6 minute read 14 May 2021
Rodin sculpture

How Auguste Rodin disrupted tradition to reinvent modern sculpture

By Tate

A family of four art galleries whose mission is to increase the public’s enjoyment and understanding of art.

EY has a long-standing relationship with Tate through the EY Tate Arts Partnership which was founded in 2013.

6 minute read 14 May 2021

Rodin’s radical modernity broke classical principles and transformed the trajectory of Western sculpture.

In brief:

  • ‘The EY Exhibition: The Making of Rodin’ is our latest exhibition as part of The EY Tate Arts Partnership
  • Tate’s curators explore Rodin’s role as a radical innovator who reinvented modern sculpture
  • Rodin broke with academic expectations of a finished artwork and instead celebrated experimentation and the process of creating in his sculpture

The EY Tate Arts Partnership presents its ninth ground-breaking exhibition, ‘The EY Exhibition: The Making of Rodin’, which is scheduled to open on 17 May 2021 at Tate Modern, London.

Thanks to unprecedented access to Musée Rodin’s collection, this exhibition will re-examine the artist’s insatiable appetite for experimentation, featuring a number of works and groupings never shown before.

This exhibition is a celebration of human emotion and encapsulates our shared belief in the positive power of cultural experiences for our wellbeing.

Rodin’s choice to display his plaster casts, rather than the bronze and marble sculptures put the process of ‘making’ at the forefront of the visitor experience – a strategy that is central to the exhibition.
Curation

In 1900, to coincide with the Universal Exhibition, Rodin self-curated the first ever retrospective of his life’s work, having an exhibition venue specially built at the Place de l’Alma. Monographic exhibitions at the time were usually reserved for deceased artists, with living artists showing in groups such as the Paris Salons. At Rodin’s exhibition, visitors were invited to navigate an abundance of works arranged in close clusters which evoked the feeling of having ‘privileged access’ to the artist’s studio and witnessing his creative process first-hand. 

Rodin’s choice to display his plaster casts, rather than the bronze and marble sculptures, for which he was best known for, put the process of ‘making’ at the very forefront of the visitor experience – a strategy that is also central to the exhibition at Tate Modern.

Sculpture, the hand and the process of ‘making’

Where classical sculpture tended to present subjects in an idealised manner, often with a high degree of finish, Rodin’s sculptures made no attempt to hide traces of ‘the artist’s hand’. His surfaces were gouged with sculptor’s tools and fingerprints, traces of modulation, including casting lines were left visible. These marks served as evidence of how the works came into existence. Seemingly broken elements were also repurposed, therefore testing the boundaries between an object ‘made’ and an object ‘found’.

Rodin’s sculptures made no attempt to hide traces of ‘the artist’s hand’. His surfaces were gouged with sculptor’s tools and fingerprints...these marks served as evidence of how the works came into existence.

The principles of fragmentation, repetition and assemblage (combining disparate elements) majored in Rodin’s work. In the exhibition you will encounter a stockpile, of tiny plaster body parts which Rodin liked to refer to as ‘abbatis’ or giblets. These intriguing objects convey his ground-breaking approach and belief that the life of all his work was ultimately open-ended. Such experiments eventually influenced Rodin’s best-known sculptures, including the newly restored plaster for The Burghers of Calais (1889) which is displayed at Tate Modern, with no pedestal, seeing eye to eye with visitors as he intended.

Rodin would cast the same figures again and again, in different orientations and configurations, as if each work were only temporarily fixed in time. This approach consistently foregrounded process, reminding viewers of the moment of the works’ creation and linking this across time to the present tense of their experience.

As the exhibition was curated, hands and touch evolved into central considerations. After almost 12 months of lockdown in the UK, many of us are starved of touch having kept away from friends and family. Our hands must be continually washed and disinfected, and we are advised against contact. With the experience of sculpture, there is something crucial in the imaginative act of touching; the fantasy of doing so having all the allure of delicious transgression. Few sculptors manipulated this desire as successfully as Rodin did by way of keeping his hand ever present.

Many of Rodin’s figures themselves are depicted in the act of touching, whether they make contact with another figure, a fragment or even themselves. Hands, framed as the agents of touch, are the protagonists of many of Rodin’s sculptures and of the exhibition.

Crossing medium

Rodin was born in 1840, just two years after Louis Daguerre (1787–1851) who invented an initial form of photography, called daguerrotypes. Photography facilitated what we might recognise today as Rodin’s ‘entrepreneurial’ spirit and he used the medium to disseminate and advertise his work, an enterprising approach likely shaped by his early training in commercial and decorative art studios.

However, Rodin also made photography part of his creative process as is demonstrated by the historic images included in Tate’s exhibition. Photography, a light-hungry medium, provided sharp focus on the dull materiality of plaster, capturing every casting line, splatter mark and many fine undulations inscribed upon its surface, therefore allowing Rodin to consider his formal choices in new ways.

A keen draftsman, Rodin would reinvent and transform an initial drawing in the same way he put his sculptures through multiple metamorphoses. The exhibition includes several of his watercolour works in which the washes appear to replicate his sculptural practice. In his quest for a soft and even light which he described as ‘half-tone’ – a term he has written on one drawing shown in the exhibition – he developed a watercolour style that imitates what is technically known as lait de plâtre, a diluted mix of plaster powder and water.

Collaborators

Joining forces with leading contemporaries in photography such as Henry Coles, Gertrude Käsebier and Edward Steichen, Rodin broke new ground exploring the potential of cross-medium practice. This innovative process inspired well-known successors like Pablo Picasso and Brassaï to revisit these ideas in the 1930s.

Rodin also worked with casters, carvers and founders, often collaborating with up to twenty different technicians at any given time. His collaborators were typically trusted colleagues whom he would occasionally encourage to insert their own stylistic or aesthetic choices, although he still supervised these processes closely. Many of his best-known works in marble or bronze are the product of complex workshop collaborations, whereas the plaster casts made from the original clay models bring us closest to the artist himself.

‘The EY Exhibition: The Making of Rodin’ is curated by Nabila Abdel Nabi, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern; Chloé Ariot, Curator for Sculpture, Musée Rodin, Paris; and Achim Borchardt-Hume, Director of Exhibitions and Programmes, Tate Modern; with Helen O’Malley, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern. The exhibition is organised by Tate Modern and Musée Rodin, Paris.

Image credit: Auguste Rodin Etude pour Iris c.1891–93 Musée Rodin, S. 00851

Summary

Rodin’s continued thirst for experimentation elevated to the central theme of his landmark exhibition at the Pavillon de l’Alma in 1900, inaugurating a new era for modern sculpture. ‘The EY Exhibition: The Making of Rodin’ is the first show to focus in-depth on these works and many star exhibits from his 1900 show will be shown in this rare reunion.

About this article

By Tate

A family of four art galleries whose mission is to increase the public’s enjoyment and understanding of art.

EY has a long-standing relationship with Tate through the EY Tate Arts Partnership which was founded in 2013.