28 Dec 2011

Rodin, drawing and the body

The human body has been an inspiration for so many artists that it would be pointless to try to name them. Few men have represented the female body as well, nor in such an openly sexual manner, as Rodin. One could think of Picasso or Schiele, of course, but Rodin was in this respect a forerunner. If Rodin is best known as a sculptor, he clearly considered his drawing work as a "finished" part of his art, to the extent that he organised several exhibitions of his drawings, organised according to themes, during his lifetime: for example in Berlin in 1903.

There was, recently, a totally fascinating exhibition of about 300 of Rodin's drawings of the human body (mostly, but not exclusively, female) on show at Paris' Musée Rodin, to which here is a link.

Although accomplished draughstmanship was a necessary part of Rodin's skills as a sculptor, he apparently only started drawing more freely, and on a daily basis, towards the end of the 19th century when he was over 50. Rodin lived between 1840 and 1917, and so was a contemporary of the impressionists, yet his scupture, although often relatively free in its execution, was very much part of "official" art of his time, unlike that of impressionist painters or their immediate successors like the fauvistes. His drawing work (which includes pencil drawings, washes, watercolours and cut-outs) is another story. This was clearly a personal journey on Rodin's behalf. The subject matter and the treatment are there to prove it. 

The eroticism of many of these drawings is evident and essential, and is been a large part of their attraction to many. But there is more to his looking at and representing the bodies of his models than this (one could perhaps ask, if one was of the Freudian persuasion : "is there ever more than this?").

For example, take a look at Rodin's treatment of the line as a major, but not unique, component of the draughtman's options. In the drawing above, Rodin has worked fast, gradually determined what is a defining line for a shape or succession of shapes. His reworking of the lines adds not only a sense of movement to the figure, but, as alternatives, depth  and ambiguity to the forms. And the strengthened lines not only show his decisions, but add intensity to the subject. Forms are also enhanced by etchings and then rubbings of the pencil on the paper. The drawing technique is both fundamentally sure and occasionally hesitant, showing intensity of observation and sexual emotion.

This line drawing is a little different, and throws out echoing ripples to two other glorious draughtsmen : Matisse and Schiele. The line is synthetic, almost continuous, and, I supect, is derived from a series of previous drawings. Only the head and hairline have caused Rodin to hesitate and that may have to do with the very substance of hair. Below is a drawing by Schiele, who also took the erotic theme quite far. But Schiele seems more calculating, somehow less spontaneous in his excecution then does Rodin. This seems to be the case at any rate from the strength and sureness of his outlines

Comparisons with Matisse seemed evident to me at various points in this exhibition. Here is a Matisse drawing:

And here is one by Rodin, which happens to also use a technique involving cutting out around a watercoloured drawing, a technique that was also extensively used in various ways later by Matisse (usually with gouache I think).

This progressive refinement of line and shape also came to involve colour as well, and the freedom of Rodin's use of colour again sets him ahead of his time, at the same time throwing one back to certains aspects of wall paintings from Ancient Rome for instance.

What is very clear from this show is how much other 20th century artists owe to Rodin. And the fact that Ridin was a complete visual artist, not just the sculptot that has rightly earned him his fame. What is so impressive in the drawings is his constant and persistent searching for the right line, the line that can summarise the impossible: in other words an outline of a moving (in both senses of the word) human body. And the variations in his approaches to this one subject show that perseverance that amounts to an obsession.

For example the purity and refinement of this, which also seems very graphic for a sculptor...

Or the graphic invention shown here (not to mention the acrobatic skills of his model!)...

Then the more sculptural intensity of this:

Or the synthetic mastery of movement here...

Rodin's mastery of complex shapes produced by several bodies together is well-known through his sculptures. But it all begins here, quite simply and with a pencil....

and continues here, with a large chunk of marble and a kiss...