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Rodin: sculptor as wrecking ball

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Rodin’s “Large Clenched Hand,” on view at the Peabody Essex Museum.

SALEM — You've scrutinized "The Thinker." You've shimmied up close to "The Kiss." You may even have visited a Rodin Museum — the one in Philadelphia perhaps, or the stately, charming Musee Rodin in Paris.

Sentimentalize Rodin all you like; hitch him in your swooning memory to that gorgeous day in the City of Lights, the lover who got away, the photograph someone took of you both in front of "The Kiss". . .

It won't matter. You'll have your mushy memories. But you'll have the wrong man.

Rodin was a wrecking ball. He was one of the most satanically inventive artists of the 19th century. His sculptures aren't so much erotic as orgasmic — pitched right at the leg-shaking intersection of ecstasy and death.


They're carnal, and they communicate what the art critic Leo Steinberg, in a famous essay, described as "dark adult privacies." That — not the lovely flower beds in the garden out back — is why the teenagers flock to the Musee Rodin and can't stop gawking.

Rodin's sculptures (and here is another reason teenagers love them) also communicate torment. Stuckness. Psychic blockage. Gauche, tensed, and clenched, his spasming bodies are like unwilling conductors for massive jolts of electricity.

Rodin’s “The Minotaur.”

By rights, Rodin's works (and not merely "The Gates of Hell," the public commission he tinkered with for almost four decades) should be displayed in dark catacombs with strobe lighting and a thundering soundtrack of Norwegian black metal. Abrupt, intermittent silences would be punctuated by distant screams and the chug of heavy panting.

Failing that, you can savor something close to what I think of as the real Rodin in "Rodin: Transforming Sculpture," an absorbing exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum. It runs through Sept. 5.

The show, which was organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in collaboration with the Musee Rodin, makes certain concessions to decorum. There's no background heavy metal. You don't have to recite lines from Baudelaire's "Flowers of Evil" to gain admittance. And accepting the chilled glass of absinthe furtively offered in the restrooms is not compulsory.


But the show does honor aspects of Rodin's oeuvre which tended to embarrass tastemakers through much of the 20th century. Not so much the sculptor's strategies of repetition, disruption, and fragmentation — all mainstays of modernist aesthetics — but his best work's high emotional temperature, its brazen carnality.

Consider, for instance, the gasp-inducing "Iris, Messenger of the Gods," a headless, one-armed naked female figure whose tensed right arm grasps the foot of one jack-knifed leg. The other leg is also jack-knifed, but in a contrary direction, so that her genitals are dramatically exposed.

The work is displayed here high on a wall. Picked out by a spotlight, it casts a dramatic shadow.

For many years, a bronze cast of "Iris" languished in storage at the Museum of Fine Arts, labeled "unexhibitable." Finally, in 1953, the MFA washed its hands of the piece, trading it to the dealer Curt Valentin. But this is the new Boston, and we have pushed past such misplaced proprieties. (You can see a larger, bronze version of "Iris" any day of the week at the Harvard Art Museums.)

The key to "Iris," in any case, is not really the figure's genitals. It is that taut arm, which expresses enormous muscular will and intention, but no actual agency, no direction, no purpose. The upshot is not just ungainly, in the physical sense; it has a psychological dimension. It is stuck, thwarted, without point.


Rodin is constantly doing this: making the human body turn in on itself, or against itself. He adores, you feel, the animal aspect of human beings. But he is just as absorbed by the ways in which our stupendous brains, the weirdly inflexible vectors of our will, impede our natural fluency.

Rodin’s “The Thinker.”

With this in mind, take another look at "The Thinker."

He is usually photographed from the side. But seen from in front, notice how awkward and asymmetrical he is. The sculpture is not an expression of pure, idealized thought. It suggests instead a mind and body working at cross purposes. It could easily have been called, "The Over-Thinker," or "Stuck. Again."

The show begins in just the right way, with a series of sculptures of hands. Hands functioned for Rodin as concentrated versions of everything else that interested him about the human body — which is why he was always modeling them. Not with chisels and knives, but with those trustiest and most expressive of tools: his own hands.

Hands are almost always in motion. They don't have a right way up. They "coast and roll as if on air currents," as Steinberg noted, and their little bones, veins, and sinews are constantly fluttering, gesturing, catching the light.


Almost as much as faces, hands act as an interface between physical and psychological states. The "Large Clenched Hand" Rodin modeled in about 1885 which kicks off the show is exemplary. With its flexed fingers and frightening, corrugated palm, it seems inhuman, resembling more a shrieking animal or a twisted tree on a moonlit cliff than a piece of human anatomy.

Rodin’s “Three Shades,” a model for bronze casting.

But no, it is actually a hand. Modeled from life. Rodin's feeling for reality is such that we instinctively believe it, and therefore also the extremity it conveys.

This goes for the rest of Rodin's sculptures, too. He is always testing out his ability to make a back, a neck, a flexed arm or foot carry as much emotion as a grimacing face or a clenched hand. (See, for instance, the astonishing back in "Large Torso of the Falling Man.")

He assembled separately conceived sculptures into bold new configurations because he wanted to enhance this expressiveness. Different approaches helped him do so.

In the great "Three Shades," the key was repetition: The same tormented male figure, with downward-thrusting left arm and improbably horizontal neck and head, is simply reiterated three times, like a pointy, dissonant chord rounded off, made musically meaningful, by recurrence alone.

Rodin also achieves intensification by combining wildly different scales: In "The Hand of the Devil," for instance, a Brobdingnagian hand closes around an entire female body that is folded in on itself, its lower legs weirdly withered to resemble forearms.


Rodin's nervous, excitable touch is central to what makes him great, which is why his plasters and bronzes are generally more rewarding than his marble sculptures. Note, for instance, in a room full of studies for his monument to Balzac, his plaster model of the naked, corpulent writer smiling. The flesh looks dimpled and fatty. The drag of gravity is powerfully felt.

The pose itself could not be more gauche, more unbefitting of the dignity supposedly conferred on greatness. But how sturdy and stubborn he is! How fully human!

The marble sculptures toward the end of the exhibition are softer, more sedate, and finally less original. Still, after so much rough texture, the cool fluidity of smooth marble emerging from pitted slabs is supremely sensuous.

The Peabody Essex Museum has borrowed most of its presentational ideas from the show's earlier venues (I saw it last fall, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond). But it has introduced more loose white drapes to evoke Rodin's workshop and to emphasize his fugitive, provisional aesthetic.

And there is one other striking new element: Actual dancers perform in the galleries, every day, for the show's duration. The innovation is less intrusive than you might think: The two dancers I saw performed both together and apart, and moved discreetly between the galleries.

If their improvised but highly trained movements did not reflect the agonized, thwarted quality I see in so many Rodin sculptures, they did speak to other aspects of the work — above all, perhaps, its sensuousness, and the tendency for Rodin's bodies to ripple and float through space so that, as Steinberg put it, "every shape relinquishes its claim to permanence."

RODIN: Transforming Sculpture

At Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, through September 5. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.