There are those who assert that Auguste Rodin is the greatest sculptor since Michael Angelo. However that may be, he is certainly the most astounding.
Those who have stood in wonder before one of Rodin's tremendous creations have longed to look into the sculptor's mind and know the secret of his genius. This desire has now been in large measure fulfilled, for in a sumptuous volume published by Small, Maynard & Company we have a series of conversations on Art between Rodin and Paul Gsell, in the reading of which we receive an explanation of many of the thoughts that Rodin has expressed in clay. He gives us an interpretation of art as he sees it, and immediately much of the mystery that has veiled his work vanishes. How clearly he reveals to us the spirit of his work is shown by the following selections from the conversations that are recorded in M. Gsell's book: OUR INHERITANCE.
Last year, at the close of a beautiful day in May, as I walked with Auguste Rodin beneath the trees that shade his charming hill, I confided to him my wish to write, from his dictation, his ideas upon Art.
"You are an odd fellow," he said. "So you are still interested in Art! It is an interest that is out of date.
"Today, artists and those who love artists seem like fossils. Imagine a megatherium or a diplodocus stalking the streets of Paris! There you have the impression that we must make upon our contemporaries. Ours is an epoch of engineers and of manufacturers, not one of artists."
"I know," I said, "that Art is the least concern of our epoch. But I trust that this book may be a protest against the ideas of today. I trust that your voice may awaken our contemporaries and help them to understand the crime that we commit in losing the best part of our national inheritance-an intense love of Art and Beauty."
"May the gods hear you I" Rodin answered.
"What astonishes me in you," said I, "is that you work quite differently from your confreres. I know many of them and have seen them at work. They make the model mount upon a pedestal called the throne, and they tell him to take such or such a pose. Generally they bend or stretch his arms and legs to suit them, they bow his head or straighten his body exactly as though he were a lay figure. Then they set to work. You, on the contrary, wait till your models take an interesting attitude, and then you reproduce it. So much so that it is you who seem to be at their orders rather than they at yours."
Rodin, who was engaged in wrapping his figurines in damp cloths, answered quietly:
"I am not at their orders, but at those of Nature! My confreres doubtless have their reasons for working as you have said. But in thus doing violence to nature and treating human beings like puppets, they run the risk of producing lifeless and artificial work."
"What is commonly called ugliness. in nature can in art become full of great beauty. "In the domain of fact we call ugly whatever is deformed, whatever is unhealthy, whatever suggests the idea of disease, of debility, or of suffering, whatever is contrary to regularity, which is the sign and condition of health and strength; a hunchback is ugly, one who is bandy-legged is ugly, poverty in rags is ugly. Ugly also are the soul and the conduct of the immoral man; of the vicious and criminal man, of the abnormal man who is harmful to society; ugly is the soul of the parricide, of the traitor, of the unscrupulously ambitious.
"And it is right that beings and objects from which we can expect only evil should be called by such an odious epithet. But let a great artist or a great writer make use of one or the other of these uglinesses, instantly it is transfigured: with a touch of his fairy wand he has turned it into beauty; it is alchemy; it is enchantment!
"Let Francois Millet represent a peasant resting for a moment as he leans on the handle of his hoe, a wretched man worn by fatigue, baked by the sun, as stupid as a beast of burden dulled by blows - he has only to put into the expression of this poor devil a sublime resignation to the suffering ordained by Destiny, to make this creature of a nightmare become for us the great symbol of all Humanity."
It was a delightful little antique copy of the Venus de Medici. Rodin kept it there to stimulate his own inspiration while he worked.
"Come nearer," he said.
Holding the lamp at the side of the statue and as close as possible. he threw the full light upon the body.
"What do you notice?" he asked.
At the first glance I was extraordinarily struck by what was suddenly revealed to me.
The light so directed, indeed, disclosed numbers of slight projections and depressions upon the surface of the marble which I should never have suspected. I said so to Rodin.
"Good!" he cried approvingly; then, "Watch closely."
At the same time he slowly turned the moving stand which supported the Venus. As he turned, I still noticed in the general form of the body a multitude of almost imperceptible roughnesses. What had at first seemed simple was really of astonishing complexity. Rodin threw up his head smiling.
"Is it not marvelous?" he cried. "Confess that you did not expect to discover so much detail. Just look at these numberless undulations of the hollow which unites the body to the thigh. . . ."
He spoke in a low voice, with the ardor of a devotee, bending above the marble as if he loved it.
"It is truly flesh!" he said.
And, beaming, he added : "You would think it molded by kisses and caresses "Then, suddenly, laying his hand on the statue, "You almost expect, when you touch this body, to find it warm."
A few moments later he said:
"Well, what do you think now of the opinion usually held on Greek art? They say - it is especially the academic school which has spread abroad this idea - that the ancients, in their cult of the ideal, despised the flesh as low and vulgar, and that they refused to reproduce in their works the thousand details of material reality.
"They pretend that the ancients wished to teach Nature by creating an abstract beauty of simplified form which should appeal only to the intellect and not consent to flatter the sense. And those who talk like this take examples which they imagine they find in antique art as their authority for correcting, for emasculating nature, reducing it to contours so dry, cold, and meager that they have nothing in common with the truth.
"You have just proved how much they are mistaken.
"The science of modeling was taught me by one Constant, who worked in the atelier where I made my debut as a sculptor. One day, watching me model a capital ornamented with foliage - 'Rodin,' he said to me, 'you are going about that in the wrong way. All your leaves are seen flat. That is why they do not look real. Make some with the tips pointed at you, so that, in seeing them, one has the sensation of depth.' I followed his advice, and I was astounded at the result that I obtained. 'Always remember what I am about to tell you,' went on Constant. 'Henceforth, when you carve, never see the form in length, but always in thickness. Never consider a surface except as the extremity of a volume, as the point, more or less large, which it directs towards you. In that way you will acquire the science of modeling.'
"This principle was astonishingly fruitful to me. I applied it to the execution of figures. Instead of imagining the different parts of the body as surfaces more or less flat, I represented them as projectures of interior volumes. I forced myself to express in each swelling of the torso or of the limbs the efflorescence of a muscle or of a bone which lay deep beneath the skin. And so the truth of my figures, instead of being merely superficial, seems to blossom from within to the outside, like life itself."
"When I look at your figure of the Iron Age, who awakes, fills his lungs and raises high his arms; or at your Saint John, who seems too long to leave his pedestal to carry abroad his words of faith, my admiration is mixed with amazement. It seems to me that there is sorcery in this science which lends . movement to bronze. I have also studied other chefs-d'oeuvres of your great predecessors; for example, Marechal Ney and 'The Marseillaise' by Rude, 'The Dance' by Carpeaux, as well as Barye's wild animals, and I confess that I have never found any satisfactory explanation for the effect which these sculptures produce upon me. I continue to ask myself how such masses of stone and iron can possibly seem to move, how figures so evidently motionless can yet appear to act and even to lend themselves to violent effort."
"As you take me for a sorcerer," Rodin answered, "I shall try to do justice to my reputation by accomplishing a task much more difficult for me than animating bronze - that of explaining how I do it.
"Note, first, that movement is the transition from one attitude to another.
"This simple statement, which has the air of a truism, is, to tell the truth, the key to the mystery.
"You have certainly read in Ovid how Daphne was transformed into a bay tree and Progne into a swallow. This charming writer shows us the body of the one taking on its covering of leaves and bark and the members of the other clothing themselves in feathers, so that in each of them one still sees the woman which will cease to be and the tree or bird which she will become. You remember, too, how in Dante's Inferno' a serpent, coiling itself about the body of one of the damned, changes into man as the man becomes reptile. The great poet describes this scene so ingeniously that in each of these
two beings one follows the struggle between two natures which progressively invade and supplant each other.
"It is, in short, a metamorphosis of this kind that the painter or the sculptor effects in giving movement to his personages. He represents the transition from one pose to another - he indicates how insensibly the first glides into the second. In his work we still see a part of what was and we discover a part of what is to be. An example will enlighten you, better.
"You, mentioned just now the statue of Manchal Ney by Rude. Do you recall the figure clearly?"
"Yes," I said. "The hero raises his sword, shouting 'Forward' to his troops at the top of his voice."
"Exactly. Well, when you next pass that statue, look at it still more closely. You will then notice this: the legs of the statue and the hand which holds the sheath of the saber are placed in the attitude that they had when he drew - the left leg is drawn back so that the saber may be easily grasped by the right hand, which has just drawn it; and as for the left hand, it is arrested in the air, as if still offering the sheath.
"Now examine the body. It. must have been slightly bent toward the left at the moment when it performed the act which I have described; but here it is erect, here is the chest thrown out, here is the head turning towards the soldiers as it roars out the order to attack; here, finally, is the right arm raised and brandishing the saber.
"So there you have a confirmation of what I have just said; the movement in this statue is only the change from a first attitude - that which the Marshal had as he drew his saber - into a second, that which he had as he rushes, arm aloft, upon the enemy."
In the same way I next studied Saint John. And I saw that the rhythm of this figure led, as Rodin had said, to a sort of evolution between two balances. The figure leaning, at first, all its weight upon the left foot, which presses the ground with all its strength, seems to balance there while the eyes look to the right. You then see all the body bent in that direction; then the right leg advances and the foot takes hold of the ground. At the same time the left shoulder, which is raised, seems to endeavor to bring the weight of the body to this side in order to aid the leg which is behind to come forward. Now, the science of the sculptor has consisted precisely in imposing all these facts upon the spectator in the order in which I have stated them, so that their succession will give the impression of movement.
"Gericault is criticized because in his picture 'Epsom Races' (Course d'Epsom), which is at the Louvre, he has painted his horses galloping, fully extended, ventre a terre, to use a familiar expression, throwing their fore feet forward and their hind feet backward at the same instant. It is said that the sensitive plate never gives the same effect. And, in fact, in instantaneous photography, when the fore legs of a horse are forward, the hind legs, having by their pause propelled the body onward, have already had time to gather themselves under the body in order to recommence the stride, so that for a moment the four legs are almost gathered together in the air, which gives the animal the appearance of jumping off the ground, and of being motionless in this position.
"Now I believe that it is Gericault who is right, and not the camera, for his horses appear to run; this comes from the fact that the spectator from right to left sees first the hind legs accomplish the effort whence the general, impetus results, then the body stretched out, then the fore legs, which seek the ground ahead. This is false in reality, as the actions could not be simultaneous; but it is true when the parts are observed successively; and it is this truth alone that matters to us, because it is that which we see and which strikes us."
One morning, finding myself with Rodin in his atelier, I stopped before the cast of one of his most impressive works.
It is a young woman whose writhing body seems a prey to some mysterious torment. Her head is bent low, her lips and her eyes are closed, and you would think she slept, did not the "anguish in her face betray the conflict of her spirit. The most surprising thing in the figure, however, is that it has neither arms nor legs. It would seem that the sculptor in a moment of discontent with himself had broken them off, and you cannot help regretting that the figure is incomplete, I could not refrain from expressing this feeling to my host.
"What do you mean?" he cried in astonishment. "Don't you see that I left it in that state intentionally? My figure represents Meditation. That's why it has neither arms to act nor legs to walk. Haven't you noticed that reflection, when persisted in, suggests so many plausible arguments for opposite decisions that it ends in inertia?
"In themes of this kind," Rodin said, "the thought, I believe, is easily read. They awaken the imagination of the spectators without any outside help. And yet, far from confining - it in narrow limits, they give it rein to roam at will. That is, according to me, the role of art. The form which it creates ought only to furnish a pretext."
"But, to me, religion is more than the mumbling of a creed. It is the meaning of all that is unexplained and doubtless inexplicable in the world. It is the adoration of the unknown force which maintains the universal laws and which preserves the types of all beings; it is the surmise of all that in nature which does not fall within the domain of sense, of all that immense realm of things which neither the eyes of our body nor even those of our spirit can see; it is the impulse of our conscience towards the infinite, towards eternity, towards unlimited knowledge and love - promises perhaps illusory, but which in this life give wings to our thoughts. In this sense I am religious."
"To sum it up, your busts often recall Rembrandt's portraits, for the Dutch master has also made plain this call of the infinite, by lighting the brow of his personages by a light which falls from above."
"To compare me with Rembrandt, what sacrilege!" Rodin cried quickly. "To Rembrandt, the Colossus of art! Think of it, my friend! Let us bow before Rembrandt, and never set anyone beside him!
"But you have concluded justly in observing in my works the stirrings of the soul towards that kingdom, perhaps chimerical, of unlimited truth and liberty. There, indeed, is the mystery that moves me."
A moment later he asked: "Are you convinced now that art is a kind of religion?"
"Yes," I answered.
Then he added, with some malice: "It is very necessary to remember, however, that the first commandment of this religion, for those who wish to practice it, is to know how to model a torso, an arm, or a leg!"
Originally published in The Outlook Magazine. June 25, 1913.