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Rodin’s dance sculptures


15 agosto, 2017
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Flexibility and truth: Rodin’s dance sculptures at the Courtauld, London.

“This is the revelation of the great mystery,” wrote Auguste Rodin, “how to express movement in something that is at rest.” The briefest stroll through the galleries and gardens of Paris’s Musée Rodin leave no doubt that the sculptor solved that mystery. Even his most monumental works have a dynamism and muscularity that hint at the potential for leaping or falling from a pose frozen in marble or bronze.

While classical ballet held few charms as a subject for the artist (Degas had rather cornered the market, in any case) Rodin was, in his later years, increasingly fascinated by dance: by the innovations of Isadora Duncan and the Ballets Russes, by visiting performers from Java and Cambodia and by a tiny acrobat calling herself Alda Moreno, whose hyperflexible body dominates the Courtauld’s forthcoming exhibition: Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement.

According to Rodin’s friend and admirer the Danish critic Georg Brandes, Moreno introduced herself to the 62-year-old sculptor in 1903 by dancing on his restaurant table. Her signature poses involved either touching the back of the head with her foot in arabesque or holding a raised right leg in the splits (known in can-can circles as port d’armes). Such manoeuvres allowed Rodin to streamline his treatment of the human body: “It is by exaggerating movement that I obtain a flexibility that approaches the truth.”

The dancers of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec inhabited a fully realised theatrical milieu of tulle, greasepaint and footlights, but Rodin’s late sketches and sculptures were only interested in the armature of the dancing body, almost to the point of abstraction. Extraneous details — heads, feet, even arms — were stripped away, with anatomy becoming secondary to the overall dynamism of the shape.

His countless drawings of Moreno were executed at high speed, pencil never leaving the paper, eyes never leaving the model. Many of the sheets have “bas” scribbled on more than one edge, stressing his determination that the pose could be viewed from several angles. His cut-outs (decades before Matisse) make the point more strongly still: with no edges to the paper the body simply floats in space.

Moreno was also the model for the nine figures of his “Mouvements de danse” sculpture series. Rodin’s early years as a journeyman modeller had given him an astonishing facility with clay and he would later boast of having “une main d’une prodigieuse vitesse” — a prodigiously swift hand. For much of his career these deft little maquettes would be scaled up and rendered in bronze or marble by an army of assistants (Rodin himself did not carve a single one of the marble statues produced in his lifetime) but these private dancers were never conceived as monuments.

Clay was a responsive medium but the results were dangerously fragile, and in order to preserve a work in progress Rodin had long been in the habit of having one of his casting team press-mould a copy so that he could return to an earlier version if he found that he preferred it. This also enabled him to recycle the same models in endless new combinations — sometimes by merely turning them upside down (the repurposing of the male figure from “Fugit Amor” as “The Prodigal Son” is a classic example).

By the time he made his “Mouvements de danse”, this working practice had become still more experimental. The segmented moulds of the two clay prototypes of the dancing Moreno (known as “Alpha” and “Beta”) yielded a dolls’ hospital of arms, legs and torsos whose still-soft clay could be recombined, twisted and stretched at will. The surviving components are stored in the vaults of the Musée Rodin, where curator François Blanchetière shows an almost boyish glee as he produces them from their boxes: “It’s a kind of vocabulary: you can make sentences with the same words.”

Rodin’s experiments with his abattis (limbs) were the product of a lifetime of observing and memorising the limits of human anatomy. “Mouvement de danse B” might have been something of a stretch even for an acrobat such as Moreno, but the poses generally ring true — something confirmed by a group of dancers from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama when the Courtauld exhibition’s curator Alexandra Gerstein persuaded them to undertake a little practical research.

Rodin’s greatest hits — “The Thinker”, “The Age of Bronze”, “The Burghers of Calais” — were predominantly male figures and he continued to enjoy lucrative portrait commissions, but his late burst of creativity was almost exclusively (one might even say pathologically) gynocentric. This growing obsession with the finer points of female anatomy (fully displayed in Moreno’s extreme poses) was a standing joke among the sculptor’s friends and, although this material was never publicly displayed in his lifetime, it provided ammunition for his enemies, who were disgusted by his unabated sexual appetites and his relentless emphasis on what he dubbed “the eternal tunnel”. Paul Claudel, hostile brother of Rodin’s discarded artist mistress, dubbed him a “priapatriarche”, and while Prince Eugen of Sweden and Norway was eager to get his hands on a “Thinker”, he preferred not to visit in person, fearing he would be made to “admire his naked ladies”.

Female visitors had a still tougher time, invariably falling prey to the sculptor’s wandering hands. Isadora Duncan recalled, “He ran his hands over my neck, breast . . . began to knead my whole body as if it were clay.” The young California virgin took this surprisingly well, but his close study of her physique never yielded a sculpture, possibly because, unlike the acrobatic Mlle Moreno, Isadora seldom held a pose.

While Rodin’s Promethean fingers could conjure a kind of dynamic tension in a static figure (see also: the rippling musculature of the Falling Man on “The Gates of Hell”), he was convinced that attempting “to seize one moment alone in progression was fatal to the illusion of movement” and Isadora herself dried up at their scheduled sittings: “I couldn’t make the slightest movement for him. . . He is too great for me . . . I feel like a nymph before a centaur.”

In the end it would be Rodin’s brilliant assistant, the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (celebrated in his own magnificent but under-visited museum), who would immortalise Duncan: his 1913 relief carvings for the façade of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées show her dancing with that other wonder of the age, Vaslav Nijinsky.

Like all Paris, Rodin had been dazzled by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and when Nijinsky premiered L’Après-Midi d’un Faune in 1912, he was happy to undertake a public defence of its onanistic climax. In his letter to Le Figaro (actually ghostwritten by the art critic Roger Marx) Rodin gloried in the Russian dancer’s “physical perfection” and “harmony of proportions”, asserting that he was “the ideal model, whom one longs to draw and sculpt”. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that the result of that sitting, a mould of a small dancing figure, was discovered in the reserves in Rodin’s old home at Meudon, which is a 10-minute train ride from Montparnasse. The two Rodin museums have always depended on sales of casts for their revenue and the museum’s then director lost no time. Precisely 13 bronzes were cast in 1958 (perhaps alarmed by the 28 “Thinker”s in existence, the French Government introduced a strict limit in 1956) and the entire edition was immediately snapped up by an art world ready to embrace the sculptor’s late work. One eager Nijinsky purchaser was the art dealer Lillian Browse (aka “The Duchess of Cork Street”), who eventually bequeathed her treasure to the Courtauld, thereby providing the starting point for the forthcoming exhibition.

“This is the revelation of the great mystery,” wrote Auguste Rodin, “how to express movement in something that is at rest.” The briefest stroll through the galleries and gardens of Paris’s Musée Rodin leave no doubt that the sculptor solved that mystery. Even his most monumental works have a dynamism and muscularity that hint at the potential for leaping or falling from a pose frozen in marble or bronze.

While classical ballet held few charms as a subject for the artist (Degas had rather cornered the market, in any case) Rodin was, in his later years, increasingly fascinated by dance: by the innovations of Isadora Duncan and the Ballets Russes, by visiting performers from Java and Cambodia and by a tiny acrobat calling herself Alda Moreno, whose hyperflexible body dominates the Courtauld’s forthcoming exhibition: Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement.

According to Rodin’s friend and admirer the Danish critic Georg Brandes, Moreno introduced herself to the 62-year-old sculptor in 1903 by dancing on his restaurant table. Her signature poses involved either touching the back of the head with her foot in arabesque or holding a raised right leg in the splits (known in can-can circles as port d’armes). Such manoeuvres allowed Rodin to streamline his treatment of the human body: “It is by exaggerating movement that I obtain a flexibility that approaches the truth.”

The dancers of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec inhabited a fully realised theatrical milieu of tulle, greasepaint and footlights, but Rodin’s late sketches and sculptures were only interested in the armature of the dancing body, almost to the point of abstraction. Extraneous details — heads, feet, even arms — were stripped away, with anatomy becoming secondary to the overall dynamism of the shape.

His countless drawings of Moreno were executed at high speed, pencil never leaving the paper, eyes never leaving the model. Many of the sheets have “bas” scribbled on more than one edge, stressing his determination that the pose could be viewed from several angles. His cut-outs (decades before Matisse) make the point more strongly still: with no edges to the paper the body simply floats in space.

Moreno was also the model for the nine figures of his “Mouvements de danse” sculpture series. Rodin’s early years as a journeyman modeller had given him an astonishing facility with clay and he would later boast of having “une main d’une prodigieuse vitesse” — a prodigiously swift hand. For much of his career these deft little maquettes would be scaled up and rendered in bronze or marble by an army of assistants (Rodin himself did not carve a single one of the marble statues produced in his lifetime) but these private dancers were never conceived as monuments.

Clay was a responsive medium but the results were dangerously fragile, and in order to preserve a work in progress Rodin had long been in the habit of having one of his casting team press-mould a copy so that he could return to an earlier version if he found that he preferred it. This also enabled him to recycle the same models in endless new combinations — sometimes by merely turning them upside down (the repurposing of the male figure from “Fugit Amor” as “The Prodigal Son” is a classic example).

By the time he made his “Mouvements de danse”, this working practice had become still more experimental. The segmented moulds of the two clay prototypes of the dancing Moreno (known as “Alpha” and “Beta”) yielded a dolls’ hospital of arms, legs and torsos whose still-soft clay could be recombined, twisted and stretched at will. The surviving components are stored in the vaults of the Musée Rodin, where curator François Blanchetière shows an almost boyish glee as he produces them from their boxes: “It’s a kind of vocabulary: you can make sentences with the same words.”

Rodin’s experiments with his abattis (limbs) were the product of a lifetime of observing and memorising the limits of human anatomy. “Mouvement de danse B” might have been something of a stretch even for an acrobat such as Moreno, but the poses generally ring true — something confirmed by a group of dancers from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama when the Courtauld exhibition’s curator Alexandra Gerstein persuaded them to undertake a little practical research.

Rodin’s greatest hits — “The Thinker”, “The Age of Bronze”, “The Burghers of Calais” — were predominantly male figures and he continued to enjoy lucrative portrait commissions, but his late burst of creativity was almost exclusively (one might even say pathologically) gynocentric. This growing obsession with the finer points of female anatomy (fully displayed in Moreno’s extreme poses) was a standing joke among the sculptor’s friends and, although this material was never publicly displayed in his lifetime, it provided ammunition for his enemies, who were disgusted by his unabated sexual appetites and his relentless emphasis on what he dubbed “the eternal tunnel”. Paul Claudel, hostile brother of Rodin’s discarded artist mistress, dubbed him a “priapatriarche”, and while Prince Eugen of Sweden and Norway was eager to get his hands on a “Thinker”, he preferred not to visit in person, fearing he would be made to “admire his naked ladies”.

Female visitors had a still tougher time, invariably falling prey to the sculptor’s wandering hands. Isadora Duncan recalled, “He ran his hands over my neck, breast . . . began to knead my whole body as if it were clay.” The young California virgin took this surprisingly well, but his close study of her physique never yielded a sculpture, possibly because, unlike the acrobatic Mlle Moreno, Isadora seldom held a pose.

The gnarly, 19cm figure is flanked by a trio of line drawings of Nijinsky which were only identified by the Paris archivists in 2002. The seemingly haphazard manner in which moulds, casts and drawings are belatedly discovered or identified makes perfect sense after a visit to the vast storerooms at Meudon, whose cavernous cellars are crowded with the sculptor’s phenomenal output. Multiple plaster casts of Clémenceau are arranged like figures at a bus stop and huge, shaggy clamshells of plaster conceal the secret shapes of masterpieces, “Balzac” or “Le Baiser” daubed crudely on their sides. Row upon row of treasures bring to mind the opening “loot of the world” crane shot from Citizen Kane. The surprise is not that the Nijinsky cast was lost but that it was ever found.

Despite his encomium in Le Figaro, Rodin was not impressed by the offstage Nijinsky. His friend and biographer Judith Cladel recalled that the sculptor was “as disappointed as a child to find him a badly proportioned little man in banal clothes instead of the soaring blithe spirit whom he had seen on stage”.

His Nijinsky is emphatically not a portrait, but while it might not have the sunlit simplicity of Bakst’s drawings or the sylvan sophistication of Baron de Meyer’s photographs, this quick-fire response evokes a primal energy missing from both: the muscly misfit escaping the pull of gravity. “We must unfreeze sculpture,” insisted Rodin. “Life is the thing; everything is in it, and life is movement.”

  • ‘Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement’, Courtauld Gallery, London, October 20-January 22 2017
  • Photographs: Richard Valencia; Musée Rodin/Jean de Calan
  • September 30, 2016 by: Louise Levene. THE FINANCIAL TIMES LTD 2017
articulos de danza  Rodin’s dance sculptures
Rodin’s ‘Nijinsky (Study)’, cast number 6 (1912) © Richard Valencia

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