Saturday, November 22, 2014

 The Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection:

A Game Changer Part I

A man looks at the back of Fernand Leger’s ‘House under the Trees,’ 
which features a portrait of a woman, scrapped by the artist.* 
Photo:  Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal.

One of the finest private collection of cubist artworks is going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  A gift of the art patron and philanthropist Leonard A. Lauder, it will no doubt be a game changer for the Museum as well as those who view it.  

The entire collection, as it exists today, is currently on view in its new home.  The exhibition, "Cubism:  The Leonard A. Lauder Collection," comprises some 81 paintings, drawings, collages and sculptures created by the four principals of Cubism: Georges Braque (1882–1963), Juan Gris (1887–1927), Fernand Léger (1881–1955), and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973).  The artworks, 17 pieces by Braque, 15 by Gris, 15 by Léger and 34 by Picasso, unfold a new way of representation.  For those who think Cubism is too abstruse and impassive, the show will surprise you.  

In general, artwork needs to be seen in person.  This is especially true for Cubism.  Photo imagery simply can not make visible the multiplicity of brushstrokes, diversity of canvas textures, compositional intricacies and color luminosity that characterize Cubist painting. 

On several occasions,  this viewer noted visitors spending exceedingly long times looking at the actual works as opposed to lingering over wall text and labels.  Such a public engagement with art is seldom observed.  


 Two Visitors in front of Fernand Leger (1881 - 1955), The Smoker
1914, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 32 in. (100.3 x 81.3 cm)
 Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Photo:  Ashraya-NY.org Web site

The exhibit is organized by individual artists intermixed with a couple of thematic rooms.  Besides visual delights, viewing imparts a comprehensive understanding of the movement known as Cubism in its Analytic and Synthetic phrases.  It also makes clear the distinct forms of Cubism developed by participating artists.  

Between 1907 and 1908, Braque and Picasso begat Cubism. Landscapes, figures and objects were broken down or fractured into small geometric forms.  These facets were reassembled and laid out on two-dimensional planes.  Modeling, illusions of three-dimensionality, one point perspective in use since the Renaissance were abandoned.  Analytic Cubism "analyzed" things from many points of view.  Palettes were monochromic and muted.  Realistic representation was all but lost - depictions verged on abstraction.  

Braque may have initially been the leader in this new style but Picasso took over as Cubism evolved into its next phrase, Synthetic Cubism.  In 1912, the artists began to add paper and other materials, both real and painted, to their compositions. Bolder colors were introduced.  Bits of everyday life like packagings, advertisements, and newspapers mingled with painted imagery. 


Georges Braque (1882–1963), Still Life with Clarinet (Bottle and Clarinet)
Céret, summer–autumn 1911, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 × 19 3/4 in. (64.8 × 50.2 cm),
Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection
© 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo:  Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

Between 1909 and 1911, Braque and Picasso worked closely together - each aware of what the other was doing.  At this time, their art looked quite similar.  Their differences, hard to distinguish at first, is the subject of one exhibition room where paintings created by the two are hung side by side.  


Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Pedestal Table, Glasses, Cups, Mandolin
Paris, spring 1911. oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 19 1/2 in. (61.6 x 49.5 cm),
Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection
© 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo:  Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

Wall text points out Braque's use of long, unbroken diagonal lines which transfixed forms spread across the picture's surface.  There is no central point of focus - elements are balanced, evenly dispersed. Rendered with thinly applied paint, the whole imparts a sense of dematerialization.  Picasso's compositions are centered.  Tactile qualities are pronounced.  Pigments are applied with opacity.  Contours are emphasized with shading. Facets appear almost three-dimensional. Compare Braque's Violin: "Mozart Kubelick" with Picasso's The Scallop Shell: "Notre Avenir est dans l'Air" which are displayed in a room concentrated on Cubist color.



Georges Braque (1882-1963), Violin: "Mozart Kubelick",
Paris, spring 1912, 0il on canvas,
18 x 24 in. ( 45.7 x 61 cm)
Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Photo:  New York Times Web site

Pablo Picasso (1881 -1973), The Scallop Shell: "Notre Avenir est dans l'Air”,
Paris, spring 1912, enamel and oil on canvas,
oval, 15 x 21 3/4 in. (38.1 x 55.2 cm)
Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection
© 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo:  New York Times Web site

Both paintings are complex.  Allusions that would have been understood by the artists's own contemporaries are lost today.  The words in Braque's painting, "Mozart" and "Kubelick" refer to a concert that took place in the spring of 1912 in conjunction with a retrospective of works by the artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Included in the exhibit  were Ingres's palette and violin.  At the concert, which took place in the art gallery a few days after the exhibit opened, the famed Czech violinist Jan Kubelik** performed Ingres's favorite music on the artist's own violin.  Ingres, who had a special regard for Mozart's oeuvre, had studied music and played the violin regularly. Braque and Picasso greatly admired Ingres and would have had a keen interest in the exhibition.  

Braque deconstructs a violin, the painting's subject, which appears to rest on a table or shelf.  The two words, surrounded by pink, seem as if they are on other realm.  Perhaps they refer to some poster or handbill. Certainly they call attention to the concert event.  The violinist name, Kubelik, includes "kube."  Cubist painters, delighting in word play, often incorporated words with "cube" into their paintings.  As for Braque's misspelling of  "Kubelik,"  it remains a mystery.  

In The Scallop Shell: "Notre Avenir est dans l'Air," Picasso makes reference to the pamphlet, "Our Future is in the Air," which was circulated to promote France's aviation program. Braque and Picasso working closely together towards a new vision likened themselves to the Wright brothers.  The blue, white and red stripes refer to the French national flag - perhaps Picasso's declaration of patriotism to his new home.  The colored bands are painted with ordinary household paint instead of oil paint traditionally associated with fine art.  The use of both oil and house paint - high and low mediums - is another way Cubism brought together the conventional and unconventional.  

The painting's central two shells may hint at a recent trip to Le Havre Picasso took together with Braque or a reminder for the artist of his beloved port city of Barcelona.  Shells had long been symbolic of travelers and pilgrims.  They were sold as tourist souvenirs from port and seaside towns and, as such, would have significance for the artist.  

The letters, "JOU" comes from Le Journal, a daily Paris newspaper - letter stencils making partial words were commonly placed in Cubist works. The Scallop Shell: "Notre Avenir est dans l'Air" has more to impart but let the above suffice for now.  Readers may pursue their decoding on their own. The show's excellent catalogue provides much information and is well-worth looking into.


Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), The Absinthe GlassParis, spring 1914,
painted bronze and perforated tin absinthe spoon,
 8 7/8 x 5 x 2 1/2 in. (22.5 x 12.7 x 6.4 cm)
Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection
© 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo:  New York Times Web site

The collection also includes Picasso's revolutionary sculpture, The Absinthe Glass.  Think of early twentieth-century sculpture:  Auguste Rodin, (see ArtWithHillaryThinking about the "Thinker"and More, August 2014), highly finished marble portraits and classical figural groups.  

Picasso's sculpture depicts a commonplace item - a glass for the notorious intoxicating drink absinthe complete with sugar cube and spoon.  The glass is seen from multiple vantage points and includes shadows modeled in three-dimensions. Most shocking, the artist includes a real object - a piece of cutlery.  A sculptured sugar cube rests on a genuine perforated trowel-shaped absinthe spoon placed on the rim of a sculpted glass.  

To drink the anise-flavored liquor, cold water is slowly dripped on the sugar cube which causes the sugar to dissolve into the liquid below. Although the beverage is green, the artist avoids this color.  His colors do not describe the subject.  He uses blues, blacks, reds, whites and touches of yellow.  

Painted dots on the sugar, at the base of the glass and on planes in various views denote the confetti that was used in abundance at Mid-Lent and Carnival parades.  Throwing paper confetti at festivities became a craze in the late nineteenth century and its popularity continued into the twentieth century.***  Along celebration routes, the practice caused small round colored paper pieces to cascade on the outdoor cafe customers and their drinks.  The soft paper disks replaced plaster chips in France in 1892 when the latter was banned for causing injuries.  Colorful stippling in cubist works refer not only to the confetti craze of revelers but also to Pointillism and Divisionism, styles of painting exemplified in the works of Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910).  Cubist dottings, unlike the earlier movements, were not used to define or describe objects but to enhance the picture's formal qualities - enlivens surface with texture and light.  At the same time, the dots acknowledge earlier artistic endeavors and the worthiness of popular culture.   

The original Absinthe Glass was in wax. Picasso's dealer had it cast in bronze in an edition of six.  Five are uniquely painted and one is covered in sand.  Three are currently in New York. One is in the Lauder collection, one is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art***and one, from a private collection, is in the exhibition Picasso & the Camera at the Gagosian Gallery on 21st Street until January 3, 2015.

Mr. Lauder's praiseworthy munificence extends into the future.  The gift has no restrictions which means the Museum can place the works according to curatorial needs.  Furthermore, the collection is not finished.  Mr. Lauder plans to continue enlarging the collection when works of suitable value come to the market.  

Go to the Met.  Mr. Lauder's passion for Cubism expressed in his collection will surely ignite your own.  

More to come next month. 

* Recto, Fernand Léger (1881 - 1955), Houses under the Trees1913,
    oil on canvas, 36 ¼ x 28 3/4 in. ( 92.1 x 73 cm)
    Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection
    © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
    Verso, Houses under the Trees1913,
    oil on canvas, 36 ¼ x 28 3/4 in. ( 92.1 x 73 cm)
    Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection
    © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
    Photo:  Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

**The distinguished conductor Raphael Kubelik (1914-1996) was Jan Kubelik's son.  

***When paper confetti replaced plaster chips in 1892 at Paris's annual Carnival festivities, 20,000 kilograms (about 20 tons) were sold.  Three years later, the amount purchased increased to 500,000 kilograms (about 500 tons).  See below the Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's advertisement poster for paper "injury-free" confetti made by London paper manufacturer J & E Bella.  

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), Confetti, 1894,
lithograph, composition: 22 5/8 x 15 5/8 in. (57.4 x 39.7 cm); 
sheet: 22 5/8 × 17 9/16 in. (57.4 × 44.6 cm),
Publisher: J & E Bella, London,
Printer:  Bella & de Malherbe, London and Paris,
Edition: approx. 100
Acquired in honor of Joanne M. Stern 
by the Committee on Prints and Illustrated Books
in appreciation for her contribution as Committee Chair
Museum of Modern Art,  New York
Photo:  Museum of Modern Art Web site

****The Museum of Modern Art work is presently not on view.
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Cubism:  The Leonard A. Lauder Collection
October 20, 2014 - February 16, 2015
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), Manhattan
Hours:
Open 7 Days a Week
Sunday–Thursday: 10:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, January 1,
and the first Monday in May
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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Unraveling The Mysteries Of The East (2)



National MuseumNew Delhi, India
Photo:  Wkitravel Web site (Picture 1331)

The National Museum, New Delhi, India, is somewhat of a hidden treasure.  This writer knows many repeat visitors to India who are unaware of the asset.  The museum is well worth a visit.  Hundreds of remarkable objects are on view from a collection of over 200,000. Some holdings are of non-Indian origin but the vast majority belong to India's heritage.  They represent some 5,000 years of civilization, from 3,000 B.C. to the present.  

Ganga, 5th century A.D., (Gupta Period), 
Uttar Pradesh, terra-cotta, 
h: 67.7 l: 29.1 w: 15.8 in. (h: 172 l: 74 w: 40 cm)
National MuseumNew Delhi, India
Photo:  National Museum Web site

Sculptures in a variety of materials, paintings, textiles, arms and armor, ceramics and manuscripts are just some of the artworks on view.  

Partial view of Chola Gallery, 
National Museum, New Delhi, India
Photo:  Enjoying India Web site, Verseguru (Creative Commons)

Visitors new to the arts of India may find particular galleries more engaging.  One such gallery is a room dedicated to the softly modeled, sensual sculptures of the Gupta period, c. 320 - 550 A.D., considered the classic period of Indian art; or, one devoted to the graceful, elegant and otherworldly bronzes from the Chola dynasty of South India, c. 850 - 1250 A.D. 


  Partial view of Buddhist Gallery with Stupa containing relics of Buddha,
National Museum, New Delhi, India
Photo:  Albany Kid Web site

View of Buddhist Gallery with Stupa containing relics of Buddha,
National Museum, New Delhi, India
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

Don't be surprised to find the Buddhist art gallery filled with saffron robed Buddhist monks.   A small stupa here contains sacred relics of the Buddha.  The shrine attracts thousands of worshippers each year.


Views of Painting Galleries,
National Museum, New Delhi, India
Photo:  National Museum Web site

The museum's miniature painting collection has both depth and breath.  Examples of all the major styles and sub-styles of Indian painting are displayed in a series of well-lit galleries.  The works astound with their exquisite intricacy.  A magnifying glass and small flash light come in handy.  Magnification brings out details that are all but impossible to see with the naked eye. In some finely painted areas, artists are said to have used a brush made with a single hair. The sheen of gold, silver and metallic green (beetle wings) employed for highlights is lost without additional illumination.  Focused or refracted light from oil lamps or candles would have picked up the glint of these materials. Sadly, most of the silver leaf has oxidized to black but this is no deterrent from enjoying these beautiful works.  

If you go to India, don't miss visiting the museum.  When there, be sure to avail yourself of the informative audio guide.  It makes the experience even more pleasurable   

If India is of interest but a trip is not in the future, explore the National Museum's Web site as well as the National Museum's entry on Google Art Project.*  


A view from Victoria Peak, 
looking north over Central, Victoria Harbour and Kowloon (2011)
Photo:  Wikipedia Web site

Travelers often begin their journey to mainland China with a stop in Hong Kong.  Some just visit Hong Kong.  In this city of dazzling vistas and prodigious shopping, the Hong Kong Museum of Art is commonly missed.  Although not a national museum, it had offered an introduction to China's arts.  Thus, this mention.  

The museum is presently beginning a comprehensive renovation.   Alas, the Chinese antiquities section is now closed as well as some galleries devoted to contemporary artworks and educative presentations.   With the hope that the museum will wisely reinstall the collection, the following description is presented. 

Hong Kong Museum of Art,  Main Entrance
Photo:  Hong Kong Extras Web site

Housed in a modern building in Hong Kong's main tourist area, the Hong Kong Museum of Art is easily accessed.   The holdings, about 15,000 artworks, is neither large by some standards nor filled with national treasures.  To give readers a comparison, the Shanghai Museum has more than 1,000,000 objects with at least 120,000 of significant cultural importance.  The Palace Museum in Beijing has in excess of 1,800,000 artifacts, of these approximately 1,600,000 are deemed historically valuable and nationally protected.


Large Bowl with Floral Scrolls Design in Underglaze Red,
Hongwu period (1368 - 1398), Ming dynasty,
h.: 3.9, diameter of mouth: 8 in. (h.:10, diameter of mouth: 20.3 cm)
Photo:  Wikimedia Commons Web site**

Yet, the Hong Kong Museum of Art's size and quality was not a disadvantage.  The number of objects that were displayed had not overwhelmed.  Works were organized by material and displayed chronologically.  These included ceramics, bronzes, lacquerwares, costumes and furniture.  

Hong Kong Museum of Art, Education Corner***
Hong Kong
Photo:  Wikimedia Commons Web site

The whole museum is scheduled to close sometime in 2015.  When it reopens, a visit to the Hong Kong Museum of Art may once again be a good start to a Chinese adventure.  Until then, it is best not to go here. 

*The National Museum, New Delhi, India, is part of Google Art Project.  Institutions belonging to the project put artworks online in high resolution images and, in some cases, a 360 degree tour of the institution's galleries.  To explore the National Museum, New Delhi, India, on Google Art Project, go to the Art Project's home page, main menu.  Click on "Collections" and type "New Delhi" in search area.  When the drop-down menu appears, click on "National Museum, Delhi."
**This work is in the public domain in the United States.
***Former installation.



Saturday, September 27, 2014

Unraveling The Mysteries Of The East (1)



Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Western tourists in Asia are confronted with a plethora of unfamiliar experiences.  Histories, arts and architecture present a newness that can easily overwhelm.  For the initial traveler, a wise move is to begin the journey with a visit to a national museum.  There for the taking are artifacts providing the neophyte with insights and knowledge.  A few examples will illustrate this point.*

The town of Siem Reap in Cambodia is the gateway to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the great temples and city of the ancient civilization of Khmer.  Situated northwest of 
Phnom Penh, the country's capital, Siem Reap lures while Phnom Penh with its neglected buildings and dilapidated infrastructure dissuades.  However, the National Museum of Cambodia is here which makes a stopover exceedingly worthwhile.  The museum is a treasury of Khmer artworks.  

Established during French protectorate, the National Museum's collection comprises works in stone, ceramic, metal and wood. Labels are in Khmer, French and English.  The installation generally follows chronological order displaying the evolution of Khmer art from prehistory through the classic Angkor Wat style, 1100 - 1175, and on to its subsequent decline.  


Gallery view, foreground center: fragmentary sculpture of Two Interlocked Wrestlers
c. 10th century, Koh Ker style, Preah Vihear, Angkor period, sandstone, 31.1 in. (79 cm);
 background center: Wrestling Apes, c. first half of 10th century, 
Koh Ser style, Preah Vihear, Angkor period, 
 sandstone, 9.4 ft. (2.87 m)
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

Gallery view, right:  Jayavarman VII, Angkor Thom, Bayon style, 
Angkor period, c. late 12th - early 13th century, sandstone, 4.4 ft. (1.35 m)
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

The museum makes the Angkor period's distinctive styles easy to comprehend.  For example, the monumentality and dynamic movement of the Koh Ker style contrasts with the  meditative, serene works of the later Bayon. In the latter, portraiture developed.  It became customary to depict royalty as Buddhist deities. King Jayavarman VII, a devout Buddhist, was often represented as the Buddha.  Sculptures of this king have astounding realism.  His inert stone form appears to breathe.  

Exploration of the National Museum of Cambodia's galleries turns a visit into a virtual survey course of Cambodian art, an excellent preparation for the wonders of Siem Reap.  Furthermore, the building's traditional Khmer-style architecture with its open galleries and central garden makes for a pleasant, relaxed experience.


Bangkok, Thailand
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

Arriving in Bangkok, visitors are usually shuttled between the city's many Buddhist monasteries and temples as well as the Grand Palace, official home of the king.  T
he National Museum Bangkok** is often missed.  Situated in a former palace complex, it's the largest museum in Southeast Asia.  


Bangkok, Thailand
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

The collection comprises not only Thai artifacts, but also works from other Asian cultures including India, China, Vietnam and Indonesia. Be prepared to spend the better part of a day here.  There are over half a dozen buildings filled with attention-grabing pieces.  The museum plan is easy to understand with images of the collection's highlights and their gallery locations clearly indicated.  


Head of Meditating Buddha, c. 7th - 8th century, 
Davaravati, found at Wat Phra Ngam, Nakhon Pathom province, 
 terracotta, 7.9 in. (20 cm)
Bangkok, Thailand
Don't be surprised to find Buddhist devotees praying and making offerings in front of statues or reliquaries in Asian museums.  You may even be invited to participate.  In fact, the National Museum Bangkok contains the second most venerated Buddhist image in Thailand.


Seoul, Korea

The National Museum of Korea (NMK) is on a more modern note. The new building, opened in 2005, provides extensive facilities to learn about Korean culture and art.  The NMK is currently the sixth biggest museum in the world with over 12,000 objects on display. Years ago, the museum's ceramic collection alerted this writer to the glories of the Goryeo celadons and initiated what has become a life long interest.

 Celadon Jar with Four Lugs and Inlaid Cloud and Crane Design
Goryeo Dynasty (918-1352), celadon, 
h. 9.4, mouth d. 3.5, bottom d. 5 in. (h. 23.8, mouth d. 9.0, bottom d. 12.7 cm)
Seoul, Korea
Photo:  The National Museum of Korea Web site

The NMK has exhibition guided tours for foreigners and digital/audio guides for rent.    In addition, there is a PDF visitor guide for adults and a self-study one for children and teenagers. 

The museum is beautiful and well-lit.  It is quite massive so allocate time for viewing.  Without doubt, every visitor will find something that delights.

Honkan (Japanese Gallery), 
Tokyo, Japan

The Tokyo National Museum is made up of six main buildings and some five historical edifices situated in a garden setting.  It's Japan's oldest and most expansive museum with holdings of Japanese art unequaled anywhere.  Works from other countries such as China, Korea and India are also present.

Honkan, a 1932 building on the site of the original main gallery, is devoted to the Japanese collection. Chronological displays fill twenty-four rooms.  Special exhibitions highlight specific genres such as lacquerware or swords.  Many of the museum's pieces are National Treasures.

Cosmetic Box with Wheels in Flow, Heian period, 12th century, 
lacquered wood,  l. 8.8, w. 12, h. 5.3 in. (l. 22.4, w. 30.6, h. 13.5 cm)
National Treasure of Japan
Tokyo, Japan
Photo:  Kiritz Japan Web site

A word about National Treasures:  in Japan and other countries, mainly in Asia, a cultural property is designated as a National Treasure when it is deemed to have significant artistic, historical or intellectual value.  This qualifies the property for special preservation, conservation and restoration funding.  Export, transfer and alterations are restricted.  The system is a means to protect a country's patrimony.

Japan has a three-tiered classification:  Registered Cultural Property, Important Cultural Property and National Treasure.  Cultural Property levels have less obligations and benefits than the category of National Treasure.  An object selected for any one of the categories is a signal of worthiness.  Take note.

Two other museums merit some comment.  Read about them in ArtWithHillary's October blog post.

*For those not planning an Asian trip but have a curiosity about the area, national museum Web sites present a wealth of learning opportunities.  
**I recommend Bangkoksite.com/nationalmuseum for information on the National Museum Bangkok.




Friday, August 29, 2014

Thinking About "The Thinker" And More

Auguste Rodin (1840 - 1917), The Thinker,
modeled 1880-81, enlarged 1902-04; cast 1919, bronze,
79 x 51.25 × 55.25 in. (200.7 × 130.2 × 140.3 cm)
Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Photo:  Rodin Museum Website

Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker" seems to be everywhere.  Castings appear in various sizes, placed in museums and parks alike. The sculpture is part of the public's conscious, so familiar it's often passed by.  The origin forgotten or never known.

Sculptures of Auguste Rodin (1840 - 1917), 
partial installation view,
B. Gerald Cantor Sculpture Gallery (Gallery 800)
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

The seated figure still attracts.  Witness the "must see" stop for tour groups.  Some attention to the work and the sculptor's achievement is in order.  

Tour Group in front of The Thinker* by Auguste Rodin (1840 - 1917), 
B. Gerald Cantor Sculpture Gallery (Gallery 800)
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

The Thinker as well as many of Rodin's sculptures were created for the monumental doors entitled The Gates of Hell.  

Auguste Rodin (1840 - 1917), The Gates of Hell,
modeled 1880 - 1917; cast 1926 - 28, bronze, 
20 ft. 10 3/4 in. x 13 ft. 2 in. x 33 3/8 in. (636.9 x 401.3 x 84.8 cm)
Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Photo:  Rodin Museum Website

In 1880, the French government commissioned Rodin to devise the portal for a planned museum of decorative arts.  The imagery the sculptor chose was based on Dante's Divine Comedy, in particular the poem's first part, Inferno. It was Rodin's modern answer to the Gates of Paradise, Lorenzo Ghiberti's famous Renaissance doors on the Florence Baptistry.**    

Although the idea for the museum was abandoned by 1887, Rodin worked on the project until his death.  He used the door as a background for his evolving sculptural ideas, forming in clay and plaster a wrenching transformation of the human form.  

The Gates of Hell were never cast in bronze during the artist's lifetime. When Rodin died in 1917, only a plaster version existed.  This was left in pieces in the artist's studio.  Subsequently, the work was reconstructed by the first curator of the Musée Rodin.  The reassembled full-size plaster Gates of Hell now resides in the Musée d'Orsay which is located on the site intended for the proposed decorative arts museum.  Thus, the doors rest in the place originally envisioned.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), The Gates of Hell
between 1880 and 1917, plaster,
20 ft. 10 in. x 13 ft. 1 1/2 in. x 3 ft. 1 13/32 in. ( 635 x 400 x 94 cm)
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / DR
Photo:  Musée d'Orsay Web site

There are over 180 figures on the portal.  The sense of movement and formation are the great triumphs of the doors.  Figures emerge and submerge from the watery background. They evolve and develop. Partial body parts express the whole. Fragments would become stand alone sculptures.  Forms are replicated.  Rodin's art is an art in flux, revolutionary for its time.  

The seated Thinker presides over the multifarious figures.  Considered a depiction of the poet Dante, he may be meditating or contemplating the tortured beings about him. The Three Shades, the same figure repeated three times on top of the entablature's midpoint, emphasize The Thinker's centrality.  Their bent bodies and extended arms lead the viewer below. They are the souls of the damned and, according to Dante's Divine Comedy, stand at the entrance to Hell. 

The Thinker was turned into an independent artwork in 1888.  Cast in numerous sizes, the sculpture became one of Rodin's most popular pieces.  Other Gates of Hell figures were also transferred into full-size, free-standing sculptures. Some transfigurations make The Gates ancestry difficult to trace.  Take a look at Rodin's The Martyr.

Auguste Rodin (1840 - 1917), The Martyr,
modeled 1885, bronze, 
 61-1/2 in. (156.2 cm)
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

The autonomous work evolved from a standing figure on The Gates of Hell lintel.  She is to the left of The Thinker behind a squatting woman ***.  

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Lintel detail of The Gates of Hell
between 1880 and 1917, plaster,
Photo:  Artstor

Note the position of her torso with its splayed breasts. Her right leg with its foot turned inward (slightly off the lintel's edge) offers little stability.  In 1885, The Gates small lintel figure was realized as an independent, almost life-size bronze sculpture. 

Auguste Rodin (1840 - 1917), Detail of The Martyr,
modeled 1885, bronze, 
 61-1/2 in. (156.2 cm.)
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

The same figure made another appearance in the form of the goddess Fortune on The Gates lower left door panel.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Left door panel detail of The Gates of Hell
between 1880 and 1917, plaster
Photo:  Artstor

Here, she is winged, a horizontal recumbent on a tomb-like structure. A veil across her eyes prevents her from seeing.  Her right hand holds a spoked wheel.  The veil and wheel are Fortune's attributes. The latter indicative of  the cycles of fate and the former alluding to the unpredictability of fortune - those that do not deserve good luck, sometimes get it.  

The Martyr figure reappears in 1895 as the fallen Icarus in Rodin's sculpture The Fall of Icarus.  Here she plunges head first, her nose touching the ground.   In 1911, she is found again upright rendered in relief on a white marble cemetery monument called Le Lys brisé.  

Rodin used live models for his work.  The Martyr model must have been low-lying on her back when he formed her in clay.  The positioning of the breasts, flaccid tissue spread wide apart, would not be possible on a standing woman. Thus, when the figure was released from The Gates and made independent, she was restored to her original supine pose.  Rodin meant her to be seen from above.  He gave her a low, flattened platform.  At the time, such a placement would have astounded if not perplexed viewers.  Figurative representations were seen standing or seated not sprawled on the ground.  Rodin's figure spills over her perch, entering the spectator's space.  This is not art on a high, untouchable pedestal. 

With her head dropping backward one way, chin raised in opposition, arms spread apart and legs awkwardly posed, she appears as a woman who suffered a violent death or a woman in sexual ecstasy.  As such, she seems the progenitor of  Alberto Giacometti's Woman with Her Throat Cut - a female abstraction of rapture or pain.  The lineage is there.

Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966), Woman with Her Throat Cut,
1932 (cast 1949), bronze,
8 x 34 1/2 x 25 in. (20.3 x 87.6 x 63.5 cm)
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Photo:  Museum of Modern Art Web site

Giacometti studied with the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle who had been Rodin's assistant from 1893 until 1909.   

Rodin's distortion and breakdown of the human form, his replications and revolutionary position of sculptures influenced future generations. Although he depleted parts of the whole - a hand, arm or torso - his work remains recognizable.  Human qualities prevail.  His achievements made possible much of modern arts's representational freedom.

You can see Rodin in the background of Carl Andre's creations made of duplicated forms positioned on the floor or Joel Shapiro's movement filled constructions.

Carl Andre (born 1935), 144 Lead Square, 1969,
lead, 144 units, overall 3/8 in. x 12 ft. x 12 ft.  (1 x 367.8 x 367.8 cm)
Photo:  Museum of Modern Art Web site

Joel Shapiro (born 1941), 1982, cedar, two views of Untitled,
46 1/4 x 48 x 48 1/4 in. (117.4 x 122 x 122.5 cm)
Photo:  Museum of Modern Art Web site

Think of Louise Bourgeois's totemic wood sculptures, David Smith's Forgings or Kiki Smith's hanging body parts and female nudes, especially her crouching Lilith.  There are others.   Rodin led the way.

Some 50 sculptures of the master are located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Gallery 800.  If you have not been, go.  If you have,  go again.

*Auguste Rodin (1840 - 1917), The Thinker, bronze, first modeled probably in 1880, this bronze cast ca. 1910, h. 27 5/8 in. (70.2 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

**The original East Doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, Italy are in the Museo delle Opere del Duomo.  The East doors presently on the Florence Baptistery are replicas.
Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455),
Gates of Paradise, 1425-1452, gilt bronze
East Doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni,
Florence, Italy, gilt bronze,
approx. 18 ft. (548.64 cm), each panel approx.  31 1/2 in. (800.1 cm)
© Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence
Museo delle Opere del Duomo, Florence, Italy 
Photo: Tuscan Traveler

***This figure became the independent sculpture known as The Crouching Woman.