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François-Auguste-René Rodin – Father of Modern Sculpture

In front of the model, I work with the same desire to copy the truth as if I were making a portrait; I do not correct nature, I incorporate myself into her; she leads me.
 
I can work only from a model. The sign of the human form fortifies and nourishes me.

François-Auguste-René Rodin’s story recalls the archetypical struggle of the modern artist.

He was born on November 12, 1840 in a poor area of Paris’s fifth arrondissement to Jean-Baptiste Rodin, an office clerk in the local police station and his second wife, Marie Cheffer.

Early Life

In 1854, he decided to pursue a career in the arts, attending the Ecole Speciale de Dessin et de Mathematiques which trained boys in the decorative arts.

Due to poor vision, Rodin was greatly distressed at a young age. Unaware of his imperfect eyesight, (he was nearsighted) a dejected Rodin found comfort in drawing, which allowed him to clearly see his progress as he practiced on drawing paper.

By age 14, Rodin had developed obvious skills as artist, and soon began taking formal art courses. While completing his studies, the aspiring young artist began to doubt himself, receiving little validation or encouragement from his instructors and fellow students.

After three years of studying sculpture and drawing, he applied to attend the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He was gravely disappointed when the school denied him admission.

While he passed the drawing competition, he failed three times in the sculpture competition; his pursuit of naturalism did not suit the school’s academic style.

After the third rejection, Rodin resigned himself, at the age of 19, to take job in plaster workshops to create architectural ornaments.

His career in the decorative arts working on public monuments provided him with a meager living for the next 20 years.

He continued to make sculptures, and by the mid-1860s he had completed what he would later describe as his first major work ‘’Mask of the Man With the Broken Nose’’ (1863-64).

The piece was rejected twice by the Paris Salon due to the realism of the portrait, which departed from classic notions of beauty and featured the face of a local handyman.

In 1866, Rodin met Rose Beuret, and she remained his lifetime companion despite his numerous affairs.

Around this time, Rodin found better fortune-filling commissions in the workshop of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, a commercial sculptor, but the steady work and increased income was disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

A fateful trip to Italy in 1875, with an eye on Michelangelo’s work further stirred Rodin’s inner artist, enlightening him to new kinds of possibilities, he returned to Paris inspired to create and design.

The Age of Bronze

In 1876, Rodin completed his piece ‘’The Vanquished’’, which he called ‘’The Age of Bronze’’, a life-size sculpture of a nude man clenching both of his fists, with his right hand hanging over his head.

A young officer was the model for this sculpture, which provided the first great ‘success de scandale’ of Rodin’s career. The composition and rough surface of the figure were unconventional by academic standards.

The subject also remained obscure- the title only vaguely suggesting classical art- and prompted confusion among critics; rather than clothe his image of man in respected symbolism, Rodin had presented a common man, naked.

The Salon accepted the work, but doubts were raised about its authenticity and many accused him of casting directly from the model’s body; the sculpture appeared so realistic that it was directly modeled from the body of the model.

The allegations were a testament to Rodin’s technical skills, though the suggestion that he had somehow cheated heartily offended the sculptor, who was able to disprove the claim with photographs of his model.

However, the work was validated when it was purchased by Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Fine Arts, Edmond Turquet. Turquet would then commission Rodin to create a monumental bronze doorway for a planned museum of the decorative arts.

The Gates of Hell

As Rodin entered his 40s in the fallowing decade, he was able to further establish his distinct artistic style with an acclaimed, but sometimes controversial list of works, eschewing academic formality for a vital suppleness of form.

In 1880, Rodin began working on ‘’The Gates of Hell’’ an intricate monument partly inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and Charles Boudelaire’d Les Fleurs du Mal.

Rodin laboured on this project for over twenty years.

It is believed that Rodin chose to draw on Dante’s Inferno for the subject matter. The monument consisted of various sculpted figures, including the iconic ‘Thinker’(1880), ‘The Three Shades’(1886), ‘The Old Courtesan’(1887), and the posthumously discovered ‘Man with Serpent’(1887).
 
The Thinker is the most famous example.

Deriving from a figure at the top of the sculpture who gazes with melancholy over the hellish scenes bellow him, he represents Dante the author of the Divine Comedy; the figure also represents modern, secular man, strong in mind and body, but lonely and doubtful in the position he has created for himself as master of his own universe.

The Gates of Hell was a deliberate attempt to rival Lorenzo Ghiberti’s famous bronze doors for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral, the Gates of Paradise (1425-52), the competition for which is often said to have initiated the Renaissance.

Rodin initially planned to split the composition into a series of panels, just as Ghiberti had done, but after looking at images of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (1534-41), he opted for a more fluid arrangement of figures.

Although Rodin wished to exhibit the completed ‘Gates’ by the end of the decade, the project proved to be more time-consuming than originally anticipated and remained uncompleted.

The Kiss

The years during which Rodin worked on The Gates of Hell coincided with his relationship with Camille Claudel, a young sculptor who joined his studio as an assistant in 1884.

It proved a stormy romance beset by numerous quarrels, but it persisted until Camille’s madness brought it to a finish in 1898. During the years of passion, Rodin made several erotic sculptures of loving couples.
 
The most sensuous of these groups was the Kiss (1884).

The critics gave the sculpture the title, but Rodin originally called it Paolo and Francesca, after the story in Dante’s Divine Comedy about a young noblewoman who falls in love with her husband’s brother.
 
In the story, the couple is killed by the jealous husband, but Rodin focused instead in their loving embrace.

This erotic sculpture was made during the early years of Rodin’s relationship with Madame Claudel.

The Burghers of Calais

By 1899 Rodin had a large studio with several assistants. His work continued to elicit scandal and trouble. ‘The Burghers of Calais’’ a piece from 1889, is a public monument made of bronze portraying a moment during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England in 1347.

The piece includes six human statues, and depicts a war account during which six French citizens from Calais were ordered by monarch Edward III of England to abandon their home and surrender themselves—barefoot and bareheaded, wearing ropes around their necks and holding the keys to the town and the caste in their hands— to the king who was to order their execution thereafter.

‘The Burgers of Calais’ is a portrayal of the moment that the citizens exited the town; the group was later spared death due to the request of Queen Philippa.

The piece was nearly refused for its depiction of the city’s heroes as dejected victims. The figures are arranged all on one level, rejecting the pyramid composition typical of figure groups at the time.

The men look downtrodden, but determined. They are dressed in rags, and their hands and feet are expressively enlarged.

However, their awkward appearance did not suggest the heroic dimension that the town had envisioned, and the sculpture was accepted with some hesitation and compromise.

Monument to Balzac

Similarly, in 1881, Rodin was commissioned by the Society of Man of Letters to create a memorial for the poet Honore Balzac. Instead of taking 18 months to complete the work, Rodin became infatuated with the topic, and completed the commission in 7 years.

Rodin spent years reading Balzac’s poems, finding pictures of him and models who bore a resemblance to the heavy-set man.

Finally, he placed the proud head on top of a body swathed in a huge, shapeless robe and made a mound-like protrusion at his crotch as a reference to his virility.

The commission was ultimately rejected, and after much controversy Rodin decided to keep the sculpture for himself.

After the sculpture of Balzac, Rodin’s pace slowed down, but he had achieved financial success.

Several exhibitions around the turn of the century brought him worldwide renown; exhibitions in Belgium and Holland in 1899, his first retrospective in Paris in 1990, subsequent shows in Prague, Germany and New York.

Unbridled Sentimental Inventiveness

Around 1900, there was a pressing desire to find a new formal approach in sculpture.

The theories of the German sculptor Lehmbruck were symptomatic from this point of view. In his writings, he particularly condemned ‘unbridled sentimental inventiveness’, making explicit references to Rodin’s art.

In 1908, Rodin moved to the now-famous Hotel Biron, the most beautiful 18th– century Parisian mansions, which became his new studio and home of his affair with the Marquise and later Duchess, Claire de Choiseul.

She exercised great control over his life and the sale of his work for seven years, until she was accused of stealing a box of drawings.

Because of her scheming and that of other women around Rodin, friends encouraged him to marry Rose Beuret in January 1917. Rose died two weeks after the wedding, and Rodin passed away on November, 17 of that same year in Meudon, France.

Hotel Biron at Meudon

Before his death he bequeathed all of his sculptures, drawings and archives to the state of France to create a museum in the Hotel Biron at Meudon.

The Museum was opened in 1919; after several years of reconstruction, the museum was reopened in 2015 on November, 12, Rodin’s birthday.

By the time of his death, Rodin was linked to Michelangelo. His reputation as the father of modern sculpture remains unchanged; his many intimate drawings of his models have altered the nature of the traditional respect paid to this eminent artist.

Henri Matisse was influenced by the spontaneity of his drawings, while Cubists and Futurists were fascinated by his sense of motion and the fragmentation of his human forms.

While Rodin’s reputation declined in the decades following his death, his rebellion against academic standards and his vivid expression of the human form planted the seed for a new French sculpture.

To the generation of sculptors coming forward in the 1890s, faced with the conventions of Academic art and the death throes of Realism, Rodin seemed to be the one who had breathed new life into their art form.

The early works of Joseph Bernard, Brancusi, Picasso, Gaudier-Brzeska and Zadkine, all reflect Rodin’s undeniable influence.

We’ll leave you with this video documentary about Rodin.


 

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Real Not Real Enough For Ya? The Realists Vs. The Super Realists

chuck-close

By the 1950s, the centrer of the art scene was now well-embedded in the USA. Artists set about making their mark on the world with new and provocative styles. Abstract Expressionist work had its roots in Early 20th Century modernism.

These paintings fell into one of two camps – 1) the gestural action and 2) colour field paintings.

room-3-the-seagram-murals-rothko
Source: Tate Gallery

Pop artists also emerged at this time, reacting to the increasingly commercial world that Americans were embracing. Andy Warhol looked to the models of production and advertising that companies were using in the mass production of goods.

Pop Art had aimed to bring the real world into art, and in doing so making it more accessible to the general public.

 

campbells-soup-cans-andy-warhol
Source: MOMA

Eventually however, artists grew tired of the abstract art of Pollock and pop cultural icons of Warhol. They especially reacted to the loss of the subject in Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist works.

jackson-pollock
Source: Artsy

Super-Realism

Super-realists (also known as hyper-realists and photo-realists) focused on putting the subject back into art. The use of a shallow space replicated the camera’s field of vision but the images were painted. This serious attention to detail that super-realists used depicted real life subjects that were so well rendered, it became difficult to pick between painting and photo.

estes-painting
Source: bob520

Often these works were cropped to make the most of the canvas space and the depth of field. Another characteristic in super-realist work was the use of reflection.

Comparing the works of realists and super-realists

Like the realists working in the first half of the 20th Century, the super-realists set out to discover the “truth”. While these super-realists achieved the image of reality, realists had also concentrated on capturing the feel of a scene.

This distinction can be seen when you look at the following two works.

Looking at the following two portraits the distinction between realist and super-realist works becomes clear. The earlier work of the realists not only focused on the image, but capturing the sentiment of the character and their situation.

Big Self-Portrait is directly copied from a Polaroid Chuck Close took of himself, exercising the intention of the super-realist to capture the way the world looks.

chuck-close

On the other hand, Alice Neel’s depiction of Andy Warhol is more roughly constructed, but delivers more information. This somewhat haunting image of the pop artist portrays a man scarred from the world, damaged and isolated by the fame he sought and fortune he amassed.

It does not simply show the public persona we have seen in photographs. Here Warhol is naked to his waist with his eyes are shut, suggesting a man who is troubled and conflicted. This exposes Warhol’s ordinary self, something he guarded and kept concealed from the world.

He concealed his appearance under his characteristically high-necked jumpers, large spectacles and blonde “fright wig”. The scars visible on his chest serve as a visual reminder of the assassination attempt on his life in his studio.

andy-warhol-1970

Close’s work, on the other, hand gives a “photographic” sense of the world. The viewer, however, needs to force themselves to remember that the portrait is only a two-dimensional illusionistic painting. This is difficult given the overwhelming three-dimensional feel of the work.

Of key importance is Close’s attention to detail and the painting’s formal elements (e.g. scale and detail), rather than the narrative of place and character we see in the Warhol portrait.

These two works illustrate three chief differences between the realists and the super-realists.

  1. Super-realists used the camera to gather information.
  1. They used mechanical methods to transfer their images to the camera
    1. Less personal than to the realist painting
    2. Realists paint the “total” reality, not just the look of it. The work is more than just visual for the realist
    3. Realists are more painterly in their approach, which allows you to see the artist within the final product.
  1. Super realists’ works are created to a standard that is indistinguishable from a photo
    1. Uniform surface
    2. No paint marks
    3. Use of airbrush when necessary

Here is Chuck Close’s “Linda”, from 1975-76…

linda-by-chuck-close-1975-76

Two key super realist artists are the Americans Richard Estes and Audrey Flack.

Richard Estes

Estes has often been seen as the founder of the photo-realist movement. His hyper-realist compositions of New York are carried out with meticulous attention to detail. Entire street scenes, ferries out on the Hudson River, and train carriages are all scenes Estes has depicted.

Each work is set to enhance what we see naturally. One truly outstanding accomplishment is his use of paint in the creation of reflections.

richard-estes-photo-realistic-painting

Estes works are usually oil paintings based on multiple photographs. Look out for the following:

  • Reflections – important in his work to give illusion of solid appearance. These do raise important questions like “what image IS real?”
  • Like many of the realists, Estes explored issues of loneliness and alienation that is linked to artistic detachment. Often there are no sightings of people within his work
  • The creation of order as an important aspect of his work (rejecting the chaos of Abstract Expressionism).
  • The use of signage to show space – two dimensions (the flatness of the words) versus the signs themselves (their depth and 3D composition).
  • his use of solid colours, visible brushstrokes (rare in super-realist works)
  • hard-edged forms, sharp definition, large-scale works that are highly detailed

Supreme Hardware, 1974

hyper-real-painting-estes

(sense of alienation/loneliness, use of signage (2D writing on 3D sign), formulated composition, great use of reflection in windows, exceptional detail, solid use of colours)

Telephone Booths, 1967

telephone-booths-1967

(reflections – in the glass and metal frames of the street opposite and taxis passing, great care in formulation of composition – balance and symmetry on both axes) signage- telephone and reflected shop signage form across the road)

richard-estes

(Again loads of reflection in the use of the glass window, lack of human subjects – loneliness and alienation in a large city) meticulous detail in street detail and shop fronts/windows, street cobbles and parked cars; composition formulated and perspective drawn in space and reflection)

Watch this interesting video interview with Richard Estes at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Audrey Flack

Audrey Flack is another notable hyper-realist. Influenced by the 17th century Dutch painters, her lustrous works are rich in both colour and texture. The tradition of Vanitas like Wheel of Fortune and Marilyn were used by these Baroque painters who portrayed the meaning of happiness in life.

They arranged an assortment of carefully selected objects to convey meaning within their work.

Jolie Madame, 1972

jolie-madame-1972
Source: NGA

Flack’s characteristic still-lifes are huge, almost billboard like, in size. These illusionistic paintings use the trompe l’oeil (“trick of the eye”) technique to fool the viewer into thinking the objects are real. She would also airbrush the paintings to eradicating any trace of the artist’s brushwork and create a sense of objectivity.

World War II, 1977

world-war-ii-1977

Each work is a composed scene with a somewhat jumbled appearance This helps to add a sense of reality – chaos rather than complete order. Her canvases are flat with a bunch of 3D objects squished into the picture space.

Each object is deliberately chosen, symbolic of the points she is raising. For example, the lipstick symbolises commercial objectification of women. Links to Pop art are also found in the bright use of colour, reactions to the media and the iconic symbols that Flack often uses in her paintings.

Marilyn, 1977

marilyn-monroe-audrey-flack
Source: audreyflack.com

Looking at the assorted elements, we find commercial products with photographs, paint brushes, pearls, books and fruit. The work is airbrushed and jumbled within a shallow space. As a Vanitas, this still life deliberately alludes to the vanity of worldly pleasures in what is a transient life.

Look carefully to find:

  • Marilyn – the work acts as a commemorative meditation to Marilyn Munroe, her life, death and celebrity.
  • The cut fruit -references death, as its flesh will too soon wither and die.
  • An hour glass, watch and candle also highlight the fleeting nature of life.
  • The lipstick, compact, perfume and jewellery reference Munroe’s sex-symbol status with the media

Wheel of Fortune, 1977-78

wheel-of-fortune-audrey-flack

Again Flack renders her objects as a three dimensional illusion. The space is flat and juxtaposed objects tell stories related to the still life. Once again we see pop art colours, adding a brightness to the work.

Look for the following:

  • skull, lipstick, dice, flickering flame of the candle, tarot card, beads and mirror – each are carefully chosen objects linking to death,
  • the future is linked to the inclusion of the dice (your fate is pre-determined and cast much like the throwing of a dice)
  • the appearance of beauty and youth signified by the photograph of the young woman. This is juxtaposed against the skull to show fleeting nature of youth and life.

To learn more about Audrey Flack, watch this interview she did with Eldridge & Co.