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Exploring Rodin: The Artist’s Creative and Technical Process

A bronze sculpture of "The Kiss" displayed at the VMFA's "Rodin: Evolution of a Genius." The exhibit includes more than 200 pieces, many of which shed light on the creative and technical process used by the artist and his collaborators. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

The Rodin exhibit at the VMFA offers visitors a chance to see some famous pieces, including “The Thinker” and “The Kiss.” Through objects that have never before traveled to North America, it also sheds light on the artist’s process and the techniques that made him a pioneer in modern sculpture. Virginia Currents producer Catherine Komp has more.

Learn more: Visit the VMFA's site to learn about the exhibit, upcoming events and audio tours you can stream for free on your phone. Explore more at the Rodin Museum's site and learn about the artists behind Burghers of Vancouver.


As a teenager, Auguste Rodin applied to Paris’s School of Fine Arts, but failed the sculpture test three different times. After studying at a smaller, less prestigious school, he spent decades doing ornamental work for other sculptors before forging his own style, one that rebelled against classical traditions.

Sylvain Cordier: He managed to transform the fact of being rejected into a strength, an actual strength.

Sylvain Cordier curated the exhibit with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts director Nathalie Bondil.

Cordier: There’s very small list of sculptors that undoubtedly changed our understanding of art throughout centuries and Michelangelo for sure was one, Rodin was probably coming second and definitely constitutes a link between tradition and modernism. There is definitely a before and an after Rodin in the way people would look at sculpture first, but I think at art in general.

The VMFA’s Dr. Mitchell Merling is giving us a tour of "Rodin: Evolution of a Genius."

Mitchell Merling: It begins in the mind of the artist...

There’s more than 200 pieces here, made of plaster, marble, bronze, even glass, some never before exhibited in North America.

Merling: The exhibition begins with about 10 different hands, monumental hands because Rodin was kind of obsessed with the theme of the hand...

“The Hand of God,” “The Hand of the Devil” and “The Cathedral,” two right hands coming together in an upward gesture, just barely touching. The center is empty space, but full of meaning.

Merling: The cathedral is the void and it’s a very important concept for modern sculpture.

This influenced artists like Constantin Brâncuși and Alberto Giacometti, says Merling.

Merling: So that leads us into the next gallery, with the artist’s work tables….

Here you begin to understand Rodin’s creative process. A long table, brightly illuminated, displays small fragile plasters that, almost like a sketchbook, helped him think through his options. These are “assemblage,” melding together components from different works to create completely new sculptures.

Merling: For example here, “Head of the shade, surrounded by two hands," where Rodin would take figures from “The Gates of Hell,” detach them from "The Gates of Hell," combine them with other figures, make a new sculpture out of them, give them another name, give them another meaning.

Many of Rodin’s works came out of “The Gates of Hell,” a 20 foot high doorway with more than 200 figures inspired by Dante’s Inferno. It was commissioned for a museum that never did get built, but Rodin worked on it throughout his career. “The Thinker” started as a small figure, representing Dante, at the top of the doorway. One of his collaborators, Henri Lebossé developed a method to enlarge it.

Merling: I used to say it's three times life size, but looking at it now it seems more like four times life size.

Merling’s standing before a version of “The Thinker” that Rodin actually worked on, intended for the Pantheon in Paris.

Merling: This room is about enlargements, fragments and the pedestal, three different means by which Rodin formally transformed the language of sculpture by presenting fragments as entire sculptures, by using the base as an integral part of the formal language of the sculpture and by enlarging or altering the scale - all radical techniques that modern sculptors employ today.

The nearby “Walking Man” is an example of fragmentation.

Cordier: It’s probably one of the most modernist, daring sculptures that Rodin made...

It’s a large, muscular man…

Cordier: ...extremely, extremely tall

Both feet planted but still giving a sense of movement. The sculpture has no arms and no head.

Merling: And people would say, “Rodin what are you exhibiting, it’s not even finished, what does it represent?” And [Rodin] said, “It’s a man walking,” and [they] said, “But he has no head.” And Rodin said, “Well, man doesn’t walk with his head.”
Cordier: And when you’re in front of such a sculpture, the power of the fragmentation of the figure is very striking and very interesting.

Merling: So, we’re in the last two rooms and I think you’ll agree, they’re extremely spectacular...

The exhibit gives you the opportunity to walk around some of these sculptures, the light casting shadows on the contour of the human body. You can see how much Rodin studied and understood how to make human anatomy reflect a state of emotion.

Merling: The second to last room is the room of marbles, marbles that represent various amorous subjects that are typical of the 19th Century: babies kissing, men and women kissing on waves…

“We are workers whose days are never done,” said Rodin. His studio was filled with collaborators including live models who often wandered throughout the room, while Rodin waited for just the right character to emerge from a pose. He would sketch it on paper and shape it into clay or plaster. Then, he closely supervised casters, carvers, foundries and patinators to carry out the final sculptures.

Cordier: Clearly, Rodin is not a marble carver, Rodin is before all a clay modeler and in the last period of his life, it’s also the play with plaster figures that he likes to combine and to assemble together to create new stories out of figures already pre-existing.

Rodin could be difficult to work with. One model said he was moody and barely spoke. He also never officially acknowledged the son he had with longtime partner Rose Beuret. And Merling says one 80 year old Italian immigrant woman was forced by her family to pose for him.

Merling: So the story of Rodin interaction with people is not always the happiest story. Rodin was a difficult person, he had a difficult relationship with Camille Claudel and other people. He had a difficult relationship with his wife Rose Beuret who he married on her death bed and basically rejected his son, so there are some sad aspects to this story and we don’t gloss over them but out of these horrible stories came some very beautiful works of art.

Works of art that continue to inspire and spark dialog. One example is an installation called "Burghers of Vancouver" that draws from Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais,” a monument to the town’s 14th Century leaders who offered their lives during the Hundred Years War. “Burghers of Vancouver” is a video installation that shows the monument recreated by living actors,  people who answered an ad: a poet, an immigrant, an ex-con, a former drug addict.

Merling: There is a big television screen with a video of them standing so still in front of the art gallery of Vancouver reenacting the monument, but there’s also six monitors where each of them as if they’re an individual living sculpture tells their own story of how they came to pose for it. It’s really a mind blowing work, a very powerful statement about the social purpose of art and what it means to be a monument, part of monument and represent your city in art, represent society in art. It's a very powerful part of the exhibit.

“Burghers of Vancouver” is on display in the museum’s main gallery. The VMFA is also holding Rodin-focused lectures and hosting sculptors in residence. "Rodin: Evolution of a Genius" continues through mid-March. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.