Rodin’s Sonnets in Stone

Allison Pearson rediscovers the magic of the Musée Rodin…

You never forget your first kiss. Mine happened on a school trip to Paris over 30 years ago and it was either a happy coincidence or a divine joke that, during that same Easter, I encountered another unforgettable Kiss. The awkward, though increasingly absorbing, snog with Dave from Oadby on a hummocky camp-bed in a dormitory pungent with teenage socks retains a place in my personal gallery, but no longer in my heart. The other Kiss—by Auguste Rodin—started a love affair with a small museum on the Left Bank in which “Le Baiser” sits among the sculptor’s sublime works and several fine pieces by his mistress, Camille Claudel. The kisses bestowed by art, unlike those of men, are set in stone.

It was in the Musée Rodin that I first realised what Art was capable of. Trailing along behind Monsieur S., our strenuously Francophile teacher in his sadly unironic beret, we had already “done” Notre Dame. Then came a route march through the Louvre. Before its airy makeover with the glass pyramid, the Louvre felt like the worst kind of museum–punishingly vast, the walls of its interminable corridors lined with dukes with beards like spades and spoilt, mean-mouthed women in poodle wigs. After some hours, footsore and deafened by culture, we got to the “Mona Lisa”. I remember thinking how small she was. And how podgy. The famous smile hinted at embarrassment that all these people would bother coming so far to see her, when really she was nothing special. We adored Monsieur S. and we listened to him hold forth, complete with faux-Gallic gesticulations, about a turning point in the history of portraiture, the subtle handling of flesh tones, blah blah. But it was no good. The “Mona Lisa” was such a masterpiece, we could hardly see her. Or discover her secret for ourselves, as teenagers badly need to do, whether in love or art.

The last thing we wanted at the end of that day was another damned museum. But with the light fading to the freckled silver that makes the Parisian skyline look like an early photographic print, we found ourselves in rue de Varenne. You have to cross a cobbled yard to get to the front door of the Hotel Biron. The Biron is actually a perfect small chateau, like a doll’s house lowered from heaven into seven acres of exquisite formal gardens in Faubourg Saint-Germain. Built circa 1730, it was first a private house, then a school. By 1905 it was in disrepair and the rooms were let out to several tenants. At one point, they included Jean Cocteau, Henri Matisse, Isadora Duncan, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and Rodin himself. The queue for the bathroom must have been quite something.

In 1916, when Rodin was 75, it was agreed that the building would become the Rodin Museum, and he donated his own collection, along with all of his sculptures and the lesser-known drawings, with their clean-lined foreshadowings of Matisse’s “Odalisques”.

Although Rodin died before it opened in 1919, it’s hard to think of another museum where the presence of its creator can be felt so strongly. Frankly, it would be a disappointment if, after hours, a heavily bearded figure did not come down the curving marble staircase like Moses in his nightshirt and continue the mighty work of freeing his figures from their marble prisons. Let my people go.

All great artists are self-plunderers. After they’ve gone through the phase of stealing from their heroes they begin to raid their own work. It’s not a question of running out of ideas or cynically recycling, rather an impulse born of the fanatical conviction that this time, just like the Michelin-starred chef Joël Robuchon in his restaurant nearby, you are going to get the balance of ingredients exactly right, and conjure from them something that even you may not have foreseen. Nowhere does one glimpse that remorseless reworking as clearly as in these tall, elegant salons.

Just ahead, when you walk through the main door, with the Cinderella staircase on your right, is “Walking Man” (1900-07), a giant, headless bronze figure. “Walking Man” was assembled from two legs originally created for “Saint John the Baptist Preaching” and from a fragment of another torso that Rodin had lying around. Over by the windows, the light streaming in from the garden bestows a holy radiance on a pair of hands called “The Secret”. Reproduced almost as often as Dürer’s drawing of hands at prayer, these barely touching fingers have been lauded for their verisimilitude. Look more closely, however, and you see that the sculptor has pressed two right hands together. Auguste Rodin was never going to allow any work of his to be all fingers and thumbs. If the left hand is spoiling your perfect symmetry, then ditch it and use the other hand twice.

No less unashamed, and even more thought-provoking, is the twist that Rodin gave to “The Martyr”. This sprawled figure, head thrown back, one arm flung wide as if to catch herself, was from the start forged in ambiguity; to what, exactly, is she being martyred—to private bedroom ecstasy or public pain? She doesn’t know whether she’s coming or going to heaven. You find her, as you do, in embryo, so many of Rodin’s signature forms (including “The Thinker”, “The Falling Man”, “Fugit Amor” and “The Prodigal Son”), in “The Gates of Hell”, the vast doors commissioned by the French state in 1880 and left uncompleted on Rodin’s death in 1917.

“The Gates” now dominate a wall in the gardens, nearest to the road. I have never liked them, much preferring the doors of the Baptistry in Florence that were Rodin’s inspiration but which, with their strict geometry, make better visual sense of the mêlée. His gateway is almost too much to take in, not just at first glance but after long contemplation: a vertical battlefield, writhing with bodies caught between life and death. (How it would have struck anyone returning from the western front we can barely imagine.) But Rodin lifted his “Martyr” from her wall, and gave her a solo performance. Then, in 1896, he flipped her over, strapped a pair of wings to her back, and arranged for her to plummet into her marble plinth, nose to the ground. This time she was labelled “Illusion: Icarus’s Sister”, which is pushing it a bit. We all know about the waxy boy and his reckless brush with the sun, but who knew that falling ran in the family?

(Over the years, my suspicions have grown about Rodin’s use of mythological titles. The hotter the sex, the more it is graced—and thus excused, for cultivated viewers of his time—by a classical tag. “Psyche, Transported to Heaven”, says the label on a turn-of-the-century drawing, but whether Psyche was really in transport, or just enjoying having that very pretty boy blow on her right nipple, is hard to determine.)

All of these art-historical layers are fascinating, and they offer a masterclass in creativity, but not one bit of them struck me back in 1975. I was too busy being amazed. For the first-timer, Musée Rodin delivers a two-fisted shock. The space itself, though grand, is intimate and all the lovelier for being scuffed and peeling; within the formal restraint of its two floors are contained—but barely contained—lust and dejection and jealousy and violence and love, both orgasmically requited and forever out of reach. Look at “L’Eternelle Idole”, with the naked man kneeling in front of a naked woman who is raised slightly above him and deigning to glance down as the poor fellow plants a kiss just below her breasts. Does she seem to pity him? Do his arms, crossed awkwardly behind his back rather than wrapped around the girl, suggest he is less her lover and more a helpless supplicant, a slave to a passion from which there is no escape? And then there is “The Kiss” itself.

Three decades on, I wonder what I saw in this monumental snog. It would sit perfectly in a Las Vegas chapel of lurve. Sometimes marble feels too smooth, too chilly for Rodin’s purposes; these days, I am moved by the rougher and readier terracotta “Kiss” that sits in a modest glass case to one side of the original. Still, I owe that first “Kiss”. For a group of weary teenagers from the Midlands, here was remarkable news. Dead people had felt these things; and the living went on feeling them. Rodin’s sculptures made that connection for us; they continued to struggle and gasp and yearn and caress beneath their marmoreal skins.

Four years later, I was an undergraduate sitting in the Cambridge Arts Cinema watching Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy”, with Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as a desperately unhappy couple who visit the archaeological museum at Pompeii.

Looking at the casts of the agonised figures trapped in ash, Bergman is overcome. I recognised the expression on her face. She sees with devastating clarity that she and her husband are not the first to have suffered so, nor will they be the last. What Vesuvius did by accident, Rodin did by design.

I wouldn’t recommend the Musée Rodin to anyone in an ailing marriage. The imperative to seize what happiness you can is so overwhelming that a divorce lawyer would do a roaring trade if he set up a stall by the exit. The museum has become a place of romantic rendezvous. On my latest visit, I was with the father of my children. We had come to Paris for a weekend, as so many middle-aged couples do, to see if we could pick up the traces of the lovers now known as Mummy and Daddy. I was shocked when he mentioned casually that, many years before, these gardens had been the location for a tryst of his own. “But it’s my museum,” I protested. An idiotic thing to say but, when we find a place we love, we are torn between wanting to share it with the world and hug it to ourselves. The Rodin still feels like my secret, but it turns out to be an open one, as it should be.

This time, we headed straight for the quieter rooms upstairs. (The impulse to touch the marble flesh can be overwhelming and, in my experience, the attendants up there are more likely to turn a blind eye than the Défense de Toucher enforcers down below; but please don’t quote me.) Some of the place’s greatest pleasures are not the most obvious. Like Edward Steichen’s majestic photograph of Rodin’s “Balzac” at dusk. The collection holds more than 8,000 images of the artist and his work: snapshots of time-travel, allowing us to see how others saw him in his day. In my favourite, a Rodin grizzled with age is getting to grips with a giant plaster cast of “The Hand of God”. The maker meets his Maker, and his match.

On what must be my seventh visit, I walk without hesitation to “La Danaide”. Face down with her long hair streaming in front of her, the young woman is condemned to pour water forever into a bottomless vase. Still, by compensation, Rodin has given her what may be the most gorgeous back in all art. Any woman would die for such eloquent alabaster shoulder blades. She should be introduced to Michelangelo’s “David”: they would produce the most beautiful stone babies.

On the last night of that school trip, Monsieur S., my one really good teacher, called me into his room and with those frantic, faux-Gallic hands backed me into a cupboard and tried to undo my blouse. Even at that young age, I felt pity rather than disgust or fear. This too was to be part of my education. But not a part that would have shocked Rodin, who knew all about the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, aggressive as well as tender.

If you walk to the bottom of the gardens down the gravel path and turn and look past the fountain to the Hotel Biron, you have no idea how many chunks of human nature that beautiful storehouse contains. I first went there as a young girl, knowing nothing, and I hope to be there as a wise old woman, marvelling at feelings that once were mine. “The Kiss” may be just a kiss, but the fundamental things apply. As time goes by.



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