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The Sculptor Who Mutilated His Own Statues : RODIN A Biography by Frederic V. Grunfeld (Henry Holt: $35; 738 pp., illustrated)

December 27, 1987|Gerald M. Ackerman | Ackerman's biography of the sculptor-painter J.L. Gerome was recently published by Sotheby's Publications

Donatello, Michelangelo, Bernini, Houdon, Canova, Rodin: the list of great Western sculptors is very short. Nonetheless, only two of them are well known, Michelangelo and Rodin. Michelangelo's early works are loved by all, but his later works, formidable, limited in number and location, are admired more than understood or enjoyed. Rodin's sculptures however, are everywhere, and their sensuality makes them immediately accessible.

Frederic V. Grunfeld, the late author of this well-researched biography is a professional biographer, not an art historian. In his preface he states that having spent most of his life among artists, he "was certain that the real Rodin could not have been the philosopher-aesthetician he is made out to be in art history treatises."

Grunfeld's method is strictly chronological. He is so even-handed with his interests that we follow Rodin's career almost year by year, learning not only about his artistic production but also about more prosaic aspects of his daily life: his business methods, his commissions, his clients, his lovers, his eccentricities, his sex life, his frailties, and the sad senility of his old age. Uncritical readers may well end knowing more about such matters than about his accomplishments, whose importance are taken for granted.

Nonetheless, by relating everything objectively, Grunfeld has reopened many issues that scholars thought had been adequately explained.

The sculptor's habit of hacking limbs off completed figures and presenting the remaining torsos as finished works of art seems as curious to us--in the pages of this book--as to the eyes of his contemporaries who watched and reported the practice.

His slowness in completing some of his larger commissions seems--as it did at the time--the result of an inability to compose on a large multifigured scale.

The changing of names of certain pieces (a bust of "Mahler" is also sold as "Mozart"; a "Dying Orpheus" becomes an "Eleanora Duse," and then a "Joan of Arc") seems dubious and chancy, despite Rodin's explanation that his works represented emotions, not ideas.

Even his lifelong bitterness at late recognition seems the result of dramatic exaggeration. Grunfeld recounts a telling anecdote. In 1907 Rodin told Gide with some anger that he was 45 when his "Age of Iron" caused a protest. (The offer of a state purchase of a bronze version was turned down because it was thought the work was cast from life.)

However, this controversy started in 1877, when Rodin was 37. Furthermore he was established--that is, favored with official commissions and an official studio--by the age of 40, still an early age for the recognition of an artist.

A marvelous roster of personalities, politicians, writers, and artists of the time pass through the pages of the book placing Rodin in the mainstream of the cultural life of the Third Republic. And by reporting his friendships with contemporary sculptors, Grunfeld takes him out of that mysterious isolation as the "only sculptor" of his time.

Despite the many piquant scandals in the narrative, there are still many glimpses of Rodin as an artist of the highest integrity, scrupulous in all details of any project he undertook.

For even the most modest portrait he would do as many as seven versions: "the human body has to be reconstructed layer by layer if one wants to re-create it in sculpture." And to see these layers he would often ask his subjects to kneel on the floor so he could compare the tops of their heads with those of the sculpture, a pose sometimes refused by royalty.

The depth of his artistic integrity is best exemplified by his struggle with the monument to Balzac; study after study, version after version, for seven years, far beyond the patience of the commissioners who turned the project over to his friend Falguiere, while Rodin continued to work on his eventual masterpiece.

At 35, when he was already well developed in his art, he was distressed by so many problems in his work that he made a trip to Florence to see the Michelangelos in the Medici Chapel. He spent his days studying the difficult figures ("Seeing them for the first time it is impossible to make a rational analysis," he wrote home) and his nights in a hotel room drawing them from memory and attempting to analyze their structures. "It was Michelangelo who liberated me from Academicism," he later told Bourdelle.

We get the impression of a single-minded egotistical man who succeeded in producing masterpieces because he worked so hard, which is probably nearer to the truth than some of the metaphysical explanations of art historians. Indeed, his sense of self-importance, his egoism if you must, overwhelmed all: critics, clients, lovers (some of whom he gets to run his household and business for him), and even his children whom he ignores or discards with more equanimity than Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rodin died so famous and accepted that younger sculptors saw him a part of the establishment against which they had to rebel. Lipchitz, Maillol and Matisse all tried to distance themselves from him. And he himself equally distrusted the avant-garde of the early 20th Century; his last words were a defense of that old reactionary Puvis de Chavannes.

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