Rodin – Movement In Art

THERE are two statues by Rodin at the Musee du Luxembourg which especially attract and hold me ; l’Age d’Airain (the Iron Age) and Saint-Jean-Baptiste. They seem even more full of life than the others, if that is possible. The other works of the Master which bear them company are certainly all quivering with truth; they all produce the impression of real flesh, they all breathe, but these move.

One day in the Master’s atelier at Meudon I told him my especial fondness for these two figures.

” They are certainly among those in which I have carried imitative art farthest,” he replied. ” Though I have produced others whose animation is not less striking; for example, my Bourgeois de Calais, my Balzac, my Homme qui marche (Man walking).

” And even in those of my works in which action is less pronounced, I have always sought to give some indication of movement. I have very , rarely represented complete repose. I have always endeavored to express the inner feelings by the mobility of the muscles.

” This is so even in my busts, to which I have often given a certain slant, a certain obliquity, a certain expressive direction, which would emphasize the meaning of the physiognomy.

” Art cannot exist without life. If a sculptor wishes to interpret joy, sorrow, any passion whatsoever, he will not be able to move us unless he first knows how to make the beings live which he evokes. For how could the joy or the sorrow of an inert object—of a block of stone — affect us? Now, the illusion of life is obtained in our art by good modelling and by movement. These two qualities are like the blood and the breath of all good work.”

” Master,” I said, ” you have already talked to me of modelling, and I have noticed that since then I am better able to appreciate the masterpieces of sculpture. I should like to ask a few questions about movement, which, I feel, is not less important.

” When I look at your figure of the Iron Age, who awakes, fills his lungs and raises high his arms ; or at your Saint John, who seems to long to leave his pedestal to carry abroad his words of faith, my admiration is mixed with amazement. It seems to me that there is sorcery in this science which lends movement to bronze. I have also studied other chefs-d’oeuvre of your great predecessors; for example, Marechal Ney and the Marseillaise by Rude, the Dance by Carpeaux, as well as Barye’s wild animals, and I confess that I have never found any satisfactory explanation for the effect which these sculptures produce upon me. I continue to ask myself how such masses of stone and iron can possibly seem to move, how figures so evidently motionless can yet appear to act and even to lend themselves to violent effort.”

” As you take me for a sorcerer,” Rodin answered, ” I shall try to do justice to my reputation by accomplishing a task much more difficult for me than animating bronze — that of explaining how I do it.

” Note, first, that movement is the transition from one attitude to another.

” This simple statement, which has the air of a truism, is, to tell the truth, the key to the mystery.

” You have certainly read in Ovid how Daphne was transformed into a bay-tree and Progne into a swallow. This charming writer shows us the body of the one taking on its covering of leaves and bark and the members of the other clothing themselves in feathers, so that in each of them one still sees the woman which will cease to be and the tree or bird which she will become. You remember, too, how in Dante’s Inferno a serpent, coiling itself about the body of one of the damned, changes into man as the man becomes reptile. The great poet describes this scene so ingeniously that in each of these two beings one follows the struggle between two natures which progressively invade and sup-plant each other.

” It is, in short, a metamorphosis of this kind that the painter or the sculptor effects in giving movement to his personages. He represents the transition from one pose to another — he indicates how insensibly the first glides into the second. In his work we still see a part of what was and we discover a part of what is to be. An example will enlighten you better.

” You mentioned just now the statue of Marshal Ney by Rude. Do you recall the figure clearly? ”

” Yes,” I said. ” The hero raises his sword, shouting ` Forward’ to his troops at the top of his voice.”

” Exactly! Well – when you next pass that statue, look at it still more closely. You will then notice this : the legs of the statue and the hand which holds the sheath of the sabre are placed in the attitude that they had when he drew — the left leg is drawn back so that the sabre may be easily grasped by the right hand, which has just drawn it; and as for the left hand, it is arrested in the air as if still offering the sheath.

Now examine the body. It must have been slightly bent toward the left at the moment when it performed the act which I have described, but here it is erect, here is the chest thrown out, here is the head turning towards the soldiers as it roars out the order to attack; here, finally, is the right arm raised and brandishing the sabre.

” So there you have a confirmation of what I have just said; the movement in this statue is only the change from a first attitude – that which the Marshal had as he drew his sabre — into a second, that which he had as he rushes, arm aloft, upon the enemy.

” In that is all the secret of movement as interpreted by art. The sculptor compels, so to speak, the spectator to follow the development of an act in an individual. In the example that we have chosen, the eyes are forced to travel upward from the lower limbs to the raised arm, and, as in so doing they find the different parts of the figure represented at successive instants, they have the illusion of beholding the movement performed.”

As it happened, the casts of the Iron Age and of Saint John the Baptist stood in the great hall where we were. Rodin asked me to look at them. And I at once recognized the truth of his words.

I noticed that in the first of these works the movement appears to mount, as in the statue of Ney. The legs of the youth, who is not yet fully awake, are still lax and almost vacillating, but as your eye mounts you see the pose become firmer — the ribs rise beneath the skin, the chest expands, the face is lifted towards the sky, and the two arms stretch in an endeavor to throw off their torpor.

The subject of this sculpture is exactly that — the passage from somnolence to the vigor of the being ready for action.

This slow gesture of awakening appears, besides, still more grand when one understands its symbolic meaning. For it represents, as the title of the work indicates, the first palpitation of con-science in a humanity still young, the first victory of reason over the brutishness of the prehistoric ages.

In the same way I next studied Saint John. And I saw that the rhythm of this figure led, as Rodin had said, to a sort of evolution between two balances. The figure leaning, at first, all its weight upon the left foot, which presses the ground with all its strength, seems to balance there while the eyes look to the right. You then see all the body bent in that direction, then the right leg advances and the foot takes hold of the ground. At the same time the left shoulder, which is raised, seems to endeavor to bring the weight of the body to this side in order to aid the leg which is behind to come forward. Now, the science of the sculptor has consisted precisely in imposing all these facts upon the spectator in the order in which I have stated them, so that their succession will give the impression of movement.

Moreover, the gesture of Saint John, like that of the Iron Age, contains a spiritual significance. The prophet moves with an almost automatic solemnity. You almost believe you hear his foot-steps, as you do those in the statue of the Commander. You feel that a force at once mysterious and formidable sustains and impels him. So the act of walking, usually a commonplace movement, here becomes majestic because it is the accomplishment of a divine mission.

” Have you ever attentively examined instantaneous photographs of walking figures? ” Rodin suddenly asked me.

Upon my reply in the affirmative, ” Well, what did you notice? ”

” That they never seem to advance. Generally they seem to rest motionless on one leg or to hop on one foot.”

” Exactly! Now, for example, while my Saint John is represented with both feet on the ground, it is probable that an instantaneous photograph from a model making the same movement would show the back foot already raised and carried toward the other. Or else, on the contrary, the front foot would not yet be on the ground if the back leg occupied in -the photograph the same position as in my statue.

” Now it is exactly for that reason that this model photographed would present the odd appearance of a man suddenly stricken with paralysis and petrified in his pose, as it happened in the pretty fairy story to the servants of the Sleeping Beauty, who were all suddenly struck motionless in the midst of their occupations.

” And this confirms what I have just explained to you on the subject of movement in art. If, in fact, in instantaneous photographs, the figures, though taken while moving, seem suddenly fixed in mid-air, it is because, all parts of the body being reproduced exactly at the same twentieth or fortieth of a second, there is no progressive development of movement as there is in art.”

” I understand you perfectly, Master,” I answered. ” But it seems to me, if you will excuse me for risking the remark, that you contradict yourself.”

” How so?”

” Have you not declared many times to me that the artist ought always to copy nature with the greatest sincerity? ”

” Without doubt, and I maintain it.”

” Well, then, when in the interpretation of movement he completely contradicts photography, which is an unimpeachable mechanical testimony, he evidently alters truth.”

” No,” replied Rodin, ” it is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop, and if the artist succeeds in producing the impression of a movement which takes several moments for accomplishment, his work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image, where time is abruptly suspended.

” It is that which condemns certain modern painters who, when they wish to represent horses galloping, reproduce the poses furnished by instantaneous photography.

” Gericault is criticised because in his picture Epsom Races (Course d’Epsom), which is at the Louvre, he has painted his horses galloping, fully extended, ventre a terre, to use a familiar expression, throwing their fore feet forward and their hind feet backward at the same instant. It is said that the sensitive plate never gives the same effect. And, in fact, in instantaneous photography, when the forelegs of a horse are forward, the hind legs, having by their pause propelled the body onward, have already had time to gather themselves under the body in order to recommence the stride, so that for a moment the four legs are almost gathered together in the air, which gives the animal the appearance of jumping off the ground, and of being motionless in this position.

” Now I believe that it is Gericault who is right, and not the camera, for his horses appear to run; this comes from the fact that the spectator from right to left sees first the hind legs accomplish the effort whence the general impetus results, then the body stretched out, then the forelegs which seek the ground ahead. This is false in reality, as the actions could not be simultaneous ; but it is true when the parts are observed successively, and it is this truth alone that matters to us, because it is that which we see and which strikes us.

” Note besides that painters and sculptors, when they unite different phases of an action in the same figure, do not act from reason or from artifice. They are naively expressing what they feel. Their minds and their hands are as if drawn in the direction of the movement, and they translate the development by instinct. Here, as everywhere in the domain of art, sincerity is the only rule.”

I was silent for several instants, thinking over what he had said.

” Haven’t I convinced you? ” he asked.

” Yes, indeed. But while admiring this miracle of painting and of sculpture which succeeds in condensing the action of several moments into a single figure, I now ask myself how far they can compete with literature, and especially with the theatre, in the notation of movement. To tell the truth, I am inclined to believe that this competition does not go very far, and that on this score the masters of the brush and chisel are necessarily inferior to those of language.”

” Our disadvantage,” he exclaimed, ” is not as great as you would think. If painting and sculpture can endow figures with motion, they are not forbidden to attempt even more. And at times they succeed in equalling dramatic art by presenting in the same picture or in the same sculptural group several successive scenes.”

” Yes,” I replied, ” but they cheat, in a way. For I suppose that you are talking of those old compositions which celebrate the entire history of a personage, representing him several times on the same panel in different situations.

” At the Louvre, for example, a small Italian painting of the fifteenth century relates in this way the story of Europa. You first see the young princess playing in the flowery field with her companions, who help her to mount the bull, Jupiter, and further on the same heroine, terrified now, is carried off through the waves by the god.”

” That is a very primitive method,” Rodin answered, ” though it was practised even by great masters — for example, in the ducal palace at Venice this same fable of Europa has been treated in an identical manner by Veronese. But it is in spite of this defect that Caliari’s painting is admirable, and I did not refer to any such childish method: for, as you may imagine, I disapprove of it. To make myself understood, I must ask you first whether you can call to mind The Embarkation for the Island of Cythera by Watteau.”

” As plainly as if it was before my eyes,” I said.

” Then I shall have no trouble in explaining myself. In this masterpiece the action, if you will notice, begins in the foreground to the right and ends in the background to the left.

” What you first notice in the front of the picture, in the cool shade, near a sculptured bust of Cypris garlanded with roses, is a group composed of a young woman and her adorer. The man wears a cape embroidered with a pierced heart, gracious symbol of the voyage that he would undertake.

” Kneeling at her side, he ardently beseeches his lady to yield. But she meets his entreaties with an indifference perhaps feigned, and appears absorbed in the study of the decorations on her fan. Close to them is a little cupid, sitting half-naked upon his quiver. He thinks that the young woman delays too long, and he pulls her skirt to induce her to be less hard-hearted. But still the pilgrim’s staff and the script of love lie upon the ground. This is the first scene.

” Here is the second: To the left of the group of which I have spoken is another couple. The lady accepts the hand of her lover, who helps her to arise. She has her back to us, and has one of those. blonde napes which Watteau painted with such voluptuous grace.

” A little further is the third scene. The lover puts his arm around his mistress’s waist to draw her with him. She turns towards her companions, whose lingering confuses her, but she allows herself to be led passively away.

” Now the lovers descend to the shore and all push laughing towards the barque; the men no longer need to entreat, the women cling to their arms.

” Finally the pilgrims help their sweethearts on board the little ship, which, decked with flowers and floating pennons of red silk, rocks like a golden dream upon the water. The sailors, leaning on their oars, are ready to row away. And already, borne by the breezes, little cupids fly ahead to guide the travellers towards that azure isle which lies upon the horizon.”

” I see, Master, that you love this picture, for you have remembered every detail,” I said.

” It is a delight that one cannot forget. But have you noted the development of this panto-mime? Truly now, is it the stage? or is it painting? One does not know which to say. You see, then, that an artist can, when he pleases, represent not only fleeting gestures, but a long action, to employ a term of dramatic art.

” In order to succeed, he needs only to place his personages in such a manner that the spectator shall first see those who begin this action, then those who continue it, and finally those who complete it. Would you like an example in sculpture? ”

Opening a book, he searched for a moment and drew out a photograph.

” Here,” he said, ” is the Marseillaise which Rude carved for one of the piers of the Arc de Triomphe.

Liberty, in a breastplate of brass, cleaving the air with unfolded wings, roars in a mighty voice, ` Aux armes, citoyens ! ‘ She raises high her left arm to rally all the brave to her side, and, with the other hand, she points her sword towards the enemy. It is she, beyond question, whom you first see, for she dominates all the work, and her legs, which are wide apart as if she were running, seem like an accent placed above this sublime war-epic. It seems as though one must hear her — for her mouth of stone shrieks as though to burst your ear-drum. But no sooner has she given the call than you see the warriors rush forward. This is the second phase of the action. A Gaul with the mane of a lion shakes aloft his helmet as though to salute the goddess, and here, at his side, is his young son, who begs the right to go with him — ” I am strong enough, I am a man, I want to go! ” he seems to say, grasping the hilt of a sword. ” Come,” says the father, regarding him with tender pride.

” Third phase of the action: a veteran bowed beneath the weight of his equipment strives to join them — for all who have strength enough must march to battle. Another old man, bowed with age, follows the soldiers with his prayers, and the gesture of his hand seems to repeat the counsels that he has given them from his own experience.

” Fourth phase : an archer bends his muscular back to bind on his arms. A trumpet blares its frenzied appeal to the troops. The wind flaps the standards, the lances point forward. The signal is given, and already the strife begins.

” Here, again, we have a true dramatic composition acted before us. But while L’Embarquement pour Cythere recalls the delicate comedies of Marivaux, the Marseillaise is a great tragedy by Corneille. I do not know which of the two works I prefer, for there is as much genius in the one as in the other.”

And, looking at me with a shade of malicious challenge, he added, ” You will no longer say, I think, that sculpture and painting are unable to compete with the theatre? ”

” Certainly not.” At this instant, I saw in the portfolio where he had replaced the reproduction of the Marseillaise, a photograph of his wonderful Burghers of Calais. ” To prove to you,” I said, ” that I have profited by your teaching, let me apply it to one of your most beautiful works, for I see that you have yourself put into practice the principles which you have revealed to me.

” Here, in your Burghers of Calais, I recognize a scenic succession like that which you have cited in the chefs-d’oeuvre of Watteau and of Rude.

” The figure in the centre first attracts attention. No one can doubt that it is Eustache de Saint-Pierre. He bows his venerable head with its long gray hair. He does not hesitate, he is not afraid. He advances steadily, his eyes half closed in silent communion. If he totters a little, it is because of the privations that he has endured during a long siege. It is he who inspires the others, it is he who offered himself first as one of the six notables whose death, according to the conditions of the conqueror, should save their fellow-townsmen from massacre.

” The burgher beside him is not less brave. But if he does not mourn for his own fate, the capitulation of the city causes him terrible sorrow. Holding in his hand the key which he must deliver to the English, he stiffens his whole body in order to find the strength to bear the inevitable humiliation.

” On the same plane with these two, to the left, you see a man who is less courageous, for he walks almost too fast : you would say that, having made up his mind to the sacrifice, he longs to shorten the time which separates him from his martyrdom.

” And behind these comes a burgher who, holding his head in his hands, abandons himself to violent despair. Perhaps he thinks of his wife, of his children, of those who are dear to him, of those whom his going will leave without support.

” A fifth notable passes his hand before his eyes as if to dissipate some frightful nightmare. He stumbles, death so appals him.

” Finally, here is the sixth burgher, younger than the others. He seems still undecided. A painful anxiety contracts his face. Is it the image of his sweetheart that fills his thoughts? But his companions advance — he rejoins them, his neck out-stretched as if offered to the axe of fate.

” While these three men of Calais may be less brave than the three first, they do not deserve less admiration. For their devotion is even more meritorious, because it costs them more.

” So, in your Burghers, one follows the action, more or less prompt, which was the outcome in each one of them according to his disposition of the authority and example of Eustache de Saint-Pierre. One sees them, gradually won by his influence, decide one after another to go forward with him to pay the price of their city.

” There, incontestably, is the best confirmation of your ideas on the scenic value of art.”

” If your opinion of my work were not too high,” Rodin answered, ” I should acknowledge that you had perfectly understood my intentions. You have justly placed my burghers in the scale according to their degrees of heroism. To emphasize this effect still more I wished, as you perhaps know, to fix my statues one behind the other on the stones of the Place, before the Town Hall of Calais, like a living chaplet of suffering and of sacrifice.

My figures would so have appeared to direct their steps from the municipal building toward the camp of Edward III.; and the people of Calais of today, almost elbowing them, would have felt more deeply the tradition of solidarity which unites them to these heroes. It would have been, I believe, intensely impressive. But my proposal was rejected, and they insisted upon a pedestal which is as unsightly as it is unnecessary. They were wrong. I am sure of it.”

Alas,” I said, ” the artist has always to reckon with the routine of opinion, too happy if he can only realize a part of his beautiful dreams!