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Impressionism in three dimensions

Auguste Rodin’s “La Belle qui fut heaulmière”
Metropolitan Museum of Art (Gift of Thomas F. Ryan, 1910)

A first: sculptures by Auguste Rodin, 80 works-strong, are showing in Bulgaria’s National Museum.

Lucky Bulgaria.

One way to think about Rodin’s art is to consider it a 3-D counterpart to Impressionist painting. Rodin used broken surfaces the way, say, Renoir used broken color. By giving his figure art the same incompletely defined form, Rodin achieved the same results as did Renoir - vividness.

Some of Rodin’s works are so rough-surfaced and free-formed that you may feel like twisting the focus knobs on a pair of binoculars to sharpen the view.

Beside technique, Rodin was taken with human struggles and made a career of portraying pathos through the human figure. Tensed muscles are everywhere. Even when they look about to walk, you imagine it’s toward their doom.

An object lesson in the expression of pathos can be seen in “La Belle Heaulmiere, “ also known as “The Old Woman” and “The Old Courtesan.” The figure, a wrinkled crone grieving over her lost youth, is modeled after an actual octogenarian. Rodin got the idea about “traitorous old age” from a poem with the same name by Francois Villon, which reads in part,

“When I think wearily on what I was, of what I am, when I see how changed I am – poor, dried-up, thin - I am enraged! Where is my white forehead, my golden hair, my beautiful shoulders, all made for love.”

Rodin’s rendition of the poem looks as if the woman were sitting on the edge of a deep hole, radiating bleakness. You imagine that when she stands up, she’ll do it stiffly, leaning hard on a cane, and her walk will be slow and swaying.

Despite his belief in distortion for the sake of expression, Rodin extolled the virtues of the classical work Venus de Medici:,

“Is it not marvelous? Confess that you did not expect to discover so much detail. Just look at the numberless undulations of the hollow that unites the body and the thigh…Notice all the voluptuous curving of the hip…and now, head, the adorable dimples along the loins…It is truly flesh…You would think it modeled by caresses! You almost expect, when you touch this body, to find it warm.”

Rodin was also a Rembrandt fan. When someone compared his busts to Rembrandt’s soulful portraits, he said, “To compare me with Rembrandt,, what sacrilege!.”

With the large number of Rodin sculptures on view at the Bulgaria’s National Museum, visitors are able to see at a glance how his Impressionist technique served his takes on the human condition.

This is a whole lot more than can be said of Impressionist painting.