In 1903, while having dinner together at a restaurant in Paris, the sculptor Auguste Rodin and the Danish critic Georg Brandes were treated to an unexpected performance. According to Brandes’ recollection, Alda Moreno, a young French acrobat, climbed atop their table and began to dance. Rodin was so taken by Moreno that after enjoying the impromptu show he offered her a job as a model. Able to touch the back of her head with one foot while holding her leg up in a vertical split (sometimes called the port d’armes by those who practice the cancan), Moreno’s modeling allowed Rodin to think of movement in sculpture in a fundamentally new way.
Rodin only became interested in dance later in life. It wasn’t until he was nearly 50 years old, when the Paris World’s Fair brought a variety of dancers to the French capital, that Rodin began to treat dance as a serious sculptural inspiration.
Dancers like Moreno, Loïe Fuller, Carmen Damedoz, Isadora Duncan, Ota Hisa, and, of course, Vaslav Nijinsky impressed Rodin with their facial expressions (seeing Hisa perform a scene in which her character had to commit suicide convinced him that she had the most delicate, controlled facial features he’d seen) as well as with their ability to balance and to “create space,” by which he seemed to mean their precise, almost mathematical movements. He compared this proto-modern dancing to architecture, to mathematics, and to sculpture. For him, dance was a significant creative unlocking.
“This is the revelation of the great mystery,” he wrote: “how to express movement in something that is at rest.”
“Rodin and Dance,” on from April 7 to July 22 at the Rodin Museum in Paris, is a survey of Rodin’s research on dance. Curated by Christine Lancestremère, the curator of cultural heritage at the Rodin Museum, the exhibition takes a broad overview of the ways in which Rodin was inspired by dance, including photographs of the dancers, his sketches of them, his clay models, and more finished sculptural casts. Nearly every work is from the museum’s permanent collection, but it’s enough to provide a surprisingly broad overview.
There is, for instance, a relatively large section dedicated to Greek and Roman antiquities that Rodin owned, including a marble pillar with a complex inset of dancing revelers, entitled “Dionysian Scene and Dancing Maenad” from the end of the second century of the Common Era, which shows the madness and freedom of movement that Rodin would come to prize in his own sculptures. He was also interested in what might be considered the “dance radicals,” like Duncan and Nijinsky (had Martha Graham been around he no doubt would have fallen for her as well) and the sketches on show depict these radicals in a variety of highly flexible, geometric positions.
But it is his interest in abstraction, more than anything else, that characterizes this exhibition. In one sketch, he depicts only the torso and lifted arms of the dancer Ruth St. Denis. The sculptures, too, provide a language of abstracted gesture, like the French Symbolist poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, or Arthur Rimbaud that Rodin enjoyed, showing the way in which a single gesture — an outstretched finger, a delicate plié — can hide depths of emotions. The physical body, Rodin argued, can be just as expressive as the mind.
In a small sculpture called “Nijinsky Drawn on a Base Supporting an Assemblage of ‘The Day’,” Rodin depicts the famous dancer without arms or a head, standing straight, with his back turned, in a gesture that conjures both Ancient Greek sculpture and the perfection of dance posture. Anatomy — at least for his male figures — always meant very little compared with the overall energy of the shape. Although Nijinsky is voided of his arms and head, the shape of him still conjures power, as if he’s about to explode off the sculpture’s base at any moment. Likewise, in “The Juggler or the Acrobat,” both those in the scene — a juggler holding an acrobat up using only his feet — and Rodin himself show how balance informs both dance and sculpture.
Some of the included works seem like a stretch, like “Deity with a Tree Evoking the River Goddess Ganga and Shiva” and “The Warrior Goddess Durga, Shiva’s Wife in Her Fierce Form” — wooden sculptures from sometime between the 17th and 18th centuries that depict busty wooden sculpted goddesses from southern India. The idea is to show a variety and a history of depictions of movement. But it’s an odd middle ground to take between the works of antiquity and the works of the early 20th century, and —relegated to two wooden sculptures and three photos in a back corner — they seem tacked on, as if to “round out” the exhibition rather than to add anything of fundamental value.
Much of Rodin’s interest in these dancers comes across as more than a little untoward. Rodin’s interest in female anatomy became a joke to many of his friends at the time, and although these more vulgar sketches weren’t exhibited while he was alive, his relationship with them gained him the clichéd reputation of the older man with an appetite for the delicate ingénue. Duncan said that he “ran his hands over my neck, breast... began to knead my whole body as if it were clay.” Even men weren’t keen on dealing with Rodin’s predilections. Prince Eugen of Sweden and Norway, who was interested in buying a cast of “The Thinker,” decided against visiting Rodin’s atelier in person because he thought he might be forced to “admire his naked ladies.”
Likewise, the biographies of the dancers provided in the opening room are intriguing, but it’s a context that’s ultimately superfluous to Rodin’s purposes. His sketches and moldings are inherently improvisational. He was always adept at working quickly, sketching his models without pulling his pencil from the paper. He worked quickly in clay sculpture as well, even calling himself “a prodigiously swift hand.” He had little interest in who the dancers were as humans, only in the shapes and gestures they could make.
It took him nearly his entire career to begin working with dancers, but, once he did, he found that their interest in movement, in elegance, in balance were the same interests he’d always had with sculpture. Edgar Degas had discovered how the swift movements of dancers could be foundational to Impressionism, but it is Rodin who largely revealed their ability to unlock abstraction.
“Rodin and Dance” is on view at the Musée Rodin in Paris through July 22.
Click on the slideshow for a sneak peek at the exhibition.
Founder Louise Blouin