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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Artists--Made or Born?

There is some feeling among those in the arts that artists are born, rather than made, giving credence to the belief in an "artistic gene" or "creative predisposition." The Calvinist might call it predestination. The Greeks also had a word for it--fate. In 1854, a fourteen-year-old French boy enrolled in the Petite Ecole, which was a Paris training school in the decorative arts--everything from decorating china to painting silk. He wanted to be an artist. When he graduated, he applied to the renowned Ecole des Beaux-arts. He was rejected. He applied again a year later and was again rejected. Thinking the third time to be the charm, he tried yet again but with the same results. Disheartened, he began to work as a studio helper doing decorative details on the work of a Paris sculptor. He never did get to go to college and study art, but he was an artist, with or without formal training. His name was Auguste Rodin.

The Age of Bronze, 1875-76,
Auguste Rodin
It took him another fourteen years, but by the early 1870s, he'd saved enough money for a trip to Italy where he fell under the spell of Michelangelo. After his return, he crafted his first masterpiece, The Age of Bronze. It was accepted into the 1877 Paris Salon show. It didn't win an award, but gained him a great degree of exposure and a controversial backhanded compliment. He was accused of having utilized plaster casts of a live model in creating his life-size bronze sculpture of a nude male figure. Critics found it difficult to accept the fact that a virtually self-taught sculptor such as Rodin could craft such exacting replicas of the human anatomy by any other means. It was plight that was to follow him during much of his career.

The Gates of Hell, 1878-89,
Auguste Rodin

For the next ten years, Rodin worked on figures composing a monumental set of bronze doors for the museum of decorative arts then under construction in Paris. The massive grouping was called the--The Gates of Hell. And, inasmuch as the commission was never completed, Rodin no doubt considered the work aptly named. (The museum was never completed either.) However, from this effort came a number of individual figures, the most famous of which was his trademark The Thinker." By 1880, at least six of them had been cast.

The Kiss, 1886,
Auguste Rodin
In 1886, he put to rest once and for all any doubt he might be guilty of using plaster casts. His immortal The Kiss was carved from pristine white marble; and in its exquisite, erotic beauty, set Rodin on the same plane as his much idolized Michelangelo and the Baroque sculptor, Gianlorenzo Bernini, as master of the sculpted human figure. Just a year before his death in 1917, Rodin donated his entire art collection to the French government. Except for a few public monuments located elsewhere (such as the Burghers of Calais), the life's work of the born sculptor, including bronze portraits of famous literary figures such as Victor Hugo and George Bernard Shaw, can be seen today at the Musee Rodin in Paris.