The French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) gained his first fame – really, notoriety – when he exhibited a plaster sculpture, “The Age of Bronze,” showing a standing man, fully nude, originally holding a spear (later removed by the artist). The statue was so lifelike, in its pose and detail, that the artist was accused of taking the cast directly from a human body: copying, not sculpting the form.
Rodin eventually convinced his critics that the work was, in fact, original. He became one of the most successful French artists of the day, with numerous public commissions and his own thriving studio filled with assistants to execute his creations.
For Rodin, his models – a street-sweeper, circus performer, soldier and dancers among them – enabled his “infinite worship of the nude.” Visitors to the VMFA’s current special exhibition, Rodin: Evolution of a Genius, get to see this fascination up close.
While some parents might be concerned that the vivid displays of the human body are – well – too vivid, it’s easy to shift focus away from body parts and onto the emotions that Rodin depicted.
In Rodin’s version of “The Scream,” we get a head – no body – with an open mouth and contorted face. The emotion is palpable.
Not far away, a small plaster figure (which returns in larger bronze form later in the exhibition) is a “Despairing Adolescent.” You can almost hear the wail of protest.
The exhibition’s theme of evolution is well-executed and offers plenty of talking points. Both the audio tours and the object panels note how Rodin re-used and re-fashioned his works. Figures are found in multiple locations and in various sizes. His most famous sculpture, “The Thinker,” came from “The Gates of Hell” – a much larger piece that was originally commissioned by the French government but was never displayed in its entirety publicly. Visitors see “The Thinker” in an image of the Gates in the first gallery, and then stand in the shadow of a much larger version in a later gallery. In the same room, one of “The Thinker”’s feet is enlarged and sits atop its own decorative pedestal. Same figure, different sizes, different settings.
The exhibition offers some surprises. The third gallery showcases small, ancient vessels (Egyptian, Greek, Roman, etc.) in which small figures – or parts of figures – have been placed. The juxtapositions are whimsical and unexpected. A subsequent gallery is filled with back-lit photos from Rodin’s studio, and there’s even a film showing the artist at work.
The final gallery is a feast for the eyes with several massive sculptures on display, including one of the figures from “The Three Shades” and three of “The Burghers of Calais,” a sculpture that includes six figures in full form.
A video installation in the VMFA’s Lewis Focus Gallery shows a contemporary interpretation of “The Burghers of Calais” with living models in Vancouver. Families interested in engaging their kids in the process more fully will also enjoy access to the sculptors in residence, working in the atrium, November 20, 2015 through March 13, 2016 (except for Christmas and New Year’s Day) Sundays, 11 am to 1 pm; Wednesdays, 10 am to noon; and Fridays, 5 pm to 7 pm. Guests of all ages are invited to take a picture with a selfie-ready Thinker, also in the atrium. Tweet or post on Instagram using #VMFARodin to share your good taste in recreation.
With the holidays, and cooler weather, upon us, the VMFA is a great destination for multi-generational excursions. The museum is open 365 days a year. General collections are free to view, while special exhibitions are free to members (who also enjoy free parking in the museum deck).
Rodin: Evolution of a Genius is on display through March 13, 2016, and is organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Musée Rodin, Paris. The presenting sponsor for the exhibition is Altria Group. Tickets are free for members; $15 for adults; $12 for seniors (65 and older) and groups of 10 or more; $10 for youth 7-17 and students with current school ID. Four free audio tours are available for download or via streaming (general and family versions in English and French). Audio wands in English are available for $5.