The art world is gearing up for a party on the centenary of the death of French sculptor Auguste Rodin in 2017.
Rodin bequeathed his works and copyrights to the French state, which in turn created the only French national museum that is the legal successor of an artist and able to be self-funding by promoting his work. A prolific artist, the popularity of Rodin’s most famous sculptures tends to obscure the rest of his output. Over several decades, he created thousands of busts and figures and painted in oils and in watercolours. There are also over 7,000 drawings and prints in chalk and charcoal.
Three marble versions of Rodin’s Le Baiser (The Kiss) were made during his lifetime. The earliest is in the collection of the Musée Rodin in Paris, which recently reopened after extensive refurbishment. Previously known as the Hôtel Biron, it was an 18th century palace that later became a convent and part of which Rodin used as a studio from 1908 until his death in 1917.
In 1880, Rodin was commissioned by the French state to design a pair of monumental bronze doors for a new museum of decorative arts. The artist was going to incorporate Paolo and Francesca, two characters from Dante’s Divine Comedy slain by Francesca’s husband, who surprised them as they exchanged their first kiss. In the early stages of designing the doors, they were given a prominent place until Rodin decided that such a depiction of happiness and sensuality was incongruous with the overall theme of the project.
Anyway in the mid-1880s, the plans for the new museum collapsed and Rodin’s Gates of Hell (as they eventually became known) were not cast in bronze until after his death. By 1886, Rodin had decided that Paolo and Francesca would work better as a large sculpture and in 1888 the French government paid him 20,000 francs for the finished piece.
Exhibited in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, The Kiss caused a scandal. While fairgoers were encouraged to leer at belly dancers in public, the statue was relegated to an inner chamber where only private viewing was allowed. But by the turn of the century, public outrage had died down and The Kiss was installed at the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, where the celebrated English writer Edward Verrall Lucas saw it. In A Wanderer in Paris (1909) he described it as “immense and passionate”.
In 1900, the Bostonian antiquarian and connoisseur Ned Warren, who lived in Lewes in southern England, asked Rodin to produce a full-size replica of the sculpture “in the finest possible marble” for his own private collection. Rodin agreed, stipulating a fee of another 20,000 francs. It was carved by another sculptor whom Rodin had entrusted to work on “Phoebus-Apollo for his monument to Claude Lorrain at Nancy. Rodin is said to have applied the finishing touches.
During the First World War, Warren loaned his version of The Kiss to Lewes Town Hall, where it was placed in the Assembly Room, being used as a recreation space for troops billeted in the town. But puritanical locals led by headmistress Miss Kate Fowler-Tutt thought it indecent and, fearing that it would provoke lewd behaviour among the soldiers, it was enclosed with a railing and covered with a sheet.
In 1953, long after Warren’s death, The Kiss entered the collection of the Tate, where it used to occupy the central rotunda in what is now Tate Britain. After the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, it was moved there.
Rodin’s obsession with women is well known, although some – in a considerable stretch of the imagination – believe he was an early feminist and that the women he portrayed were “liberated”. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who lived in Paris 1902-10 acted as Rodin’s secretary for a while. His sculptor wife Clara Westhoff was one of Rodin’s pupils and had a studio at the Hôtel Biron. Of the woman portrayed in The Kiss, Rilke wrote that, like the man, “she is awake and filled with longing; it is as though the two made common cause to find their souls.”
The art critic Brian Sewell, who died earlier this year, called The Kiss “Rodin’s sugary marble”. It is not the most powerful of his creations and there is certainly much more to be admired. In 2017, the Musée Rodin will be worth visiting to see what all the fuss is about.