Date: Sep 16, 2017 — Jan 15, 2018
Venue: The Met Fifth Avenue, USA
At the principal annual art exhibition, the Salon, in Paris in 1898, the sculptor Auguste Rodin exhibited two enormous statues – The Kiss and the Monument to Balzac. He was fifty-eight years old and nearing the height of his fame. It was both a challenging gesture and a brave response to professional and private adversity. Originally the embracing couple in The Kiss had been envisaged on a much smaller scale to take place on a massive pair of doors commissioned from the French government for a projected new museum of decorative art.
Rodin had been working on the doors, known as The Gates of Hell, for almost twenty years; but by 1898 it had become clear that the museum would not be built. That year, Rodin enlarged the couple massively in marble for the Salon.
The Balzac sculpture was another failed public monument, initially commissioned by a literary society in 1891 to commemorate the monumental nineteenth-century writer. After seven years of preparatory study, Rodin had decided to exhibit the work to reassure his critics that the project was nearing completion. When the committee responsible for the work saw it at the Salon, roughly cast in plaster, they rejected it and terminated their contract with him.
Certainly both works, so antithetical in style, discharge conspicuous erotic energies – a blatant indication that this element of the erotic, of sensual force and sexual primacy, was central to Rodin’s life and work. Of course the differences between the two works are immediately the more striking. If it still surprises us to know that both these works were made by the same man, the well-dressed Parisian crowds who saw them prominently on display at the Salon were equally nonplussed.
The Kiss is smoothly carved in gleaming white marble, its massive lovers presented as idealised and divinely beautiful protagonists. The Balzac on the other hand, crudely cast in plaster (other versions in bronze and marble were made later), is strikingly unpleasant, with its jagged profiles, rough textures and a more or less complete disregard for anatomical detail, accuracy and finish. In The Kiss, the entwined couple enact a titillating, almost comic encounter.
The figures were originally inspired by DanteÊs lovers Paolo and Francesca, damned eternally for incest, but here revealing nothing of their awful, poetic fate (Rodin made another, darker version for the doors). It is the woman who has initiated proceedings – while she forthrightly embraces her lover and has moved her right leg over onto his lap, he only tentatively touches her left hip. (In his own love affairs it was usually Rodin who made the running)…
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