Everyone knows' Rodin's "The Thinker," or his equally naked couple grappling in "The Kiss." They've been used in ads to stand in for art itself, and they exist as vacation souvenirs on shelves all over the world.
But Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was more than a great expressive worker of clay, as shown in the exhibition "Rodin: The Human Experience, Selections from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collections" at the Portland Art Museum showing now through April 16.
Rodin bridged the worlds of classical and Romantic sculpture, was a formative Modernist, and can even be thought of as a bit of a Post-Modernist.
"He was the Jeff Koons of his day," the curator Judith Sobol told the Portland Tribune. Meaning he had a big ego — from his boyhood he wanted to be the most famous artist in the world — and delighted in taking commissions and making reproductions for the highest bidder, and even controlling the means of production long after his death.
If the dates on some of the 52 bronzes in this show perplex you — for example "Monumental Torso of the Walking Man" from 1985 — it's worth knowing that before his death he bequeathed the rights to his work to the French government, which runs the official Rodin Museum in Paris. It has the right to cast each piece in bronze up to 12 times and sell them, on different scales. The collectors, the Cantors, bought their Rodins from the Musée Rodin.
One of the first pieces on display is a small version or maquette of "The Gates of Hell." Rodin was commissioned to make the decorative doors for a new art museum, but the government changed its mind and built the Gare D'Orsay train station instead. (Today it is the Musée d'Orsay.)
Tortured figures write all over the doors, looked down on by a mini "Thinker" and on the top of the door frame, it's three ghosts. He took many of his favorite pieces from the doors and recast them as stand-alone works. So those ghosts become "Three Shades," which stands a few yards away.
"The 'Shades' show the influence of Michelangelo, but he went beyond that and took one of the heads, which you see nearby, and it has none of the melancholy because it is at a different angle, it's not looking down," Sobol says.
Parts were precious. Rodin reused hands, heads and limbs all the time, grafting them on to other bodies like a Mary Shelley hero.
Sobol says Rodin gave the pieces to his assistants who made the plaster casts and who chose from the 40 foundries in the Paris area.
Rodin made 328 editions of "The Kiss" in his lifetime and he sold them all over Europe.
Pieces such as "Torso of a Walking Man" came from Rodin's following the archaeological finds of the day, when broken Greek and Roman statues were being exhumed all the time. In the Romantic tradition, incomplete works were powerful because they stimulated the imagination to complete them.
"He realized a piece could still move him even if it did not have all its body parts," Sobol says. "He wanted to see how far you could pare down a figure and it could still give you emotional communication and work as a sculpture."
Hand surgeons have studied some of the sculpted hands he made for their anatomy. Rodin saw the artist as the Creator. "The Hand of God" is in the show.
"He put so much into the hand," Sobol says. "His pieces never got more reduced than the hand."
His sculptures of his hero, the novelist Balzac, show a manly middle-age body complete with beer belly. At times he was a fearless realist.
"Degas was interested in the life of the dancer, Rodin was more interested in the body of the dancer," Sobol says.
His figure "Iris, Messenger of the Gods" is a woman's headless naked body, probably based on a can-can dancer. She could be a modern woman doing yoga.
"It's this very exuberant, sexual piece, as she swings her leg you can see her genitals," Sobol says. "It's one of my favorite pieces because he lived at the time of the advent of the motion picture and the automobile, and he used those pictures as a way of informing his own work with movement."
Run, don't walk to this show.
'Rodin: The Human Experience'
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, through April 16
WHERE: Portland Art Museum, 1219 S.W. Park Ave.
COST: $17-$20, free for ages 17 and under
MORE: www.Portlandartmuseum.org or 503-226-2811