H. de Roos - What is an original Rodin?


In his essay "An Original in Sculpture" Jean Chatelain, former Director of the Museums of France, places this developing division of labour and the shifting meaning of the original in art against a broader historical background: the disintegration of the workshop system, the separation of craftsmanship and art, the rise of individualism and the romanticism:

The revolutionary upheaval which shattered the traditional workshop system and the advent of an individualistic philosophy, followed by the rise of romanticism and the development of the art market and speculation, destroyed this unity [of fine art and craftsmanship - HdR]and substituted a hierarchy among the arts. All these factors contributed in fact to the emergence of a new concept, that of the artist as an inspired, exceptional being, endowed by Providence or by nature with a gift for creating, innovating - for doing what others had not yet done - and so personal, so spontaneous, was this endowment that it could blossom only within the context of total liberty, supporting neither guidance nor hindrance. This exaltation of the creative faculty, henceforth considered - much more than the mastery of a definite artistic technique - the fundamental characteristic of the artist, was to lead inevitably to a new classification of art works and the arts themselves.

Since it is the creative gift that makes the artist, it is by its innovative nature that a work of art is to be characterized. A true work of art is one which has never been done before: in short, an original work. Likewise, everything which bears witness to the creative steps of the artist will become a work of art. Since the modern artist no longer makes replicas, for to do so would be inconsistent with his very nature, each time he returns to the same subject or theme - be it twice, ten times, or a hundred times - he brings to it variations and subtleties which make the product an original work. We can distinguish such works with the aid of copious indexes and catalogues, which go so far as to specify their dates - first by year, then by season, then by month, and in a few cases by day, so very prolific were some masters. On the other end of this chain of fertile production, the rough outlines and sketches, hitherto considered incomplete forms of a work undertaken by the artist, become witnesses to this creative process. They are all the more moving and important as they are more rudimentary and spontaneous; so they too are considered original works, worthy of being preserved and admired. 

It comes to the point where any work realized by the artist himself is an original work. On the other hand, any reproduction of an artist’s work made by someone else, no matter what the process might be, is without real artistic value and therefore of an inconsequential price, for it no longer gives direct evidence of the creative impulse. It is an object, not a work.

[From: Jean Chatelain, An Original in Sculpture, Elsen p. 275f. My italics - HdR]

Chatelain´s essay, published in the 1981 catalogue of the "Rodin Rediscovered" exhibition in Washington, deserves to be studied closely, not only because it explains the historical context in which the concept of originality gained importance, but also demonstrates the difficulties to apply this concept in the so-called compound arts like bronze sculpture - to be distinguished from the "noble" or "simple" arts, like painting. Moreover, Chatelain  legitimizes an "original edition" practice, that in part contradicts his own conclusion quoted in italics.

The argumentation of Chatelain can be considered as representative of the view of the Musée Rodin and the Cantor Foundation. It  provides the theoretical basis for the position of these institutions in the debate around the Victor Hugo cast exhibited in the Cummer Museum in 1999 and for the current critique of the R.O.M. exhibition.




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