Together and apart: Fragmentation and completion in Auguste Rodin

April 25, 2018, 3:00 a.m.

So many of Auguste Rodin’s forms seem to be characterized by what they are not: the woman with the stub of a shoulder and severed head, the backward curve of her back, suggesting what? A lover leaning over her, bestowing upon her (as I cannot cease imagining) a gentle caress? A strobe of sunlight dipping into the hollow of her neck? We do not know, nor, in Rodin’s opinion, must we. In his eyes, Cybele’s “beheadedness” is not in fact such a lack: “Beauty is like God,” he posits, “a fragment of beauty is complete” (Elsen 174). Rodin’s admirer and famed advisor to the young poet, Rilke, places the artist’s work against the artistic zeitgeist of the 1900s, in which he claims “artist’s best work…presupposed the entire figure.” However, his defense of Rodin’s work effusively recapitulates the artist’s own sentiments: “Every part of the figure is instinct with the central idea, every detail of hand and foot is an epitome of the whole and the final composition of those parts is often a matter of doubt” (Elsen 173). Frederick Ruckstull, for instance, cast a more critical eye on Rodin’s forms, calling them “hacked” and “mutilated.”  For Rilke, a failure to understand this “completeness” comes from “a narrow minded pedantry which says that arms are a necessary part of a body and that a body without arms cannot be perfect” (Elsen 180).

Modernist sculptor and critic Jacques Lipchitz realized the potential of Rodin’s fragmentation only upon returning to the sculptures, ten years after his initial visit. He describes his evolution in the foreword to Albert Elsen’s book, “Rodin”: “At that moment I understood…Figures without arms and heads were endowed with a sense of mystery and one needed imagination to complete the figure” (Elsen, “Homage”).

Surely, mystery, and fragmentation — from Sappho to Pompeii to Tintern Abbey — are linked,  and like all fragments, Rodin’s forms imply. Sappho’s poems, for instance, are richer for all their lacunae, because we import ourselves into the emptiness (I see myself in the space between the lovers — for who hasn’t found jealous longing slipping into her “tender bosom”?). Or perhaps it is that unfilled spaces allow for sublime, endless creation: the ruins of a castle are so much more exciting because they space they allow for our imaginative imposition  (a once physical grandeur emerges on our mental horizon, revealing from an upper window a figure surrounded by dragon-guarded moats, all elements afforded in the spaces unclaimed by matter). As seen, couched within that term “imagination” comes interpretation. There are multiple possibilities — like my initial visions of the inclined beloved and the groping sunbeams. And we don’t need Lipchitz in order to interpret the agony that contorts the figures within the portal in “The Gates of Hell” or the the pious crouch of the Prayer’s torso.  (“Rodin Collection.”)

Some of Rodin’s sculptures seem to defy his tendency toward fragmentation. Among these, “The Thinker” most prominently crouches. The bronze sculpture, a prized member of the Cantor Collection, could easily be hailed as a specimen of aesthetic wholeness: He has a head, and any pedant could be perfectly pleased with the status quo of his five-fingered hand. And while many critics and passersby consider him a symbol of purely mental contemplation, Rodin describes his “Thinker”’s rumination as paradoxically embodied: “What makes my thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, legs, with his clenched fist and gripped toes” (Elsen 37). His form suggests a sort of continuous, inward turn, a cross-body kneel, an entanglement of mind and spirit and sinew; at once, he is a physical embodiment of the mental process and a recognition of the false distinction between the two, and this conflation contributes to his sense of aesthetic completion.

But this visual wholeness is deceptive when considered in its contextual entirety — for history raises questions about the nature of fragmentation and wholeness, for “The Thinker”’s clenched toes and open nostrils have been enlarged and separated from his original placement atop “The Gates of Hell.” Rodin tells us its Creation story:

“In the days long gone by, I conceived the idea of The Gates of Hell. Before the door, seated on a rock, Dante, thinking of the plan of his poem. Behind him … all the characters of The Divine Comedy. This project was not realized. Thin, ascetic Dante separated from the whole would have been without meaning. Guided by my first inspiration, I conceived of another thinker, a naked man sitting upon a rock, his feet drawn under him, his fist against his teeth, he dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer dreamer, he is creator” (Elsen 37).

In its renaming and its estrangement from Dante’s “ascetic” figure, this naked man is detached from literary history. On his own, he becomes something new; as Elsen puts it, “The Thinker” is “offspring” of “The Gates of Hell (Elsen 57).

As Elsen notes, Rodin’s themes of “maternity and exchange of affections between brothers and sisters” and Rodin himself claims “must learn to reproduce the surface,” our contemplative man cannot seem to escape the language of a Creation (Elsen 57). Perhaps Lipchitz, whose fragmentary revelations we have already parsed, puts the matter best when he says that Rodin “is a tempest, an explosion. All theories are toppled, only the complexity of living persists with this instinctive thirst for procreation.” And procreation is the word for Rodin not only cast the single mold for the bronze enlargement, but our beloved Cantor-roofed “The Thinker” has 24 twins (though their precise number is debated) who change over time. Perhaps then, we can tie the “Creator” to the figure of Rodin himself, who is in the end not a thinker but a maker, or perhaps a parent. “The Thinker” becomes not only a piece of art but also a product of this creation. He is a child — Rodin’s child; he exists along with his 20-some twins and his hundreds more (bizarre, occasionally headless) siblings.

It could be argued that any relationship between artist and art is one of “parent-child.” Elsen even suggests that Rodin’s “The Thinker” represents the figure of “the artist.” I don’t disagree but do want to suggest that Rodin’s orientation toward sculpture embodies a very specific kind of artist: the mother; a figure that evokes the work of later, modernist artist, Virginia Woolf. 

No one better embodies this type than the focal character of Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” Mrs. Ramsay. The quintessential maternal figure, she has also been compared to an artist — a social artist. And while Mrs. Ramsay is restricted by the expectations of maternal affections placed on women in her time (as Rodin, as a man, was not), I think we can still learn about Rodin’s relationship with his own “children” of sorts through an investigation of Mrs. Ramsay’s maternal artistry, which derives not from her creation of literal “artwork” but rather her social intuition, her ability to bring people together. Without her, for instance her husband turns “all in scraps and fragments” at her dinner party, later “helping [another character] Mr. Bankes to a specially tender piece of eternity” (Woolf 83). As she is generous to the point of self-deprivation, she does what Rodin claimed is the role of the artist: to “give [her] delighted fellow beings a thousand unsuspected shades of feelings … new reason for loving life, new inner lights to guide them,” everyone connected as a whole; this glue-like social quality is facilitated by aesthetic, intuitive awareness of the world (Elsen 40).

Mrs. Ramsay is caught between experiencing eternity in a little moment and finding the present to be transient, out of her hands. At the same dinner scene, she thinks, “something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out … in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby … Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures” (Woolf 105). Like Rodin, who makes something whole of what is partial, the social artist makes something lasting within ephemerality. And yet, when she thinks of her children, “She would have liked to keep for ever just as they were, demons of wickedness, angels of delight, never to see them grow up into long-legged monsters” (Woolf 54). The parallel between this description and some of Rodin’s work is uncanny — the demonic figures intertwining in that amniotic anguish of the Gates, something of the simultaneously tarnished and pure “Fallen Angel” and foreshadowing an inevitable aging (“The Fallen Angel”). And as she exits the dinner scene, Mrs. Ramsay realizes this inevitable moment: “Even as she looked, and then … [the scene] changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past” (Woolf 111). The moment shifts, and like the figures in Rodin’s sculpture garden, “As the light changes so do all the interrelationships among the doors’ components” (Rilke, on Rodin, Elsen 41).

Mrs. Ramsay realizes a shared experience of mother and creator: Both must surrender control over their creation to the molding fingers of time as what they have made inevitably changes with its experience and influence. We witness this phenomenon in “Time Passes,” the next section of the book in which the Ramsay’s house empties and darkens, Mrs. Ramsay dying suddenly in the arms of Mr. Ramsay. Literally, the sentence is bracketed as if to shift the agency of the first section from human to temporal — everything is subjected to the motion of time. Mrs. Ramsay dies not only bracketed by the arms of Mr. Ramsay but by history itself. More than being forgotten, she is re-situated in a place of remembrance, no longer Mrs. Ramsay but the impression of Mrs. Ramsay, the legacy of Mrs. Ramsay (her children, her family). And yet on its sinuous route, time also kills Mrs. Ramsay’s daughter Prue in childbirth, her own act of maternal Creation. So too does it kill her son Andrew in World War One. Time passing brings fragmentation, and as human form is disfigured, doubt is cast on the unbroken endurance of the family unit, which is after all the product of the social artist and the mother’s territory.

Time passes, too, for Rodin’s 24 twins, changing them unalterably, independently, and fragmenting the family unit. Geographically, the siblings were split after their casting and sent around the world, ending up in Musee de Rodin in France, or in Argentina, or Pasadena. One adventurous mind crossed the pond to St.Louis 1904 World’s Fair. Even our Cantor’s version, donated by the Cantor foundation in 1988, studied off campus for a few years in North Carolina (“‘The Thinker’ by Auguste Rodin Returns”, Wander). Physically they have been separated, like children at birth, or sent off to college. More than being geographically disparate, these siblings, who started out so aesthetically similar have come to embody different physically realities, and to wear the markings of time on the (metaphorical) sleeves of their sculpted forms.

On March 24, 1970, for instance, in an act of more overt fragmentation, a bomb struck the base of the Cleveland Museum’s “The Thinker,” leaving his feet disfigured. A rupture extends into the side of his hollowed calf, from which the shredded tendril of an ankle extends. Like with all fragments, narrative floods into our minds to fill the spaces in “The Thinker”’s body: one is reminded of a Woolfian scene from the mid 1910s, “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous]” (Woolf 133). The motives of the bombers are unconfirmed, but the act of terrorism took place in a time rife with anti-Vietnam bombings, violent in their own right. Unlike its wholesome Stanford counterpart, this “Thinker” no longer thinks with his whole body—for while his clenched fist remains, his gripped toes do not. He comes to represent the son sent off to war, damaged by grotesque acts of violence. The museum recognized this new reality by deciding not to replace the cast or to repairs the damage, but rather to place the sculpture outside and display it in its new, crippled form (“Rodin’s The Thinker.”)

Another “Thinker” sat for many years across the country, in the lobby of the World Trade Centers. During the September 11th attacks, he was lost. An article by the New York Times details the dislocation of three Rodin sculptures, that “tumbled a quarter-mile before coming to uneasy rest in the fresh hot debris”. Of the three, two (“Burgher of Calais” and “The Three Shades”) were found, though in disfigured states. These come to represent for us violence against nation, violence against innocents; the fragmented sculptures were turned into memorials for the victims. Missing from the debris, and from the memorial, is our “Thinker.” To this day, I cannot find any documentation of this “Thinker” being found. His absence represents something of the mystery, the senselessness of the act. Barry and Rashram put it precisely when they say “These sculptures continue to intrigue, though in ways never imagined by their maker.” (Barry, Dan, and William K. Rashbaum).

The maker himself now lies in Meudon, France, where he lived until the end of his life. It is the place of his grave and his wife’s before him. A picture in Elsen’s “Rodin,” shows a black and white crowd clustered around a burial site, overlooked by “The Thinker” as Rodin’s dreamer turned creator ponders the death of his own maker. His pose turns solemnly outward – as his downward gaze is cast, like the faceless crowd, toward the grave (Elsen 52).

Of the 25 “Thinkers”, Rodin himself cast fewer than ten himself in his lifetime. The remaining castings  were done posthumously. At least seven or eight of these were from the original series of enlargements that Rodin had begun before his death. The figure’s creation was passed on, to assistants who continued his work. This exchange of hands suggests a separation between artist and art, that aligns with the separation between the mother’s original creation, and the violence, or change that happens to form itself as a figure lives.

When thinking of Rodin as a “mother” then, what are we to do with the fragments of his children? That is, what do we make of these “Thinker” siblings? The connection between Mrs. Ramsay and “The Thinker” suggests parental and artistic relinquishing of control over their creation. So do the unintended fragmentation in Cleveland, of the missing pieces of the World Trade Center, and particularly the placement of “The Thinker” over Rodin’s own burial, beg a question: if it was created aesthetically whole, and later corrupted, does it still conform to Rodin’s vow that even a fragment is complete? Perhaps we have moved, with “The Thinker” and Mrs. Ramsay, into a time where Time is the only authority, and truly incomplete fragments reign supreme. For even though Rodin is an artist interested in parts, these pieces were out of his hands. So too, an ethical question emerges: if Time is the maker, must we understand this figures more thoroughly through a historical lens? Or perhaps, there is a way to hold in one mind these moments of historical significance, and to see these “Thinkers” as just as aesthetically complete as the stippled line that marks the edge of “Cybele’s” invisible, leaning arm.

Contact Emma Heath at ebheath ‘at’

Emma Heath — when not interrupting herself unnecessarily — is an English major. Her long term goals include finding the perfect banana-peanut butter ratio and continuing to read books with pretty words.

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