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Rodin’s unsettling touch

His study of Balzac was boldly radical

(Erik Gould/Courtesy Rhode Island School of Design)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

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PROVIDENCE — Auguste Rodin was one of the most radical artists in history. It’s easy to forget this because, although he was indisputably the first great modern sculptor, he also was the last great old master. Rightly or wrongly, there’s something benign and unthreatening about old masters.

To make it worse, Rodin’s sculptures are all but ubiquitous in major museums: In any given room of 19th-century paintings, it seems there’s about a 1-in-3 chance that the sculpture you back into to get a better look at the Monet will be a Rodin. And, of course, the Rodin Museum in Paris is everyone’s favorite — the most intimate, restful, and romantic museum in that city.

Why then, instead of lulling us, should Rodin make us nervous?

This magnificent beast of a sculpture is one reason why. You can find it in the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art. It’s a sculpture of the great writer Honoré de Balzac, and it was Rodin’s response to a commission for a Balzac statue that was to be installed in front of the Théâtre Français, in Paris.

Were those who commissioned it expecting something along these lines?

Not a chance. The writer’s nakedness was just one feature they weren’t prepared for. His preposterous corpulence was another. Even more, his folded arms and clenched, scissoring legs combined to form a pose that was simply unprecedented in the history of art.

Balzac (1799-1850) had been dead 40 years. The sculpture was the upshot of seven years of research, during which Rodin immersed himself in Balzac’s writings, staring at his daguerreotype portrait, measuring his clothing, and much more. He produced 22 studies for the head, and seven for the nude body.

None of this mattered. The work was rejected.

Rodin tried again, this time draping the full-length figure, with only slightly more decorousness, in a monk’s robe — the equivalent of a dressing gown — which Balzac famously wore while writing.

This work, too, was rejected (although it was later installed at a major intersection in Paris). The double defeat left Rodin profoundly dejected, and reluctant to take on more public commissions.

This original attempt remains the boldest, the most electrifying, the best of all his treatments of the subject. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke described the head of the “Balzac’’ as “living at the summit of the figure like those balls that dance on jets of water.’’

Balzac’s stance, as Leo Steinberg pointed out in his great essay on Rodin, is “profoundly unclassical’’: both legs planted far apart, toes at an angle to the body, awkward balance.

There’s an aspect to the work that’s quite openly funny (though not mocking). It reminds me of the Chinese tradition of depicting “luohan,’’ enlightened disciples of the Buddha, with craggy, leering features, overgrown eyebrows and deformed skulls, or of the Zen tradition of depicting Bodhidharma as bug-eyed, big-bellied, bearded, and bald.

Respectability, in other words, is sterilizing. Greatness is promiscuous, provisional, indecorous, ugly. Forceful but rarely fluent.

Artists like Degas, Matisse, Henri Laurens, and Picasso, to name but a few, were profoundly indebted to Rodin’s radicalism, his ability to find sculptural forms to express inward psychological states. “Rodin,’’ as Steinberg wrote, “restored to inward experience what had been for at least a century a branch of public relations.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

STUDY FOR THE MONUMENT TO BALZAC Auguste Rodin

At: Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence, 401-454-6500, www.risdmuseum.org