Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rodin's drawings: art, exercises or unexciting?

I've spent much of this week trying to set up a French bank account and rental insurance. The (lovely) woman who sets up accounts at the branch I walked into doesn't speak much English, which makes the process akin to the hardest French exam I ever took in high school. It's probably really good practice for me, though when my one and a half hour meeting yesterday ended with the instruction to come back in a week and a half I was so exhausted my mind looked for ways out of the next rendez-vous.

Interestingly, though, is the small talk. I was caught quite off-guard when Valerie's second sentence, after "did you bring your passport?" was "did you go to a museum this morning?"

She's never asked about what I studied and wouldn't really know that I go to an abnormally large number of museums, so I suspect it's just that in France there's more of a culture of going to museums on the days when one isn't at work. This ties in with the bizarrely long queue I saw stretching around the Hôtel de Ville for the Doisneau exhibition on Wednesday and the hour-long for the Cité de l'Architecture's Hôtel Particulier exhibition a few weeks ago.

I had presumed it was just that these shows were particularly popular (and it still might be, with regard to the queues), but I like that I'm now living in a country where bankers ask if you spent your morning at a museum.

I'd spent my morning sleeping, though, so I didn't know how to respond. Instead I resolved that I'd stop being so lazy and leave my flat instead of lying around reading the International Herald Tribune and so today I woke up and walked to the Musée Rodin to see 'Capturing the Model: 300 Drawings 1890-1917,' which closes on Monday.

The Musée Rodin's permanent collection is closed at the moment as they renovate the Hôtel Biron (a bit sad, I liked the slightly run down, lived-in look) and I do feel a bit bad for all the tourists who came expecting to see sculpture in a beautiful building and garden. I went to this exhibition because I'd written a paper at Cambridge about Rodin's drawings of Cambodian dancers and so knew what to expect, but Rodin's drawings just aren't that spectacular.

There are a lot of them, certainly, and the Musée Rodin's show (which, I feel I should note, never claims that Rodin's drawings are extraordinary) makes a good case for their centrality to Rodin's artistic practice. You can also see the qualities that make him an interesting sculptor in some of the drawings. The positions of the figures are always interesting, if very roughly rendered, and an 1894 drawing entitled 'Portrait of Séverine' suggests he's pushed charcoal around with his fingers to mould the face.

There are interesting details in individual pictures. A early (1890-6) drawing of two naked women, one standing and one kneeling, tossing her hair over her head, has interesting lines, with the swirl of the kneeling woman's head juxtaposed against the tighter, more angular frizz of the woman standing. The colours in later drawings, such as Salammbô, are exciting and the curators are correct in pointing out that such experiments are daring.

Some, like 'the good planet' work as compositions, but more often you can't really tell what's going on in Rodin's drawings. There's rarely much definition and at times you can only work out the subject with the aid of the museum's notes. The faces are rarely finished; heads are sometimes blank circles or sometimes filled in with childlike dots for eyes and noses.

When one reaches the section entitled 'Indecent Drawings,' one's a bit tempted to turn around and ask "what were the rest?" though these do go further in that they depict masturbation rather than, as in earlier work, merely suggestive positions. The curatorial comments are correct when they advise visitors against considering Rodin's particularly pornographic work as a small part of his oeuvre, noting that "these should be considered the very fabric of his work". This section is perhaps the best; the figures are more finished and one gets the sense that the artist applied himself more here than to other subjects in the exhibition.

I noticed a group of teenagers wandering through the exhibition seemed very unimpressed with the 'Indecent Drawings', whispering that "there's children in here!"

I think generally Rodin's always been more of a threat to teenagers than to children. Nonetheless, I noticed in the guestbook at the end of the exhibition that some children (I presume, based on style and handwriting) had followed Rodin's lead and drawn some pornographic pictures.

I looked through the comments in the guestbook generally to get a sense of how visitors were feeling. The main point made was that there was a lot of repetition in the exhibition, something that suggests attention wasn't being held throughout. I don't think there was necessarily too much repetition -each period or series was given its own wall or its own small room, little more, and where subjects were repeated it was to make a point about Rodin's continued fascinations- but I do think the comment is testament to the way in which Rodin's drawings fall flat. If the drawings were more appealing people would be eager to see as many as possible, but it seems they aren't. One comment read simply "vive la sculpture".

The Cambodian dancers were the highlight of the show, something that surprised me. They're colourful and because the figures are blocked through their painted garments and (at times) skin you get a better sense of them as solid, living entities. The colours also add liveliness and the lack of bone/muscle definition suggests a sinuosity that the viewer can tie to movement. They're stronger in reality than reproduction and so I'm glad to have seen them.

I would have liked more relating Rodin's drawings to his wider work. While just his name is enough to pull in a crowd for an exhibition, it's always been a bit unclear whether Rodin himself saw his drawings as finished works of value or as exercises.

Anthony Ludovici, one of Rodin's assistants, wrote in his book on Rodin in 1926 that the works were exercises, stating that "what scales are to the exectutant musician, so were Rodin's drawings to him". Likewise, Camille Mauclair noted in 1905 that Rodin's sketches "were not made to be shown [and] are thoughts noted down" and that "to consider them by themselves would actually be to injure Rodin". Rodin himself claimed the intention was "to test to what extent my hands already feel what my eyes see". He also often gave drawings away, some to people he didn't know, suggesting he didn't place a high value on them in themselves.

At the same time, however, Rodin himself chose to exhibit his drawings in exhibitions he organised. He expressed disappointment in their mixed reception to Antoine Bourdelle in 1907, believing them misunderstood. Bourdelle responded that "truthful works are not understood". The exhibition never takes a position on exactly what Rodin's drawings were to him.

I think it's likely that they were exercises of which he was often proud. Whether that pride was misplaced is another question; praise for his drawings often rests upon the assumption that any drawing by such a sculptor must be good, but drawing is about line and Rodin's sculpture is about moulding, so the connection isn't that simple. He has a talent for thinking of unusual positions for his models to take and his drawings are interesting as experiments.

In general, though, I don't think Rodin's drawings are strong enough to be seen in bulk unaccompanied by even photographs or accounts from models (which would have provided wider context). I think this exhibition would have been more effective had it been on while visitors could see the permanent collection in the Hôtel Biron and the garden. It's the relationship of Rodin's drawings to his wider work that's really interesting and that relationship is absent when most of the pieces for which he is known are in storage. I don't think this exhibition was done badly, but I think it asked more of Rodin's drawings that they could probably give to the casual visitor.

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