On the base of I am Beautiful, one of the sixteen sculptures in the Rodin Museum’s new installation, is inscribed the first stanza of Baudelaire’s poem "Beauty":
Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre,
Et mon sein, où chacun s'est meurtri tour à tour,
Est fait pour inspirer au poète un amour
Eternel et muet ainsi que la matière.
I am beautiful, O mortals! Like a dream carved in stone,
And my breast where each one in turn has bruised himself
Is made to inspire in the poet a love
As eternal and silent as matter.
These lines might not seem fitting for a piece originally exhibited as The Rape in 1900. But this past title, the sculpture's current title and the poem inscribed on its base all speak to an ambiguity that characterizes much of the installation. I am Beautiful presents two figures—a more masculine standing figure and one that is more feminine grasped in the former’s arms. Are the two locked in an embrace, the female figure having leapt into her lover’s arms just moments before? Or is it darker, showing a scene of abduction? This obscurity lends itself well to the show, which curator Jennifer Thompson describes as one that seeks to explore all fundamental and various aspects of human relationships. These sixteen pieces center around the theme of passionate embrace.
The new installation is one of several shows worldwide currently focusing on the work of French sculptor Auguste Rodin, as this year marks the hundredth anniversary of his death. Participating museums include the Met and another Philadelphia institution, the Barnes Foundation, among others.
There's a reason why so many museums are working to commemorate Rodin. He's an unparalleled figure and one of few sculptors whose works are readily recognizable. Rodin’s work is known for its realistic modeling of the human form, and according to Ms. Thompson, the show brings out Rodin’s love for “exploring what it means to be human.” The figures in the gallery are posed and intertwined: some spiraling, others flailing and still more arching outward. They show a multiplicity of emotions, such as shame, guilt, adoration, lust, fear and caring, that are possible only through Rodin’s obsession with the human form.
The relationships shown, too, are just as varied as these emotions. Damned Women depicts lesbian lovers and was deemed too scandalous to show during Rodin’s lifetime. The Minotaur shows a tense scene with a female figure trying to escape from the grasp of a half–animal creature. The piece seems to look at the more animal or primal aspects of love and desire and shows how Rodin did not shy away from the tensions in relationships.
The centerpiece of the gallery is the museum’s imposing copy of Rodin’s The Kiss. The sculpture presents two nude figures melting into each other in an embrace. Like I am Beautiful, The Kiss was originally shown under a different name: Francesca da Rimini. Francesca was a contemporary of Dante Alighieri, who included her as a character in his poem "Divine Comedy." Around the year 1275, Francesca was given away by her father Guido I da Polenta of Ravenna in a political marriage to Giovanni Malatesta. Prior to the marriage, Guido had been at war with the Malatesta family. Eventually, Francesca fell in love with Giovanni’s younger brother Paolo and carried on an affair with him for some ten years. The pair met their end when Giovanni found them together in Francesca’s room and killed them. In the "Divine Comedy," Francesca and Paolo are condemned to eternity in the second circle of hell, which is reserved for the lustful. The renaming of the sculpture, then, erases a powerful romantic narrative and replaces it with ambiguity. With the name The Kiss, the work might be of any pair of lovers. It does not show frantic lust or deception or any specific context.
In 1912, Rodin said, “People have often accused me of having made erotic sculptures. I have never made any erotic works. I have never made a sculpture for the sake of the erotic element. Most of the people cannot conceive this because they are unable to conceive what sculpture is because they are forever looking in sculpture for literary and philosophical ideas. Sculpture is the art of forms.” The sixteen pieces, all of which were sourced from the museum’s own collection, show the diversity of Rodin’s interest in the beautiful physicality of human relationships. And this is exactly what leads Ms. Thompson to call the show “a catalogue of passion."
The Rodin Museum is located at 2151 Benjamin Franklin Parkway and is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission to the Rodin Museum is Pay–What–You–Wish.
Damned Woman, Modeled 1885; cast 1927. Auguste Rodin, French, 1840 - 1917. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bequest of Jules E. Mastbaum, 1929.
I am Beautiful, Modeled 1885; cast 1925-1926. Auguste Rodin, French, 1840 - 1917. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bequest of Jules E. Mastbaum, 1929.
Copy of Rodin's "The Kiss", 1929. Henri Gréber, French, 1855 - 1941. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bequest of Jules E. Mastbaum, 1929.