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The Making of Rodin at Tate Modern - From Plaster to Master

Updated: Jul 16, 2021

Have you ever fantasized about visiting a sculptor’s studio? Well, this is the next best thing! Tate Modern’s major EY Exhibition “The Making of Rodin” partly evokes the atmosphere of the artist’s studio.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Auguste Rodin broke the rules of classical sculpture by creating an image of the human body that mirrored the complexities, ruptures, and uncertainties of modernity. While he is best known for his marble and bronze sculptures, this exhibition is the first to focus on the significance of plaster in his work.

“I began as an artisan to become an artist. That is the good, the only, method.”

Born in a working-class district of Paris, Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) was repeatedly rejected from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, so instead of giving up, he worked as a studio assistant for many years.

In his mid-30s, the still relatively unknown artist started to model The Age of Bronze in clay. By closely examining a young Belgian soldier, Rodin managed to create a sculpture that was so realistic, that he was initially accused of having made the cast straight from the subject’s body instead of sculpting it by hand.

Rodin was deeply offended by the accusations and managed to prove his innocence by commissioning photographs of his subject to shed light on the subtle anatomical differences between his sitter’s figure and the sculpture he created.

It was a turning point in his career that prompted him to only create innovative sculptures that evoked an unprecedented realism, with a full grasp of the anatomical intricacies of the human body. The extraordinary attention to detail was inspired by literature from Dante to Baudelaire, as well as the emotive potential of the female form.

Patience is also a form of action.

The Thinker (Room 1) was originally a part of Rodin’s first major government commission, The Gates of Hell, but as the plans fell through, in 1888 he developed The Thinker as an autonomous work. Like the majority of his sculptures, The Thinker was initially modelled in clay, then cast in plaster. This allowed for its form to be easily copied, enlarged to monumental size, and transposed to marble or bronze.

Fragmentation, Appropriation, and Replication

Room 7 explores Rodin’s fascination with the fragmentary state of ancient Roman and Greek works in collections such as the British Museum’s. Rodin was a fervent collector of ancient artefacts from Rome, Egypt, Greece, Japan, and China. As the early twentieth century saw a booming trade in antiquities, he amassed over 6000 pieces, including Roman amphorae, Etruscan cups, and Naqada vases from Parisian antique dealers. This influenced his works in two key ways.

The Burghers of Calais
The Burghers of Calais

Firstly, in 1895 Rodin began to appropriate a few terracotta vessels in his collection by adding the so-called “floral souls” - small plaster figures, therefore prefiguring cubist collages, surrealist objects, and ready-mades. The only concern was that this use of existing objects was in fact destroying the original ancient artefact.

I invent nothing, I rediscover.

Secondly, for Rodin, the fact that some of these statues had been ravaged by time seemed to amplify their expressive power, so he started to experiment with removing pieces of his own creations. Another novel strategy was to utilize multiple casts of the same figure.

The Three Shades produced by Rodin in 1886 for The Gates of Hell.
The Three Shades (1886) inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy where the shades were the souls of the damned.

For instance, the sculptural group called "The Three Shades" (initially intended for The Gates of Hell) consists of three different replications of the same male, Adam – another radical way of defying the historical emphasis on sculptures as unique works.

"Son of Ugolino, without head"(1904).
"Son of Ugolino, without head"(1904).

Throughout the exhibition, you’ll explore his never-ending creativity because Rodin never rested on his laurels. He consistently revisited existing works to invent new pieces of astonishing vitality. He enlarged and undulated surfaces, leaving visible seams, joints, and nail marks on purpose to allow the viewer to retrace his process of making.

"To the artist, there is never anything ugly in nature."

And if you have a thing for Balzac (the French novelist), you’ll be delighted to see his body replicated almost everywhere. Funny fact: is it just me, or The Three Shadows sculptural group (pic no. 6) could have inspired the choreography for Beyonce’s “All the single ladies”? Only time will tell!

Book your tickets now to see the unique ways in which Rodin captured light, movement, and volume in pliable materials such as plaster and clay. The way he challenged norms and structures through his experimental approach to making continues to inspire generations of artists and makers.

THE MAKING OF RODIN is at 📍 Tate Modern until 21 November 2021 📅 Book tickets here and read the exhibition guide here. _______________________

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