In the Master’s Studio: Rodin Exhibition at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts

Just like secret agents sliding under a sealing security gate, Ricky and I managed to squeeze into the Rodin exhibition’s last week of showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. A good thing too: it was a collection not to be missed.

Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal.
Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal.

The day itself was windy and rainy, one of those afternoons with an arctic nip in the air – and also the stereotypically ideal time for indoor cultural appreciation. For only $12 too.

I came armed with my sketchbook and micron pens, intent on catching up on Inktober, but it turned out a lot of people had had the same idea for a Tuesday post-lunch stroll and the exhibit was elbow to elbow. I did manage to get three quick sketches done though.

Hand and foot study from plaster sculptures.
Hand and foot study from plaster sculptures.
Bust.
Plaster and metal bust of “Mariana Russell wearing a helmet”, or “Indian Baccus”.

After that, unable to get into the arting zone, I reverted to photography. It actually worked out pretty well though; Rodin’s sculptures lend themselves well to dramatic lighting and come alive under the shadows.

One of the more interesting curations was a series of vessels and “flowers” – plaster figures coming out of ancient vases and jars. I’d never come across any of these before, but they emphasized Rodin’s dynamic playfulness and ability to master the form in imaginative environments. As a firm believer in the value of studying past masters, this also was an homage to the history of his craft.

Flower pot figure.
Female nude with the head of a Slavic woman emerging from a vessel, plaster and terracotta.

Around this point a baby began shrieking incessantly, and to escape the nails-on-chalkboard wails, I moved on to the next room where at last his works began to be translated into large size casts.

Figure of a nude.
“Nude Torso of the Muse”, known as “The Whistler Muse”, bronze.

Around here is where I gave up on sketching simply because the room was filled to the brim with enormous sculptures and the heavy flow of foot traffic had to funnel between narrow alleys around the precariously roped off collection.

It became clear soon though why the bottlenecking had occurred: The Thinker, the famous large size plaster cast, was brooding at the far side of the room.

The Thinker, plaster.
“The Thinker” large version, patinated plaster for bronze casting.

I grew up seeing this piece as a small metal statue in my parents’ house, but to see it on such a large scale was breathtaking. Rodin’s ability to capture the flow of muscle, the dark expression of sloped eyebrow, the clench of a fist or a toe: it feels like looking at a wave frozen mid-crash. There is so much energy and life to his pieces that to be in their presence is to be surrounded by living beings.

Perhaps as a reprieve from such intensity, a sitting room was next. In it were exhibited three full walls of photographs from Rodin’s life. One of the most captivating images, in my opinion, was that of his studio space. Half carved torsos rose out of rough hewn rock like mythological creatures unfolding from the earth; a spectacular sight to behold, the works in progress of a genius.

Rodin's studio.
Rodin’s studio.

I waited there for a while, both to rest my feet and to avoid the intense crowd/resurgence of the squealing infant in the upcoming bronze room.

Once it had died down though, I entered a new age of Rodin sculpture. Hard, dark, emotive: these pieces felt more aggressive than their plaster predecessors. Possibly because of their finished feel – unlike the flowing imperfection of plaster, these bronze casts were calculated and precise (indeed they were finished by Rodin’s students and assistants while he worked on conceiving new pieces, so their designs were executed to the letter).

Broze nude male.
“The Age of Bronze”, bronze.

Not to say that they lacked the quintessential movement which defines Rodin’s style, however. No, if anything these were able to showcase the finished products unlike anything before, simply by nature of their improved preservation (the downside of plaster and downfall of clay which crack and fall apart).

A kiss between lovers, poetry in sculpture.
“Eternal Spring”, bronze.

The most impressive piece of the room was “Adam”, originally sculpted for a door adornment. Looming taller than anything else in the room, the majesty was really felt.

Adam, bronze.
“Adam” (for the Gates of Hell), bronze.

It was here that I also saw “The Kiss”, the sculpture probably only second in fame to “The Thinker”. What was fascinating about it though was being able to witness the process: the plaster, the rough metal cast, and the polished final were all part of the exhibit. I really fell in love with the rough metal cast though. The pegs and segments were left there so it looked more like a post-apocalyptic bionic love story than a nineteenth century romantic classic.

“The [Bionic] Kiss”, Reduction No 1, bronze.
As if to counteract the severity of the bronze collection, the next up room was filled with clean, pure marble. Apparently no one really took notice of his marble works when they first came out, being written off as “cheap copies of the Greats” and therefore out of vogue. He continued to make them, however – or at least instruct his helpers to carry them to completion. Eventually their popularity caught on and this newfound appreciation led to the preservation of a stellar collection. The result of all these in the same room was that of a dreamscape of smooth figures half-risen from their stone wombs.

I accidentally managed to take a photo of the one piece that had a “no pictures” sign on it, but luckily the shot was captured just as the security guard informed me.

Figure of a nude, marble.
Illicitly stolen image: “Eve”, marble.

At this point, I was expecting the exhibit to come to and end. But no! Another room filled with smaller, yet arguably some of the most sophisticated works followed. One that in particular caught my eye was a sculpture of an elderly woman.

"Faded Beauty".
“She Who Was the Helmet-Maker’s Once-Beautiful Wife”, patinated plaster for bronze casting.

Something about it was so raw and real. Rarely did Rodin ever sculpt models who weren’t of a classically beautiful ideal, so to see his loving hand caress the folds and wrinkles of a life-worn individual was refreshing.

Also in this room were his drawings and watercolours, preliminary sketches for his three-dimensional works. Well let’s just say I fell in love. Loose, flowing, simple, abstract; they weren’t Da Vinci’s portraits by a long way, yet their easy lines and implied shapes captured on paper what he was somehow able to translate to clay, plaster, bronze, and marble. Rodin had claimed throughout his whole life that drawing was such an integral part of his artistic process that he insisted during each of his showings that the sketches be shown alongside the finished works. I’m certainly glad they kept that tradition in this exhibit.

After that the exhibit went on once more – into possibly one of the best conceptual rooms for a sculpture showing ever. Designed for the visually impaired, though open to all viewers, a space was prepared for the tactile experience of Rodin’s work. Frames of dried clay and plaster hung on the wall to run your fingers along; miniature casts of famous Rodin sculptures were on a table to feel; genuine samples of marble and bronze were set up to offer a chance to touch the materials with which Rodin worked.

Clay tactile experience.
Clay tactile experience.
Plaster tactile experience.
Plaster tactile experience.

All of these were invitations to touch and understand Rodin’s work in a way previously unavailable. It was a really clever addition of this exhibit.

Finally, the last room really did roll around. As a slightly jolting boost back to the 21st century, it was a modern art display of how Rodin is interpreted by today’s artists and how his tradition is both kept alive and reinterpreted through contemporary conventions. Most of these pieces were video installations (including “The Burghers of Vancouver”, a present-day real-time model recreation of “The Burghers of Calais”), but at the far end was one last bronze sculpture. Placed in the centre of a wall, all behind it were photographs taken of the piece being unwrapped, an experimental performance piece to capture the value of visual appreciation.

Unwrapping Rodin.
“Unwrapping Rodin (Blue)”, colour photographs using bronze sculpture.

We finished the exhibit just in time, only a few minutes after closing. But of course, even when they’re kicking us out, I simply had to linger in the gift shop a while.

I decided to get the exhibit catalogue to make up for the fact that I couldn’t do any sketching on-site. It just had such a beautiful collection with such quality images that I couldn’t resist.

Rodin exhibit catalogue, because I have no self control.
Rodin exhibit catalogue, because I have no self control.

I’ve already started using it for reference!

I did also splurge on a print of one of Rodin’s watercolour sketches, since I was so enamoured of them and they happened to be 40% off (last week specials, what up!). It was done of a Cambodian sitting dancer from a troupe that visited Paris which Rodin saw. Perhaps it was my already-keen affinity with Cambodia mixed with my adoration of the blue he used, but I couldn’t say no.

"Cambodian Sitting Dancer", pencil, watercolour, and gouache.
“Cambodian Sitting Dancer”, pencil, watercolour, and gouache.

In fact, between that and the book, I had to start sketching as soon as I got home that night.

I’d been particularly drawn to this particular sculpture in the exhibit, “Meditation”, an overlooked cast in the corner which everyone seemed to forget about due to its position behind “The Thinker”.

Dancer.
“Meditation”, without arms, patinated plaster.

I fell in love with its flow, however, and so I flipped through my book to find it and let my inspiration guide my hand.

Initial sketch, marker.
Initial sketch, of “Mediation” without arms in marker.
Progress sketch, ink.
Progress sketch, ink.
Finished sketch using ink, gouache, and Norway Blue watercolour dye inspired by Rodin's "Cambodian Sitting Dancer".
Finished sketch of “Meditation”, small version in patinated plaster for bronze casting using ink, gouache, and Norway Blue watercolour dye inspired by Rodin’s “Cambodian Sitting Dancer”.

I wish the exhibit could have been quieter so I could have spent more time there, but I’m so thankful to have gone at all before its closing. Truly a magnificent collection. If you ever have a chance to see Rodin pieces – or even better, visit the museum and studio in France – go without hesitation.


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