilke’s Letters to Young Poets, I thought I’d share my theories with you on what it means to be an artist…
What It Means To Be An Artist – By Me
- “The artist is the confidant of nature, flowers carry on dialogues with him through the graceful bending of their stems and the harmoniously tinted nuances of their blossoms. Every flower has a cordial word which nature directs towards him.”
- To any artist, worthy of the name, all in nature is beautiful, because his eyes, fearlessly accepting all exterior truth, read there, as in an open book, all the inner truth.
- To the artist there is never anything ugly in nature.
- In short, Beauty is everywhere. It is not that she is lacking to our eye, but our eyes which fail to perceive her. Beauty is character and expression. Well, there is nothing in nature which has more character than the human body. In its strength and its grace it evokes the most varied images. One moment it resembles a flower: the bending torso is the stalk; the breasts, the head, and the splendor of the hair answer to the blossoming of the corolla. The next moment it recalls the pliant creeper, or the proud and upright sapling.
- Art is contemplation. It is the pleasure of the mind which searches into nature and which there divines the spirit of which nature herself is animated.
- The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live. Be a man before being an artist!
- The artist must create a spark before he can make a fire and before art is born, the artist must be ready to be consumed by the fire of his own creation.
There are unknown forces in nature; when we give ourselves wholly to her, without reserve, she lends them to us; she shows us these forms, which our watching eyes do not see, which our intelligence does not understand or suspect.
The human body is first and foremost a mirror to the soul and its greatest beauty comes from that.
The work of art is already within the block of marble. I just chop off whatever isn’t needed.
The artist enriches the soul of humanity. The artist delights people with a thousand different shades of feeling.
Love your calling with passion, it is the meaning of your life.
Well, Rowena. That was some coffee. My thinking cap’s almost blown a gasket coming up with all of those gems. I hope you like them. They’re my personal gift to you.
Yours in friendship,
PS Did you know that the first version of The Thinker is actually in Australia? Sorry, it’s not in your Art Gallery of NSW, but it is in Art Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. I know you’ve spent more time in Paris, than in Melbourne, but it’s worth the trip and you should also keep your eyes open for all the other genius works of art that are in Australia. You often just need to look under your nose and don’t need to wait until you can afford the big trip.
References & Further Reading
1)Rodin- The Cathedral