First published in Pratikshan, 1983. Translated by Brishti Modak.
When I was studying art at Madras under Debiprasad Roychowdhury (1936), I first heard about Rodin from him. I saw books on Rodin’s art works published by Phaidon Press. My guru was always in praise of this French sculptor. There was influence of Rodin’s portrait and figure composition in Debiprasad’s works, at least in terms of technique. But it lacked the vision and softness that French sculpture possessed. This was of course understood in retrospect.
It was after twelve or thirteen years that I finally reached the Fine Arts and Cultural centre of the world, Paris. Sitting at a café, at the juncture of Boulevard and Raspail in Montparnasse, sipping my beer, I suddenly saw a huge eight to ten feet bronze statue. I quickly went up to see the sculpture to see the maker of the work which was carved onto the pedestal. It was a sculpture of Balzac created by Rodin. The sculpture's bust was bathed in the golden rays of the afternoon sun. And the rest of the figure is hidden in a silvery shadow. Standing proud and tall victoriously beside the chestnut tree, it has attained a quality representing the face of man with bushy hair which exudes a diabolical energy. The sun rays falling in the crevices of the hair, the top of the nose, the forehead, and the chin are creating a beautiful play of light and shadow that produces such an effect that the viewer is left stunned. The sculptor Rodin had imagined Balzac as an antithetical symbol to adverse difficulties. That is why the writer is depicted as careless and having an egoistic authority. Moreover, to critique the bourgeoisie society, he is adorned with a simple dressing gown in an attempt to cover his naked body. For Rodin, Balzac was not merely a free-minded writer but also someone who had awakened a different kind of spirit in the world. On the contrary, the sculptural problem that Rodin wanted to revolve was that the great writer Balzac would be depicted as a real human being. And he had to do it in a way through which the language of the body and the hedonistic philosophy would be reflected in the work. Balzac was a short, fat and big-bellied man. Despite this, his strong intelligent face attained a diabolical energy and his sharp writing and way of speaking, all of which was successful in impressing the sophisticated women. A western art critic, in speaking about this sculpture, said, For Rodin, there was no ugly subject, only bad sculpture. Even in the face of financial constraints, he was not willing to compromise on his luxurious lifestyle. Rodin wanted to express all these elements in this one sculpture. He wanted to portray this only through his sculptural language and not through the literary language. Even if Rodin created him as an inanimate object, Balzac remains a man of blood and flesh to us. The sculpture has not lost its beauty even when he attempted to deify Balzac. Like, we have done with Rabindranath, Gandhiji, Netaji and many others. There is a special reason behind the success of Balzac’s sculpture. The reason is the imaginative similarities between Rodin and Balzac. The way Rodin represented humans (gods and goddesses, spiritual, religious anecdotes, and national heroes like Napolean) shared similarities with Balzac’s great literary work, “Comedic Humaine”. Sensuality played a role in both their works and life. Hence, when Rodin was approached to make the sculpture of Balzac, he infused the work with all his imagination acquired from his experience and knowledge. It was as if he had waited for it his whole life. In between he completed a few commissioned works as well. But I have never seen Rodin work so tirelessly and with such preparedness and perseverance on anything else. The proof of this is that before completing the last sculpture, he made studies of Balzac’s face and appearance. Unfortunately, after seeing the exhibition, he was nowhere to be found. Compared to other portraits in the exhibition, it was obvious that this sculpture of Balzac was the main attraction in the exhibition. It is not just Rodin’s best works. But it is also a masterpiece of this generation. Nevertheless, when the sculpture was shown to the committee of patrons, they became so shocked that they rejected it without a single word. Rodin, though hurt, was not shocked because he previously had similar experience with his “Burghars of Calais” and other public statuary works. Because of this rejection, he faced financial constraints but in a way he received such a reward that cannot be measured in terms of money. Impressed by his skills, his artist friends collected money and set up the sculpture in that very place which I spoke about in the beginning of this essay.
Rodin has created many portraits in his life. Apart from Balzac, there were many other great faces like Hanaco, Pierre de Wissant, Head of the Tragic, Muse etc. In the case of portraits too, he has experimented a lot. HIstorically, European sculpture was known for its execution of faces and busts. Rodin made sculptures without the neck, shoulder and chest. That allowed him to focus on capturing the unique characteristics of every face. He became immersed in gaining knowledge about each face. He had to know about not every angle, but how the faces looked from upper and lower angles as well. In terms of this, his approach was different. If you wish to know about what is inside and outside the watermelon fruit, you would have to break it into pieces, similarly in the process of sculpting the face; you would have to do the same. So that it's not just the face that will be similar. But each characteristic feature will have the likeness (it should be mentioned that it is not the moral character). That is why, in creating these portraits- nose, eyes, face, lips and bone structure- we are acquainted with a deep psychological interpretation.
In earlier open air sculptures of Rodin, his monumental sculptures were the most important. It is worth mentioning that sculptures would be mostly patronized by government institutions with the aim to reach the common people. And it would be made according to the taste and values of the monarchs and religious institutions. The themes of these works were mostly heroic sculptures and responsibility towards one’s nation, sacrifice oneself for the sake of one’s country etc. But the dream and objective of Rodin and his contemporaries was to overcome these kinds of dependencies and impertinence and produce sculptures based on their own conviction and values. Rodin was a pioneer and like other pioneers he had to endure tremendous insults and financial losses (I have mentioned before that like Balzac’s sculpture, many other sculptures made by Rodin were rejected as well). Despite this, Rodin did not lose sight of what he wanted even for a moment.
From prehistoric times to now, human form has always held a central position in art. This is propelled bythedesiretorepeatedly create human portraits in new ways. From the time of the Greek age to the middle of 20th century, the human body was depicted in a realistic manner, but later the main foundation of these works were to draw inspiration from the ideals of different periods and aesthetics. From Rodin’s time, there was a shift in this way of thinking. The main reason for this is political and social. After the French Revolution there was significant political change- restoration of Monarchy, Socialist Commune, and expansion of the French empire in Africa and Asia, and most importantly, the Industrial Revolution. Due to the aforementioned reason, in terms of social and economic shift, there was immense change in art and the role of art. There was growing apathy against the taste and art of petit bourgeoisie. Due to the patronage and overbearing presence of conservative and lower-graded art, the deserving artists left these government patronized exhibition spaces and created the Salon Des Independents. And new modern art and sculpture was born. And for the next one century art took a revolutionary turn. Due to the effects of both the Industrial Revolution, on one end and the development of Science, there was a change in the perception of people around the world. The reality that artists had accepted through their naked eyes (from the time of Renaissance period), the artists of today began to minutely analyze and judge everything. They perceived the inner reality that resides inside an object as the truth. The change that occurs in an object as a result of the change in the light and the fact that this light is a combination of seven different colours (VIBGYOR) caused a new wave in the field of art.
In the same way, there was ground-breaking change in terms of content in art. Instead of mythological, religious and royal stories, the themes were centered on everyday life and ordinary things like chair-table, coffee plates, flowers, fruits, ordinary scenery etc- in one word, the common man and related things. Honore Daumier was the first person to paint about the ordinary man, which influenced Cezanne and Van Gogh’s initial works. The sculptor, Rodin also chose Human as the main theme. The grief-happiness, desires, hope-hopelessness, rise-fall of people were represented in his sculptures. Nobody understood human form and the different rhythmic languages of masculine and feminine, which are dialectical but at the same complement one another, both in terms of corporeal and spiritual existence, better than Rodin. His creation, The Kiss is the product of his realisation. The work which was in the exhibition was made in bronze. He had made another version of this work in marble, which according to me was a more successful creation. The figures of man and woman are entangled in each other’s arms, in a fire, whose boiling blood is cutting through the hard surface of the marble to create a sharp contrast in our eyes. The light and shadow that is created between the muscular crevices of the man’s body and on the woman's sinuous yet smooth body creates a rhythm that celebrates the union of Man and Nature. There have been very few artworks in history that have been able to depict man’s bestial power and the woman’s emotional response in such a manner.
It was marvellous how Rodin showed diabolical perseverance in order to know and understand the rhythm of the human body and to turn the complex language of concealment into one’s innermost being. On his request, models, especially female models, used to roam around the studio naked. He used to sketch them and later create watercolour images of these models in different lights, different postures. There are few artists in history who have been able to create the same kind of wonderment. His paintings proved to be better than Da Vinci and Michelangelo. It is not only to prove the anatomical knowledge. It was to draw out the essence of the general features of a human body created in an intelligent laboratory. With age, this had become completely innate. That is why, he could easily create sculptures in new moulds, new glory, new pride, which was completely epochal and groundbreaking.
Speaking about the human body and the perceptible quality in Rodin’s works, I am reminded of an incident, which is not entirely unrelated to our essay. Famous American expressionist, Isadora Duncan went to Rodin’s studio, in his old-age, in hopes of meeting him. Rodin’s eyesight was frail. A few days ago, he had been amused seeing the dance of a beautiful dancer. On respectfully greeting him, Rodin, “I cannot see your beautiful body with my eyes. Stand naked before me. I will touch your body to perceive your body. The dancer accepted his request and stood in front of him like he had asked her to. Rodin touched every part of her body to experience the language of her body, like a blind person touches upon Braille. Isadora, even though had been touched by many men before, had never experienced such excitement before. The dancer has written about this incident in her autobiography. The relevance of this incident is that no artist in European sculpture before Rodin had been able to portray a sculpture of a woman with such uniqueness-smoothness, desirable elegance, warmth and beauty. If we look at the tradition of Michelangelo’s female sculpture which lacked smoothness that had been going on for centuries, we would be ascertained of the relevance of the aforementioned incident. Rodin’s Exhibition at Birla Academy of female sculptures like, Andromeda, Cybela, Seated Torso of a Woman, The Kiss and Danaide is a splendid evidence of my words.
Why only the female body? Why not in the case of the male body? He has been successful in creating different postures through his artistic movement, in different thought-processes and moods. In this exhibition, there was a small sculpture of Rodin’s hands. There is a small incomplete female body clasped in the big hands of Rodin. This was made with the mould of Rodin’s own hands. There was another work of Rodin-titled, “Hand of God”- where we see a sensuous, yet suffering female body, clasped within a strong hand. Both are an example of his extraordinary power. It is as if these sculptures are mere dolls, under his control. A power like this is only one in a million. That is why, four hundred years after Michelangelo’s death, amongst many many sculptors, Rodin exists like Mount Everest with his head held high. The influence was felt all around the world. In this essay, I have purposefully mentioned only a few of his works. I have tried to describe his exceptional talent, through snippets of my own thoughts about Rodin. It is obvious that the true extent of his talent and description of each work cannot be explained in detail in this essay. Still, I hope that the readers will get a glance of his great talent and his contribution to sculpture of this generation.
What is the relevance of Rodin’s works inKolkata?Itisnatural that this question could arise in our minds. Is there something to learn from this? The first thing is, what do we mean by sculpture and what is the difference between sculptures and doll? The reason why I bring it up is because in the name of sculpture the kinds of works that are being patronised and erected everywhere in this city and country, who will judge the standard and aesthetical significance of these works? After seeing the works of Rodin, can the sculptures being created in Kolkata (except a few) be considered as Sculptures? No matter what, we have to find answers to these questions. If not, then Rodin’s exhibition in Kolkata would serve no purpose. What would it matter to anyone if this exhibition had not taken place? If that is the case, then what is the meaning of the contribution of Rammohan, Vidyasagar, Madhusudhan, Vivekananda, Rabindra, Abanindra, Gaganendra to the culture of Bengal? This question comes up easily. This metropolis was the cultural centre of Bengal. On the contrary, in the name of sculpture, there are horribly created dolls, and the city has become polluted and filled with rubbish. And it is disgraceful how the cultural aspect is being controlled by illiterate politicians. If we aren’t backboneless, then should we accept this kind of offensive art and culture without any protest?