H. de Roos - What is an original Rodin?


What Is "The" Original?

As stated already, the discussion triggered by the Cantor monumental Victor Hugo cast in the first place is semantic: a clash of definitions. If this dispute is to make sense at all, we must examine, to what extent the terms used really correspond to historical practice.

Until now, we have encountered the term "original" with a number of different meanings or connotations:

1. The "original" as the proof of innovation: the artist creates something that has never been done before.

2. The "original" as something unique, one of a kind - as opposed to a multiple

3. The "original" as the mould or matrix, the basis of a process of multiplication.

4. The "original" as an object created by the artist himself, as opposed to a facsimile produced by someone else.

As far as Rodin is concerned, we know he drew inspiration from antique sculpture and Michelangelo, among others, still is seen as an innovative artist. But while Rodinīs style (or styles) set him apart from his predecessors and contemporaries and mark his entire oeuvre as "original" - in the sense of innovative - this does not help us much to distinguish an "original Rodin" from a "non-original Rodin", unless we would like to deny certain works the status of "original Rodin" works, just because they lack this quality of innovation. I can hardly think of a Museum curator who would be keen to do so.

Within his creative process, Rodin developed his subjects over a long time, in subsequent generations, creating a mould from a clay model, a plaster from the mould, then maybe re-edited the  plaster, made a new mould from the adapted plaster, or made casts in clay and reworked his design in this medium. As we know from many examples minutely described by Elsen [Elsen, 127 ff] and Tancock, who speakīs of "Rodinīs inability to leave his figures alone, once he had created them" [Tancock p. 30], the artist hardly ever stopped adapting and correcting his models:

"Further, as we know from old photographs taken under his direction or from surviving works in the Meudon Reserve, Rodin did rework plasters both by subtraction in the form of cutting away and by addition through the joining of clay to plaster in order to augment thickness or to change characterization and modelling. In the additive process a new plaster would be made from the edited one. No matter the process or medium, for Rodin was irrevocably finished or unalterable."

[Alber Elsen, Rodinīs Perfect Collaborator, Henri Lebossé, in Elsen, p. 254]

Rodin would create nude studies, then drape them, he would create heads, then combine them with various bodies, he would combine complete figures, or fragments, he would work out his ideas in various sizes and materials, show them horizontally one time, then vertically another time, which urged him to adapt the proportions again [Elsen, p. 255]. 

This means, in Rodinīs creative process it is very difficult to isolate the original of a certain subject: it is part of a family, has "parents" and "children", has "sisters" or "brothers", "cousins". Once the clay model has been destroyed, the bon creux mould and the impressions made fromit it can be accepted as reference objects - but only till the moment the artist starts re-editing one these plasters, combines it, has it enlarged or reduced, and so creates a new reference object. While some plasters would be exhibited, sold or presented, other plaster examples pulled from the same mould would be employed as models for bronze casting, or as reference model for a marble version; from the marble versions, Rodin had plaster casts made as well, that sometimes were used to translate the marble into bronze - bronze casts for which no clay model ever existed [De Caso, p. 33, Note 25 and 26]

In the mind of the artist, this pandemonium consisting of many thousands of objects certainly was structured by a hierarchy of significance. A certain version may have been valued because it was the first manifestation of a certain morphological concept, another version because it constituted its most refined and smoothly finished form. The meaning of many works was interwoven with Rodinīs own biography, with his emotional attachment to a certain model for example; some items may have gained significance because they had been exhibited succesfully, or were presented to a dear friend. Other may have been especially significant, because they had been criticized or rejected. But while the artist would assign such significance intuitively, after his death art historians or collectors can only try and tentatively reconstruct such a classification.

And since all other criteria - innovation, uniqueness, function as a matrix - appear to fail as well, only criterion Nr. 4 - the personal participation of the artist - seems to provide us with a practical definition of an "original Rodin work". We are back at Chatelainīs starting point, that everything the artistīs Midas hand touches, is automatically turned into the gold of art and constitutes an "original".




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