ONE late afternoon, when I was with Rodin in his atelier, darkness set in while we talked.
” Have you ever looked at an antique statue by lamplight? ” my host suddenly demanded.
” No, never,” I answered, with some surprise.
” I astonish you. You seem to consider the idea of studying sculpture excepting by daylight as an odd whim. Of course you can get the effect as a whole better by daylight. But, wait a moment. I want to show you a kind of experiment which will doubtless prove instructive.”
He lighted a lamp as he spoke, took it in his hand, and led me towards a marble statue which stood upon a pedestal in a corner of the atelier.
It was a delightful little antique copy of the Venus di Medici. Rodin kept it there to stimulate his own inspiration while he worked.
” Come nearer,” he said.
Holding the lamp at the side of the statue and as close as possible, he threw the full light upon the body.
” What do you notice? ” he asked.
At the first glance I was extraordinarily struck by what was suddenly revealed to me.
The light so directed, indeed, disclosed numbers of slight projections and depressions upon the surface of the marble which I should never have suspected. I said so to Rodin.
” Good! ” he cried approvingly; then, ” Watch closely.”
At the same time he slowly turned the moving stand which supported the Venus. As he turned, I still noticed in the general form of the body a multitude of almost imperceptible roughnesses. What had at first seemed simple was really of astonishing complexity. Rodin threw up his head smiling.
” Is it not marvellous?” he cried. ” Confess that you did not expect to discover so much detail. Just look at these numberless undulations of the hollow which unites the body to the thigh. Notice all the voluptuous curvings of the hip. And now, here, the adorable dimples along the loins.”
He spoke in a low voice, with the ardor of a devotee, bending above the marble as if he loved it.
” It is truly flesh ! ” he said.
And beaming, he added: ” You would think it moulded by kisses and caresses ! ” Then, suddenly, laying his hand on the statue, ” You almost expect, when you touch this body, to find it warm.”
A few moments later he said:
” Well, what do you think now of the opinion usually held on Greek art? They say it is espedaily the academic school which has spread abroad this idea that the ancients, in their cult of the ideal, despised the flesh as low and vulgar, and that they refused to reproduce in their works the thou-sand details of material reality.
” They pretend that the ancients wished to teach Nature by creating an abstract beauty of simplified form which should appeal only to the intellect and not consent to flatter the senses. And those who talk like this take examples which they imagine they find in antique art as their authority for correcting, for emasculating nature, reducing it to contours so dry, cold, and meagre that they have nothing in common with the truth.
” You have just proved how much they are mistaken.
” Without doubt the Greeks with their power-fully logical minds instinctively accentuated the essential. They accented the dominant traits of the human type; nevertheless they never sup-pressed living detail. They were satisfied to envelop it and melt it into the whole. As they were enamoured of calm rhythms, they involuntarily subjected all secondary reliefs which should disturb the serenity of a movement; but they carefully refrained from entirely obliterating them.
” They never made a method out of falsehood.
” Full of respect and love for Nature, they always represented her as they saw her. And on every occasion they passionately testified their worship of the flesh. For it is madness to believe that they despised it. Among no other people has the beauty of the human body excited a more sensuous tenderness. A transport of ecstasy seems to hover over all the forms that they modelled.
” Thus is explained the unbelievable difference which separates the false academic ideal from Greek art. While among the ancients the generalization of lines is totalization, a result made up of all the details, the academic simplification is an impoverishment, an empty bombastry. While life animates and warms the palpitating muscles of the Greek statues, the inconsistent dolls of academic art look as if they were chilled by death.”
He was silent for a time, then
” I will tell you a great secret. Do you know how the impression of actual life, which we have just felt before that Venus, is produced?
“By the science of modelling.
” These words seem banal to you, but you will soon gauge their importance.
” The science of modelling was taught me by one Constant, who worked in the atelier where I made my debut as a sculptor. One day, watching me model a capital ornamented with foliage ‘ Rodin,’ he said to me, ` you are going about that in the wrong way. All your leaves are seen flat. That is why they do not look real. Make some with the tips pointed at you, so that, in seeing them, one has the sensation of depth.’ I followed his advice and I was astounded at the result that I obtained. ` Always remember what I am about to tell you,’ went on Constant. Henceforth, when you carve, never see the form in length, but always in thickness. Never consider a surface except as the extremity of a volume, as the point, more or less large, which it directs towards you. In that way you will acquire the science of ‘modelling.’
” This principle was astonishingly fruitful to me. I applied it to the execution of figures. Instead of imagining the different parts of a body as surfaces more or less flat, I represented them as projectures of interior volumes. I forced myself to express in each swelling of the torso or of the limbs the efflorescence of a muscle or of a bone which lay deep beneath the skin. And so the truth of my figures, instead of being merely superficial, seems to blossom from within to the outside, like life itself.
” Now I have discovered that the ancients practised precisely this method of modelling. And it is certainly to this technique that their works owe at once their vigor and their palpitating suppleness.”
Rodin contemplated afresh his exquisite Greek Venus. And suddenly he said:
” In your opinion, Gsell, is color a quality of painting or of sculpture? ”
” Of painting, naturally.”
” Well, then, just look at this statue.”
So saying, he raised the lamp as high as he could in order to light the antique torso from above.
” Just see the high lights on the breasts, the heavy shadows in the folds of the flesh, and then this paleness, these vaporous half-tones, trembling over the most delicate portions of this divine body, these bits so finely shaded that they seem to dissolve in air. What do you say to it? Is it not a great symphony in black and white? ”
I had to agree.
” As paradoxical as it may seem, a great sculptor is as much a colorist as the best painter, or rather, the best engraver.
” He plays so skilfully with all the resources of relief, he blends so well the boldness of light with the modesty of shadow, that his sculptures please one as much as the most charming etchings.
” Now color it is to this remark that I wished to lead is the flower of fine modelling. These two qualities always accompany each other, and it is these qualities which give to every masterpiece of the sculptor the radiant appearance of living flesh.”