Rodin – Phidias And Michael Angelo

ONE Saturday evening Rodin said to me, ” Come and see me tomorrow morning at Meudon. We will talk of Phidias and of Michael Angelo, and I will model statuettes for you on the principles of both. In that way you will quickly grasp the essential differences of the two inspirations, or, to express it better, the opposed characteristics which divide them.”

Phidias and Michael Angelo judged and commented upon by Rodin! It is easy to imagine that I was exact to the hour of our meeting.

The Master sat down before a marble table and clay was brought to him. It was winter, and as the great atelier was unheated, I was afraid that he might take cold. But the attendant to whom I suggested this smiled as he answered, ” Never, when he works.”

And my disquietude vanished when I saw the fever which seized the Master when he began to knead the clay. He had asked me to sit down beside him. Rolling balls of clay on the table, he began rapidly to model a figure, talking at the same time.

” This first figure,” he said, ” will be founded on the conception of Phidias. When I pronounce that name I am really thinking of all Greek sculpture, which found its highest expression in the genius of Phidias.”

The clay figure was taking shape. Rodin’s hands came and went, adding bits of clay; gathering it in his large palms, with swift, accurate movements; then the thumb and the fingers took part, turning a leg with a single pressure, rounding a hip, sloping a shoulder, turning the head, and all with incredible swiftness, almost as if he were performing a conjuring trick. Occasionally the Master stopped a moment to study his work, reflected, decided, and then rapidly executed his idea.

I have never seen any one work so fast; evidently sureness of mind and eye ends by giving an ease to the hand of a great artist which can only be compared to the adroitness of a juggler, or, to make a comparison with a more honored profession, to the skill of a great surgeon. And this facility, far from excluding precision and vigor, involves them, and has, consequently, nothing whatever to do with a superficial virtuosity.

While I drew these conclusions, Rodin’s statuette grew into life. It was full of rhythm, one hand on the hip, the other arm falling gracefully at her side and the head bent.

” I am not fatuous enough to believe that this quick sketch is as beautiful as an antique,” the Master said, laughing, ” but don’t you find that it gives you a dim idea of it? ”

” I could swear that it was the copy, of a Greek marble,” I answered.

“Well, then, let us examine it and see from what this resemblance arises. My statuette offers, from head to feet, four planes which are alternatively opposed.

” The plane of the shoulders and chest leads towards the left shoulder — the plane of the lower half of the body leads towards the right side — the plane of the knees leads again towards the left knee, for the knee of the right leg, which is bent, comes ahead of the other — and finally, the foot of this same right leg is back of the left foot. So, I repeat, you can note four directions in my figure which produce a very gentle undulation through the whole body.

” This impression of tranquil charm is equally given by the balance of the figure. A plumb-line through the middle of the neck would fall on the inner ankle bone of the left foot, which bears all the weight of the body. The other leg, on the contrary, is free — only its toes touch the ground and so only furnish a supplementary support; it could be lifted without disturbing the equilibrium. The pose is full of abandon and of grace.

” There is another thing to notice. The upper part of the torso leans to the side of the leg which supports the body. The left shoulder is, thus, at a lower level than the other. But, as opposed to it, the left hip, which supports the whole pose, is raised and salient. So, on this side of the body the shoulder is nearer the hip, while on the other side the right shoulder, which is raised, is separated from the right hip, which is lowered. This recalls the movement of an accordion, which closes on one side and opens on the other.

” This double balance of the shoulders and of the hips contributes still more to the calm elegance of the whole.

” Now look at my statuette in profile.

” It is bent backwards ; the back is hollowed and the chest slightly expanded. In a word, the figure is convex and has the form of the letter C.

” This form helps it to catch the light, which is distributed softly over the torso and limbs and so adds to the general charm. Now the different peculiarities which we see in this statuette may be noted in nearly all antiques. Without doubt, there are numerous variations, doubtless there are some derogations from these fundamental principles; but in the Greek works you will always find most of the characteristics which I have indicated.

” Now translate this technical system into spiritual terms ; you will then recognize that antique art signifies contentment, calm, grace, balance, reason.” Rodin cast a glance at his figure. ” I could carry it further,” he said, ” but it would be only to amuse us, because, as it stands, it has sufficed me for my demonstration. The details, moreover, would add very little to it. And now, by the way, an important truth. When the planes of a figure are well placed, with decision and intelligence, all is done, so to speak; the whole effect is obtained; the refinements which come after might please the spectator, but they are almost superfluous. This science of planes is common to all great epochs; it is almost ignored today.”

Pushing aside the clay figure, he went on: ” Now I will do you another after Michael Angelo.”

He did not proceed at all in the same way as for the first. He turned the two legs of the figure to the same side and the torso to the opposite side. He bent the body forward; he folded one arm close against the body and placed the other be-hind the head. The attitude thus evoked offered a strange appearance of effort and of torture. Rodin had fashioned this sketch as quickly as the preceding one, only crushing his balls of clay with more vigor and putting almost frenzy into the strokes of his thumb.

” There! ” he cried. ” What do you think of it? ”

” I should take it for a copy of a Michael Angelo — or rather for a replica of one of his works. What vigor, what tension of the muscles ! ”

” Now! Follow my explanation. Here, instead of four planes, you have only two; one for the upper half of the statuette and the other, opposed, for the lower half. This gives at once a sense of violence and of constraint — and the result is a striking contrast to the calm of the antiques.

“Both legs are bent, and consequently the weight of the body is divided between the two in-stead of being borne exclusively by one. So there is no repose here, but work for both the lower limbs.

” Besides, the hip corresponding to the leg which bears the lesser weight is the one which is the more raised, which indicates that the body is pushing this way.

” Nor is the torso less animated. Instead of resting quietly, as in the antique, on the most prominent hip, it, on the contrary, raises the shoulder on the same side so as to continue the movement of the hip.

” Now note that the concentration of the effort places the two limbs one against the other, and the two arms, one against the body and the other against the head. In this way there is no space left between the limbs and the body. You see none of those openings which, resulting from the freedom with which the arms and legs were placed, gave lightness to Greek sculpture. The art of Michael Angelo created statues all of a size, in a block. He said himself that only those statues were good which could be rolled from the top of a mountain without breaking; and in his opinion all that was broken off in such a fall was superfluous.

” His figures surely seem carved to meet this test; but it is certain that not a single antique could have stood it; the greatest works of Phidias, of Praxiteles, of Polycletus, of Scopas and of Lysippus would have reached the foot of the hill in pieces.

” And that proves how a formula which may be profoundly true for one artistic school may be false for another.

” A last important characteristic of my statuette is that it is in the form of a console; the knees constitute the lower protuberance; the re-treating chest represents the concavity, the bent head the upper jutment of the console. The torso is thus arched forward instead of backward as in antique art. It is that which produces here such deep shadows in the hollow of the chest and beneath the legs.

” To sum it up, the greatest genius of modern times has celebrated the epic of shadow, while the ancients celebrated that of light. And if we now seek the spiritual significance of the technique of Michael Angelo, as we did that of the Greeks, we shall find that his sculpture expressed restless energy, the will to act without the hope of success – in fine, the martyrdom of the creature tormented by unrealizable aspirations.

” You know that Raphael, during one period of his life, tried to imitate Michael Angelo. He did not succeed. He could not discover the secret of the condensed passion of his rival. It was because he was formed by the Greek school, as is proved by that divine trio of the Graces at Chantilly, in which he copied an adorable antique group at Siena. Without knowing it, he constantly re-turned to the principles of the masters he preferred. Those of his figures in which he wished to put most strength always kept the rhythm and gracious balance of the Hellenic masterpieces.

” When, I went to Italy myself, with my head full of the Greek models which I had so passionately studied at the Louvre, I found myself completely disconcerted before the Michael Angelos. They constantly contradicted all those truths which I believed that I had definitely acquired. ` Look here,’ I said to myself, ` why this incurvation of the body, this raised hip, this lowered shoulder?’ I was very much upset.

” And yet Michael Angelo could not have been mistaken ! I had to understand. I kept at it and I succeeded.

” To tell the truth, Michael Angelo does not, as is often contended, hold a unique place in art.

He is the culmination of all Gothic thought. It is generally said that the Renaissance was the resurrection of pagan rationalism and its victory over the mysticism of the Middle Ages. This is only half true. The Christian spirit continued to in-spire a number of the artists of the Renaissance, among others, Donatello, the painter Ghirlandajo, who was the master of Michael Angelo, and Buonarotti himself.

” He is manifestly the descendant of the image-makers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. You constantly find in the sculpture of the Middle Ages this form of the console to which I called your attention. There you find this same restriction of the chest, these limbs glued to the body, and this attitude of effort. There you find above all a melancholy which regards life as a transitory thing to which we must not cling.”

As I thanked my host for his precious instruction, he said : ” We must complete it one of these days by a visit to the Louvre. Don’t forget to remind me.” At this moment a servant announced Anatole France, whom Rodin was expecting. The master sculptor had invited the great writer to come and admire his collection of antiques.

They formed a great contrast to each other. Anatole France is tall and thin. His face is long and fine; his black eyes are set deep in their sockets ; his hands are delicate and slender; his gestures are vivacious and emphasize all the play of his irony. Rodin is thick-set, he has strong shoulders, his face is broad; his dreamy eyes, often half-closed, open wide at times and disclose pupils of clear blue. His beard gives him the look of one of Michael Angelo’s prophets. His movements are slow and dignified. His large hands, with short fingers, are strongly supple.

The one is the personification of deep and witty analysis, the other of passion and strength.

The sculptor led us to his antiques, and the conversation naturally returned to the subject which we had just been discussing.

A Greek stele roused the admiration of Anatole France. It represented a young woman seated. A man is gazing at her lovingly, and behind her, bending over her shoulders, stands a serving-maid.

” How the Greeks loved life! ” cried the author of Thais. ” See! Nothing on this funeral stone recalls death. The dead woman is here amid the living, and seems still to take part in their existence. Only she has become very weak, and as she can no longer stand she must remain seated. It is one of the characteristics which designate the dead on these antique monuments : their limbs being without strength, they must lean upon a staff, or against a wall, or else sit down.

” There is also another detail which frequently distinguishes them. While the living who are figured around them all regard them with tenderness, their own eyes wander far and rest on no one. They no longer see those who see them. Yet they continue to live like beloved invalids among those who cherish them. And this half-presence, this half-absence, is the most touching expression of the regret which, according to the ancients, the light of day inspired in the dead.”

Rodin’s collection of antiques is large and well chosen. He is especially proud of a Hercules, whose vigorous slimness filled us with enthusiasm. It is a statue which does not in the least resemble the huge Farnese Hercules. It is marvellously graceful. The demi-god, in all his proud youth, has a body and limbs of extreme slenderness.

” This is indeed,” said our host, ” the hero who outran the Arcadian stag with the brazen hooves. The heavy athlete of Lysippus would not have been capable of such -a feat of prowess. Strength is often allied to grace, and true grace is strong; a double truth of which this Hercules is a proof. As you see, the son of Alcmene seems even more robust because his body is harmoniously proportioned.”

Anatole France stopped before a charming little torso of a goddess. ” This,” he said, ” is one of the numberless chaste Aphrodites which were more or less free reproductions of Praxiteles’ master-piece, the Cnidian Venus. The Venus of the Capitol and the Venus di Medici are, among others, only variations of this much-copied model.

” Among the Greeks, many excellent sculptors spent their skill in imitating the work of some master who had preceded them. They modified the general idea but slightly, and only showed their own personality in the science of the execution. It would seem, besides, that devotional zeal, becoming fond of a sculptural image, forbade artists afterwards to change it. Religion fixes once and for all the divine types that it adopts. We are astonished to find so many chaste Venuses, so many crouching Venuses. We forget that these statues were sacred. In a thousand or two thousand years they will exhume in the same way numbers of statues of the Virgin of Lourdes, all much alike, with a white robe, a rosary, and a blue girdle.”

” What a kindly religion this of the Greeks must have been,” I cried, ” which offered such charming forms to the adoration of its worshippers! ”

” It was beautiful,” Anatole France replied, ” since it has left us these Venuses; but do not believe that it was kindly. It was intolerant and tyrannical, like all forms of pious fervor. In the name of these Aphrodites of quivering flesh many noble souls were tortured. In the name of Olympus the Athenians offered the cup of hemlock to Socrates. And do you recall that verse of Lucretius : —

` Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum ! ‘

” You see, if the gods of antiquity are sympathetic to us to-day it is because, fallen, they can no longer harm us.”