Rodin Works: Monument to victor hugo

Sketches of Victor Hugo by RodinAlready in 1883 Rodin received the commission for a portrait bust of the writer Victor Hugo (1802-1885). By that time, the author of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1831) and 'Les Misérables' (1845-1862) had reached the status of a national hero. In 1851, Hugo had tried to prevent the coup d´état by Louis Napoleon, who reigned as Napoleon III till 1870. During this period, Hugo had stayed in exile.

Rodin was introduced to the writer by his friend and journalist Edmond Bazire. Since Hugo - another portrait of him having been made shortly before -, Victor Hugo bust, bronzedidn't want to sit as a model, the sculptor had to rely on observations and hastily-made drawings, produced during a four-month period. Rodin scribbled sketches on cigarette paper, modeled a clay portrait while standing on the balcony of Hugo's room. The marble bust was executed  in 1883, two years before Victor Hugo died.

In 1889, Rodin was invited to create a 'Monument to Victor Hugo', to be positioned at the north transept of the Panthéon in a large setting comprising 100 sculptures. The project had been conceived of by Edward Lockroy, to commemorate the great men of French history. Like the Calais Monument, it should help to restore national pride, after the shameful intermezzo of Bonapartism and the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War provoked by Bismarck.

It was Rodin's second commission for a monument by the State. Rodin's draft shows the nude poet, sitting on a rock symbolizing the Island of Guernsey, where Hugo had spent part of his exile years. The figure of the poet was surrounded by three Muses, representing Youth, Maturity and Old Age; alternatively, the Muses were each associated with a Hugo work: 'Les Orientales', 'Les Châtiments' and 'Meditation'. Meditation without arms, plaster. Photo: Freuler, ca. 1886'The Inner Voice' or 'Meditation' had her knees and a part of her right leg chopped off, so that the figure could be more closely joined with the rest of the composition; the arms were hacked off as well. The Muses seemed to whisper in the writer's ears, as a representation of literary inspiration, inevitably feminine - a contrast to the male mind of the author.

As Rodin started to give more room to these Muses -  originally closely flocked together behind Hugo's back - and his design thus was developing in a horizontal rather than vertical direction, the committee concluded Rodin's proposal would not harmonize with the 'Monument to Mirabeau' by Injalbert, with which it should be matched. A painted facsimile presented in Summer 1890 was condemned for its "lack of clarity and its confused silhouette".

On 19 June 1890, Rodin was asked to develop a standing Victor Hugo for the Panthéon instead, in balance with Injalbert's erect figure; for the seated Victor Hugo, a worthy outside location should be found. For the Panthéon, Rodin now created 'The Apotheosis of Victor Hugo', which was completed by 1891 - but never installed there and only cast as a maquette. At the bottom of the column, we recognize the three 'Sirens'.

The rejection of the seated version offered Rodin the opportunity to re-work his horizontal compostion once more. The sculptor even travelled to Guernsy to taste the air Hugo had breathed there, and kept adapting the figures of the Muses. The character of 'Iris' was introduced, allegedly to represent Glory. Simultaneously, the sculptor created a series of private studies, representing male artists inpired, caressed or comforted by female characters: 'The Genius and Pity' (1895) 'The Poet and Love' (1896), 'The Sculptor and his Muse' (1895-97), 'The Man and his Thought' (1896). The rejection of his first design of the 'Monument to Victor Hugo', the harsh critique of his 'Monument to Claude Lorraine', the difficulties regarding the execution and installment of 'The Burghers of Calais', and last but not least the open crisis in his relationship with Camille Claudel must have urged Rodin to deal with these themes intensively during these years.

The Jardin du Luxembourg was mentioned as an appropriate location now. Rodin wanted the 'Monument' to be carved in marble, with its translucent, soft contours, so that the figure of the poet would appear "veiled in fog". LeBossé working on the enlargementPresentation at the 1897 SalonIn 1897, an enlarged plaster version was presented in the Salon of the Societé Nationale des Beaux-arts, occupying the place of honor under the central dome of the hall. This version showed only two Muses - the 'Tragic Muse' and 'Meditation', while 'Iris' had been omitted. The enlargement by LeBossé still looked very provisory: Hugo's arm was supported by a metal pipe, his shoulder ripped, the armature of the 'Tragic Muse', mounted on a wooden scaffold, was showing through. In Revue des deux mondes, Lafenestre, who had been part of the committee that had rejected Rodin's first proposal, criticised the unfinished work:

Victor Hugo Mounument, marble, Palais Royal"This work, in its present state, is nothing more than a piecemeal, incoherent study, on which it would be premature to pass judgement. The catalogue is willing to forewarn us that, in this collossal sketch, an arm of a female figure is incomplete; it is an optimistic catalogue. Oh! If there were only an arm incomplete! Another arm, it is true, is long beyond measure; but is that compensation?"

Finally, a marble sculpture of the Poet, resting on the rocks of the  island of Guernsy, without any Muses, was carved to be exhibited as the centerpiece of the Salon of 1901. With the support of Dujardin-Beaumetz, this marble version was finally placed in the gardens of the Palais-Royal on a pedestal of uneven stone slabs in 1909, where it stayed till 1933; later, it was removed to the Musée Rodin.

Rodin's Project as an execution of Hugo's self-erected monument

Provisory placement at the Palais Royal, 1909, photo: F. Bianchi (in: 'Rodin ea fotografia')

The two photos above (left and middle), made in 1853 during Hugo's exile by his son Charles, must have been familiar to Rodin; Hugo had deliberately directed their shooting as an essential  part of his poetic and political message and published them in order to project his own myth. As a consequence, by the time Rodin designed the first version of his 'Monument', the image of the visionary poet, immune to political corruption, listening to the wind, the sea and the voice of the stars (like in Hugo's poem 'Stella') while resting on the Guernsy rocks as his pedestal, already had become a visual commonplace: 

Le poète est également celui qui éclaire les peuples par la parole, ici la poésie dont le lyrisme s’accorde avec celui des photographies. Ainsi Hugo a-t-il lui-même et consciemment façonné son propre mythe. Dans les décennies suivantes, illustrateurs et caricaturistes réutiliseront l’image de Hugo sur son « piédestal », véritable statue vivante. 

[Stéphanie CABANNE - read the full article here]

In this sense, Rodin's composition was not solely based on his own inspiration, but to a certain degree the execution of the poet's own imagined monument, in clay, plaster and marble.

The revival of a forgotten Design

Rodin's 1897 model sank into oblivion. Only in 1950, when Victor Hugo´s 150th anniversary, the year 1952, was nearing, the City of Paris, looking for a suitable monument, thought of Rodin's attempts again, and commissioned a bronze cast from a model Ruth Butler describes as a:

 "... three-figure plaster in the Musée Rodin, a work that had so been out of view for the past fifty years that it was neither mentioned nor illustrated in the official catalogue of the museum, a catalogue considered as nearly complete"

Posthumous cast, 1996, based on the 1897 model, Cantor FoundationIt would take another 14 years before the bronze cast could be installed on the junction of the Avenue Victor-Hugo and Avenue Henri Martin, on 18 June 1964. In 1986, a second monumental cast was commissioned by the Cantor Foundation, giving rise to a bitter discussion on the true significance of this work: Was this really "an underappreciated masterpiece" [Lampert, p. 115] or was the casting rather inspired by the need of the Cantor Foundation to produce a colossal eye-catcher for their exhibition - as purported by Robert Torchia, former curator at the Cummer Museum, who claimed Rodin never released this plaster model for bronze casting. In other words: Was the 1897 plaster never executed in bronze or marble because of political resistance - as suggested by Jane Mayo Roos - or because the time was not ripe yet to understand Rodin's artistic genius, or was it rather the sculptor's inability to adapt to external requirements and take definitive decisions about compositional questions, that retarded and finally obstructed the realisation of this version, till it was dug out again in 1950? The question is still open to debate.



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