The first object you see as you arrive at the current show in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is The Hand of God. It's a marble piece by Auguste Rodin in which God's hand shapes human beings.
But the hand itself and the arm supporting it are also in the process of creation. The arm protrudes from a raw piece of stone, like the four unfinished slaves by Michelangelo at the Accademia in Florence - illustrations intended (it is said) to show the agony involved in carving a figure from solid marble. Or perhaps they are symbols of humanity's struggle to free itself from the bondage of destiny.
If the Rodin piece illustrates God being created while creating life, it's an ideal introduction to the 300 sculptures and drawings that make up Metamorphoses: In Rodin's Studio. This is an ambitious (and remarkably popular) exhibition that the Montreal Museum has put together with the Rodin Museum in Paris. Rodin's art of making is the theme. It's a refreshing exhibition, taking us deeper into the work of an artist many of us thought we knew all about. It runs till Oct. 18.
Much of the world appreciates Rodin mainly as a maker of bronzes. Millions have seen (or seen in photographs) his monumental sculptures, like The Burghers of Calais, in which six heroic figures of the 14th century walk toward certain death to save their fellow citizens during the English conquest of their city. Sometimes writers on the greatness of cities take that as a symbol of civic virtue. Many know Rodin's The Thinker, who sat outside the Art Gallery of Ontario for several decades (without ever convincing me he was thinking). Copies of Rodin's The Kiss, two figures entwined, is a symbol of love that can be seen all over the world.
The Metamorphoses show doesn't ignore the famous bronzes but it also turns our attention elsewhere, to the activity in Rodin's studios. While offering us a chance to contemplate a remarkable life, the exhibition reveals Rodin as an entrepreneur and a manufacturer who employed teams of craftsmen to make sculpture from his designs. He sketched an idea in clay and then had it cast in plaster and finally forged in bronze or carved in marble, sometimes having assistants reproduce a design on a larger scale. His talent expressed itself mainly in clay.
George Bernard Shaw posed for his bust and described Rodin's swiftness: "While he worked, he achieved a number of miracles. At the end of the first 15 minutes, after having given a simple idea of the human form to the block of clay, he produced by the action of his thumb a bust so living that I would have taken it away with me to relieve the sculptor of any further work."
Rodin created thousands of busts, figures, and sculptural fragments over more than five decades. He also painted in oils and in watercolours; the Rodin Museum holds 7,000 of his drawings and prints.
He made thrifty use of his ideas. If a hand created for a major sculpture looked good he might have it produced a dozen times on a smaller scale, as table sculptures. Scores of those pieces were sold in Montreal at the Dominion Gallery, just along Sherbrooke Street from the Montreal Museum.
Rodin's career represents the triumph of talent and ambition over adversity. The son of a clerk in the Paris police department, he began drawing at the age of 10. He had one schoolteacher who inspired him but most of his education developed in the apprenticeships that came his way. Poverty was part of his life during most of his youth. He spent two decades learning his craft by turning out doorway embellishments and roof decorations. Working in a porcelain factory, he designed vases and table ornaments. He spent six years in Belgium, drawn there by his need for work. One class he took that impressed him was with an animal sculptor who paid close attention to musculature.
By age 35 Rodin had saved enough money to spend two months in Italy. Michelangelo changed him, he said, by freeing his imagination from academic sculpture. In the years that followed he paid occasional tribute to traditional themes of myth and allegory but his interest was elsewhere. He did his best to depict human bodies realistically, especially their musculature. No one ever showed more clearly a male back rippling with strength. When he looked at nude sculptures from antiquity he saw in them "the sacred imprint of the temple ... It purified me. It filled my life, my soul and my art." His female nudes were so explicit that they aroused controversy. At the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 three nudes depicting Greek goddesses were considered so upsetting that they were hidden behind a curtain, to be seen only by special arrangement.
Like many people of his time, he believed he could identify the human body shapes found in various European regions and races. He may have been wrong but he was glad to celebrate this diversity. One day someone knocked at the door of his studio. It was an Italian who had already posed for him, accompanied by a friend, an Italian peasant from Abruzzo looking for similar work. "Seeing him," Rodin recalled, "I was struck with admiration. In his bearing, his features, his physical force, this coarse hirsute man expressed all the violence of his race, but also its mystical character." A few years later his nude portrait of the Abruzzo man as John the Baptist appeared. It's now in the Musée d'Orsay.
By the end of his life Rodin became everyone's favourite sculptor, like Henry Moore in the 20th century. After his death in 1917, at the age of 77, his reputation declined, but biographies and critical attention revived it in the 1950s. In 1969, in Civilization, a famous BBC television series, Kenneth Clark called Rodin's monument to Balzac "the greatest piece of sculpture of the 19th Century, perhaps, indeed, the greatest since Michelangelo."