Rodin — the French sculptor who rocked the art world in the late 19th century with his progressive forward-looking work — loved to discuss and write about his process. He’s best known for “The Thinker” and “The Kiss.”
He is not to be confused with Rodan — a giant mutant pteradon that destroys Japanese cities at supersonic speed and gives Godzilla a hard time in the Toho Studios movie Final Wars.
There’s no doubt who would win a battle royale with Godzilla (Auguste Rodin wouldn’t last two heartbeats). But while Rodan is a no-nonsense monster, Rodin’s the one steeped in controversy recently thanks to the way the touring exhibition In His Own Words is presented.
The show’s been doing the rounds for a few years now, promoting a dazzling group of 30-plus bronzes as signed and numbered Rodin artworks. They are selected from the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, which is dedicated to propagating the artist’s statues. Gary Arseneau, a lithographer based in Florida, has been dogging the sculptures’ trail, denouncing them as fakes. Dubbed the “Rodin Chaser” by the press, Arseneau says that the bronzes were cast after Rodin’s death in 1917. How could they be signed originals if the artist was pushing up daisies during casting?
The Gibbes has addressed the issue, stating that Rodin gave the French government permission to make casts of his statues after his death, so these are authorized posthumous casts. The Museum doesn’t tackle all of Arseneau’s concerns; he says that the bronzes are taken from plaster reproductions, and that there are more editions of the sculptures out there than mandated by French law. The potentially wonky providence of the works doesn’t make the art any less fascinating — if anything, Arseneau’s brought the exhibition extra publicity — as long as visitors know what they’re looking at.
Rodin’s art is full of vim, with dramatic characters in energetic poses. His winged “Spirit of War” has outstretched arms and a rebel yell. It could almost be a character in a Toho film. The four-and-a-half-foot tall “Mask of Iris,” a dainty, pensive face, is the smallest piece at the Gibbes. The largest is his muscular monument to “Claude Lorrain,” weighing in at 750 lbs.
Critics have accused Rodin of repetition, sentimentality, and acting like a complete bitch in his studio. But for all his lapses into pretension and cliché, the artist’s mastery of bronze shines through. He encapsulated the human spirit’s highs and lows in his sculptures, and it’s about time his skill was reassessed. In His Own Words should help, and not just by introducing his art to new viewers; a component of letters and other works on paper provides a chance to see what made him tick.
Also in the show: a display on Rodin’s lost-wax casting process, which should also raise the appreciation stakes. The Gibbes has used displays to up the entertainment factor of a few of its exhibitions in the past, most recently with a “secret camera” apparatus used by Walker Evans, and details of the shipping routes of Chinese porcelain. These simple yet informative extras add an interactive element, a plus in a museum that’s trying to shake off the slightest sniff of stuffiness. Sadly though, a Rodan exhibit is not on the cards.
RODIN: IN HIS OWN WORDS • Visual Arts • $5-$9 • May 25-Aug. 12 • Gibbes Museum of Art, 135 Meeting St. • 722-2706