François-Auguste-René Rodin (1840 -1917) sculpted some of the world’s most famous works of art, The Thinker to name just one; this exhibition, however, hinges on the many materials he used for these sculptures. What that means, is that the works are grouped together according to whether they were cast in bronze, molded in clay, or chiseled in marble, and the result is an unfortunate jumble.

And yet they are all there, The Brughers of Calais, The Walking Man, The Kiss, and the robed figure of the disputed The Monument to Balzac. Some in plaster, some in bronze, small and large versions, jostling for space as much as attention.

Camille Claudel’s poignant Abandonment shares the same room with Rodin’s giant, convulsed Adam (for The Gates of Hell), each sculpture ultimately losing some of its spirit in the odd dynamic, while large casts for The Thinker and The Walking Man can be found together under the heading Fragmentation.

The former, in patinated plaster, in preparation for bronze casting, is overwhelming, and not only because of its enormous size. The pose is weighed, the entire block of it moans with weight, the emotional component of the composition is impossible to ignore, despite the equally tactile draw of the sculpture. This massive accomplishment, both in terms of its form and artistic expression, was part of The Gates of Hell (La Porte de l’Enfer) portal to a museum of decorative arts that would never be, a project Rodin worked on for decades, based on Dante’s Inferno. (The Thinker was at times called The Poet and thought to represent Dante himself).

What the exhibition has among its many famous ‘faces’, are lesser known works, or maquettes for larger pieces, that offer a toneddown experience of Rodin’s great talent and deft hands. The Scream is a small bust, the features contorted in an eerily realistic grimace, seemingly finished, in a room full of clay models.

As if turning her back on the dominant form of The Thinker is a beautiful bronze Torso of a Headless Seated Woman, from 1907 (cast in 1979). Exquisite in its polished simplicity, the gesture encapsulated in smooth lines of the shape.

At times crude in their unfinished form, Rodin’s sculptures overwhelm with their unshackled energy, and that despite the confines of the exhibition space and its arrangement. Photographs of the sculptor in his vast studio hint at the kind of setting they require, and while the MMFA cannot be blamed for wanting to showcase as many works as possible, this is too much of a good thing.

Almost lost in a corner is one of the many versions of Meditation, in the form of a young woman lost in a reverie, this one without arms, in tan patinated plaster. Perhaps it was the lack of limbs, drawing focus to the tilt of the head, or the unusual finish of the sculpture, but its entire form was like an emotion, a word, a threedimensional onomatopoeia.

And then there was Thought, said to be portrait of Camille Claudel, the tragic muse and briefly the artist’s companion, a talented sculptor in her own right. Sitting in a display case, it is a strange, and somewhat unsettling composition, featuring a young woman’s head in a headdress, resting as it were on a slab of stone.

Rodin’s marbles, grouped in one room, underwhelm. The beauty of the material seems lost in the modern treatment, and the ghost of the great Bernini hovers mercilessly above them. The way the 17th century Italian handled the translucent stone continues to astound, and Rodin’s small pieces do not. Not en masse.

His drawings proved a disappointment as well, many so faded as to be almost invisible. (There must be some technology that could enhance the image, to be shown next to the original works?) Rodin’s assertion, printed on a wall text: ‘It is simple, my drawings are the key to my works’, only made their paucity more evident.

There is a lot to see in Metamorphoses; several trips will be required, but it won’t help grasp the vast talent that was Rodin. Less is more, and had certain works been better showcased, i.e. in smaller company, the ultimate reading of the exhibition would have been clearer.

 
METAMORPHOSES: IN RODIN’S STUDIO
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion
1380 Sherbrooke Street West
Montreal, QC
Tel.: 514 285-2000
www.mbam.qc.ca(lien externe)
May 30 to October 18, 2015

The Thinker, large version, 1903
Patinated plaster for bronze casting
182 x 108 x 141 cm
Paris, Musée Rodin
© Musée Rodin (photo Christian Baraja)

The Kiss, reduction No. 1, master model, 1898
Bronze, Barbedienne Foundry, cast 1898
71.1 x 42.5 x 45 cm
Paris, Musée Rodin
© Musée Rodin (photo Christian Baraja)

Meditation, without arms, About 1894-1896
Patinated plaster
148 x 73 x 61 cm
Paris, Musée Rodin
© Musée Rodin (photo Christian Baraja)