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At the Clark, proof that Auguste Rodin is still the man

The French sculptor and his dramatic, sensuous forms are the subject of ‘Rodin in America: Confronting the Modern.’

Auguste Rodin, "Monument to Balzac," original model 1897, this casting 1954. Seen as part of "Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern" at the Clark Art Institute.Clark Art Institute/Thomas Clark

WILLIAMSTOWN — The premise for “Rodin in America: Confronting the Modern” is the role collectors this side of the Atlantic had in building the French sculptor’s towering legacy, and why not? Any old excuse, really, will do. Auguste Rodin is one of those artists, actually quite rare, for whom the mantle of greatness fits just right. Rodin is everywhere in America, but there’s never a worry of overexposure. Familiarity, however extreme, breeds only more wonder. Think of him, if you like, as the Grand Canyon — so reliably jaw-dropping that, no matter the throngs of gawkers, the selfie sticks, the volume of merch and tchotchkes, the magic can’t be dulled.

Even so, the show’s achievement is not to be underplayed. It’s curated by Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, who authored Rodin’s catalogue raisonné, as expert as they come. Years of her sleuthing means the show is graced by several pieces usually holed up in private collections, far from public view. Rarity thickens the inevitable air of drama around Rodin, whose work, always visceral, can tilt toward the overwrought and even occasionally hokey — which is to say, the very French.


You don’t come to Rodin for restraint. His “Monument to Balzac” sits alone here in a gallery with views of the Berkshire hills; an outsize memorial to Honoré de Balzac commissioned by the French Société des Gens de Lettres in 1891, it was pilloried on completion in 1898 and rejected. It’s now seen as a pillar of Modern sculpture — Alfred Barr, who was director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, acquired an edition in 1954, reigniting interest in Rodin in the context of American Modernism. Garishly morose, Balzac draws inward like he might crumple into nothing; swallowed by a heavy cloak, just his head is exposed. It’s pure schmaltz, and just wonderful — Rodin, in a nutshell.


Auguste Rodin, "Cupid and Psyche," before 1886. Marble with original wood base. Iris Cantor Collection.Bruce White

The Clark show, with its 50 sculptures and the rare treat of 25 drawings, leans into Rodin’s innate theatricality with spotlights and shadows and walls painted in deep earthy tones that serve as chromatic echoes of the bronzes scattered throughout. It’s a stage set for the artist’s breathy dramas, and dramas they are: What else to call “Cupid and Psyche,” before 1886, portrayed in a prone entanglement just barely pre-coitus, the impossibly smooth marble of their limbs (and otherwise) begging to be touched?

Rodin’s deepest passion was for the flesh, whether in pleasure or pain; the exhibition makes that clear again and again. His subjects are often players in a grand narrative, to be sure: “The Gates of Hell,” his magnum opus, never cast in his lifetime, aimed to capture Dante’s “Inferno” with more than 200 figures and spawned many of his best-known works, “The Thinker” among them. But sensuality was paramount, whatever the story.

What made Rodin capital-”M” Modern, as the title suggests, was his love of material as much as form. He left his stage open to the wings, the mechanics on full view; he wouldn’t tell a story without showing his hand.

That’s more true of his bronzes, cast from plaster molds of clay that the artist worked roughly by pressing, squeezing, and scraping into life, his fingertips tracking every inch. The marble pieces were carved by stoneworkers under his strict supervision; they lack his touch, but not his sensibility. In “Christ and Mary Magdalene,” 1894, a soft knot of alabaster bodies is embedded in the block, a heightened torture for the crucifixion scene it describes. The entombment was the point: It tells you that you’re as much looking at stone, wrought by human hands, as the galvanizing myth of Christendom.


Auguste Rodin, "Christ and Mary Magdalene," original model 1894. Marble, carved by Victor Peter, 1908. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.J. Paul Getty Museum

For Rodin, where the illusion broke is where art happened. He had it rough among his earliest contemporaries. Their allegiance to fussy neoclassicism demanded pretty, polished perfections, a dullness of which he was biologically incapable. Rodin was denied entry to the École des Beaux Arts three times; another marble piece here — the fabulously sleek and tortured “Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone,” 1882, a classical female figure of Greek architecture bent beneath the weight of rough, uncarved stone — seems to make clear his thoughts on that.

Rodin’s arrival in the United States was also far from smooth. The show tells us that, at the US Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, “Cupid and Psyche,” among others, was removed, deemed too erotic; at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the piece was quickly tucked in a sealed room with two other pieces for private viewing only.

Auguste Rodin, "The Thinker" (left), 1903 enlargement; "The Kiss," modeled 1881-82; this casting 1888. Seen at "Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern" at the Clark Art Institute. Clark Art Institute/Thomas Clark

Here’s where rich Americans, perhaps with a secret lascivious streak to match Rodin’s own, play a part (Americans and French have much in common, really — so much drama). Arthur Jerome Eddy, among those to brave the locked chamber in Chicago, was impressed enough to commission a portrait. The result, an 1898 bronze bust of a reedy-looking guy in a bowtie — not his best work, anyone can see, but the show’s precept is what it is — is positioned like it’s staring blankly at “Cupid,” nearby. (Was Eddy’s face the same when he saw it?) More important was Rodin’s relationship with Katherine Seney Simpson, the exhibition notes, who served as his most important stateside advocate. A 1902 marble bust here registers the artist’s gratitude: A placid Mrs. Simpson sits mired in stone, swallowed up to her clavicle.


But you’re here to see Rodin, not learn about his wealthy enablers, and the Clark surely delivers: “The Thinker,” an imposing 1903 enlargement trucked in from the Baltimore Museum of Art, jagged muscles quivering gold-black beneath spotlights; “The Kiss,” (modeled 1881-82; this casting 1888), pleasure meeting pain, Paolo and Francesca from “Inferno” stealing an embrace on the cusp of damnation. His ragged hand limns the rough curve of her hip; Rodin’s prints are all over it, pressed into the sinews of his shoulder, the soft texture of her loin. He’s as present as they are, and believe me, that’s saying a lot.

Auguste Rodin's "The Walking Man" at "Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern" at the Clark Art Institute.Clark Art Institute/Thomas Clark

Now we’re getting somewhere. In a final gallery, we have Rodin, unbound: The implausible twist of the hips of “The Walking Man,” a headless male figure that Rodin, in an impulsive moment, fused from unmatched parts about the studio in 1907 (this one was cast in 1965). With its meaty, vacant sockets from which arms might have been torn, it pulses with violence and sculptural genius at the same time. The same is true of “Iris, Messenger of the Gods,” a nude female figure, modeled in 1895. Its pose is so powerfully carnal that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, poor dears, never showed an edition it received on donation in 1908, and quietly deaccessioned it in 1953 (the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. lent the edition here).


Rodin has never been for the weak at heart, a fact no less true then than now. I find that to be reassuring. If there comes a time when his fortifying authenticity is out of style, I hope I’m not here to see it.


At Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, through Sept. 18. 413-458 2303, www.clarkart.edu

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.