Monday, May 22, 2017

Kiefer Rodin @ Musée Rodin

Anselm Kiefer, Auguste Rodin, les cathédrales de France, 2016
The last time I went to the Musée Rodin was in 1984, and my suspicion is, it probably hasn’t changed that much. And yet, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Rodin was so much more interesting than the The Kiss, The Thinker and Balzac. It took Anselm Kiefer to be exhibited in the museum for me to get back there, but it was the Rodin sculptures that were the real discovery.

Anselm Kiefer, Berthe au Grand Pied, 2016 (detail)

I did not know many of the works on display even existed, and I would never have associated them with Rodin. All the famous, very classical, conservative sculptures are shown on the ground floor of the museum that was once his studio in rue Varenne. The most fascinating work, however, is on the first floor. The extensive collection which he donated to the state to establish his legacy includes unfinished bodies charging out of marble blocks, miniature limbs lined up in rows in glass vitrines, plaster dipped cloth covering fragmented bodies in pain, torsos clutching urns, and scenes on oversized columns. Work after sculptural work by Rodin reveals his occupation at the forefront of modernity in a way that I never imagined he would have. His fascination for the body became materialized in sculpture an obsession with its movement, its capacity to express emotion, its convergence with the materiality of sculpture. Yes, he was interested in form, perfect human replication, but at the Rodin was so much more.
Auguste Rodin, Hands of a Pianist, 1909
The exhibition of Kiefer’s works in the downstairs temporary gallery is filled with familiar oversized Kiefer canvases, sculptures speaking the decay and destruction of hope, knowledge, humanity, paintings that glimpse possibility, stairways leading nowhere, nature without promise of regeneration. Of course, the work, particularly Kiefer’s familiar use of lead, is compelling – from the peeling lead on August Rodin: les cathédrales de France (2016) to the ashen sunflower covered in lead – and moving. And in the enclosed arcade gallery, the works in vitrines are exquisite. Nevertheless, I am always ambivalent towards Kiefer’s monumental self-obsession, and this exhibition seemed to reinforce my disillusionment. It all looked very familiarly Kiefer.
Anselm Kiefer, La Conscience des Pierres, 2014
Included in the exhibition is – of course – a series of handmade books that cannot be opened, books that cannot be read. On them are images of naked women emerging from watercoloured marble. The paintings are exquisite and delicate and tactile on the page, but I wasn’t in the mood for naked women with bleeding genitals painted by one of the West’s most successful male artists. However, I was, at least, beginning to see the connection between Kiefer and Rodin. Women’s bodies seemingly floating through air, sensuous and erotic, emerging from marble were convinced by Kiefer may have been inspired by Rodin.
Auguste Rodin, Dernière Vision, 1902
But it was upstairs. On the first floor that everything fell into place. Rodin was in fact interested in all the same preoccupations as Kiefer – not just naked women with exposed genitals. The abundance of casts and fragments of bodies, from delicate fingers to broken torsos in impossible positions, reveal how, like Kiefer, Rodin was always thinking about issues of death and rebirth, of decay and the inevitable dilapidation of life. He was interested in materials, in fabrics, and their fixing in plaster. Rodin, like Kiefer was a collector, and an organizer of objects, placing knowledge in vitrines to preserve, display, categorize, and fix in history. Similarly, they both used the same materials: plaster, metal, fabric, marble. Although Rodin did not reach for lead as often as Kiefer, the same themes of transformation and alchemy are there in the narratives of his sculptural figures.   
A vitrine of body parts
Of course, there were also many differences, aspects of Rodin’s work that did not weigh so heavily on Kiefer. The most obvious being that Rodin was always in search of the inexpressibility of emotion. His sculptures are always looking to capture emotion in the sculpted body, no matter how big or small. Even when the figures are in a narrative or have some kind of historical reference, their purpose is to give form to emotion. For Kiefer, however, making art is always an intellectual process. And his works are formed by the search for the inexpressible knowledge of what it means to be always in the process of dying, and waiting to be reborn. Whether it is his own identity, or that of Germany, World War II or a more distant history, Kiefer always looks to define a lifespan across time.

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