At the principal annual art exhibition, the Salon, in Paris in 1898, the sculptor Auguste Rodin exhibited two enormous statues – The Kiss and Balzac. He was fifty eight years old and nearing the height of his fame. It was both a challenging gesture and a typically brave response to professional and private adversity. Originally the embracing couple in The Kiss had been envisaged on a much smaller scale to take their 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 titanic 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 were 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 view at the Salon were equally, if not more, nonplussed.
The Kiss is smoothly carved in gleaming white marble, its massive lovers presented as idealized and divinely beautiful protagonists. The Balzac on the other hand, crudely cast in plaster (other versions in bronze and marble were made later), is powerfully ugly, 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 Dante’s 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).
The Balzac offers no comparable narrative interest. Veering off the vertical this enormous, distorted figure twists with terrifying force upwards – more an expression of the writer’s (and the sculptor’s) creative powers than a literal description of Balzac’s physical appearance. ‘A monument, not a monsieur reproduced in stone,’ as Rodin himself put it.
There is, however, much that the works share. Both have been the subject of scandal and violent disapproval. A slightly earlier version of The Kiss was removed from an exhibition in Chicago in 1893 because the frank nature of the couple’s embrace was considered too candid a sexual prelude for public taste to accept.
Even as late as 1952 there was strong opposition to the Tate Gallery in London buying a copy for permanent display.
The Balzac was rejected by the committee who had commissioned it, describing Rodin’s monolith as ‘a shapeless mass, a nameless thing, a colossal foetus.’ Others at the time called it ‘a toad in a sack’.
The novelist Emile Zola and a number of other prominent public figures supported Rodin and petitioned the Parisian authorities to buy it for the city, but to no avail. The controversy was caught up in the explosive political storm then dividing French society: the Dreyfus affair, in which the State stood accused of complicity in anti-Semitic discrimination against a Jewish officer serving in the French army. Those who maintained that the government had acted dishonourably supported Rodin and the two issues were linked in the press.
What was probably considered most shocking about the statue was more rarely acknowledged. In a preparatory nude study for the piece, which was subsequently cast in bronze as an independent work, Rodin modelled a figure with his hands held together clasping his erect penis. The final Balzac is clothed – draped with a dressing gown that seems to seethe with seismic force. (Balzac, when he wrote, worked sixteen hours a day, ingested vast amounts of tobacco smoke and coffee and wore a dressing gown). But beneath its folds, a prominent bulge suggests strongly that this Balzac seems to be doing exactly the same as his predecessor.
Moreover the form of the whole is distinctly phallic. Both sculptures then share, at their heart, a dominant sexual motive power. This force is essential to much of Rodin’s art and is mirrored in many of the stories recorded about the man himself. These concentrate on his physical presence (despite or because of his small stature), his sexual energy, his hands, his piercing blue eyes, his heavy step…
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