Auguste Rodin

Photo by Carmela Gross


Commentary on the French sculptor's show catalog.

The work of Rodin (1840-1917) is rooted in nineteenth-century materialism, which, in different ways, highlights the autonomous productivity of the body. But, in the vast array of anti-idealism, what exactly does Rodin rank?

The show catalog Rodin (Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo) states, summarily, that the author “received (on a trip to Italy in 1875) the revelation of Michelangelo's sculpture, whose influence would mark him forever”. Such conjecture supposes an originary myth and, if one sees any analogy in the eloquence of the volumes, it hides background contrasts between the grandiose and contorted bodies of the Renaissance creator – tributary of the Christian dichotomy between flesh and spirit – and the value of corporeity in the modern case, grandiose , certainly, but secular and fundamentally immanent.

In fact, Rodin's anti-idealism clashes with the neoclassical lexicon – no secrets for Rodin, assistant from 1870 to 1875 in great decorative works in Brussels. It forms, therefore, in opposition to two neoclassical canons: the transparency and ideality of the matter and the corresponding depth of the images, arranged in the eternalizing narrative reliefs, with a restorative spirit.

Concretely, Rodin transgresses the neoclassical order through naturalism. previewed in The Man with the Broken Nose (1864) – which the Salon refuses – and clear since The Bronze Age (1876) – which alludes to the Franco-Prussian war – Rodin's crudity, which concludes the Belgian phase and opens a path of his own, will be seen as decal or plagiarism.

Rodin's work, along this path, certainly belongs to its time. It coexists with photography (invented around 1820-40) and with ideas such as physiognomy in science and Zola's naturalism. And it confronts the serial use of the body in industry.

However, the disorientation of the catalog, without a guiding thread, barely allows a glimpse of such a picture. And when he deals, for example, with Rodin's interest in the nascent technique of image reproduction and the cooperation he obtains from photographers, he does so as if the relationship were restricted to a documentary appendix of the phases of the work. However, the ostensive and recurrent use of modular compositions, repeating figures in different positions – as later became common in modern art, especially in constructive art – shows that the link between his sculptures and industry and the idea of ​​reproduction is intrinsic. . It thus denies the auratic value of the original and decisively affirms the era of reproducible works.

From the initial naturalism to the expressive freedom, elaborated in the following 40 years, Rodin's immanentist guideline manifests itself in many ways: in the figuration of free movements, signs of corporal spontaneity, and, in portraits, in the search for expressive syntheses - preceded by a investigation of physical traits and habits; in the compact content of the works, highlighting the opacity of the matter, highlighted in its image, dense and rough, on the pedestal as the original ground of the works; in the unfinished pieces that reveal the marks of making, etc.

In short, the notions of reflexivity of the body and art – as a form of reflection par excellence of the body; this seen, therefore, as reflective matter, spontaneous generator of productivity or active power – feed Rodin's poetics. So, in Thinker – declared projection of the figure of the author in front of his works –, the circular form (and not ascending as in rationalist metaphysics) of the composition and more the twitching of the feet as a focus of physical tension, still visible in the legs of the figure – according to words by Rodin himself, who also refers to the “slowness of thought in the brain” (p. 56 of the catalogue) – denote the materialist guideline.

Rodin, in his strategy of occupying public and institutional spaces, through monuments and other forms of action, also anticipated interventions of a “mediatic” scale, which are common today. This made it possible for him to bequeath his work to the French State during his lifetime and to negotiate with the latter the opening of the Rodin Museum.

The Rodin exhibition reveals the two sides of these many coins. Thus, the official commitment guaranteed the presence in Brazil of capital works, the magnitude of the event and its wide reception in museums in the urban center, more accessible to the majority of the population. However, the catalogue, neglected to the point of absurdity, reveals a lack of specialized attention. The images differ from each other in terms of background and lighting; the aberrant use of light distorts every original aspect of the works. What is at odds with the beautiful photos in Rodin's collection and the analysis of the light of Impressionism – that the nuanced surface of some sculptures, such as Balzac, do not ignore.

The texts, excerpts from disparate sources, do not bear authorship; the graphic arrangement does not qualify or hierarchize them. There are photos with wrong caption. There are eight photos of sculptures listed. Six pages of official “messages” remain, with unrelated and unedited sentences, where unusual statements appear such as: “We are sure of the remarkable success (…) among art lovers and students (…) artists and the disabled (sic) vision”; and thanks to the “Rodin Museum, organizer of the exhibition and without which it would not have been possible”.

*Luiz Renato Martins he is professor-advisor of PPG in Economic History (FFLCH-USP) and Visual Arts (ECA-USP); and author, among other books, of The Long Roots of Formalism in Brazil (Haymarket/ HMBS).

Review and research assistance: Gustavo Motta.

Originally published under the title “In the beginning was the matter”, in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulon July 3, 1995.


Several authors. Auguste Rodin. Translation: Irene Paternot. Pinacoteca do Estado / Francisco Alves, 141 pages.

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