Degas & Rodin

Degas ~ Rodin

Sculpture & Works on Paper


From today’s vantage point, most experts and art lovers would agree that the two greatest sculptors of the late nineteenth century were Auguste Rodin and Edgar Degas. Born within a few years of each other, both were highly skilled in the craft and both were fascinated – even obsessed – by the human body in its various forms and expressive modes. As young artists, they had both experienced the classical tradition when studying in the Louvre and when drawing from the naked figure, as their predecessors had done since ancient times. Subsequently each became exceptional draughtsmen, using pen, ink, pastel and other media to familiarise themselves with men and women at rest, and in increasingly expressive poses. In sculpture, Degas’s decision to model a young woman lying on her back in a bathtub was expressive of a new determination to confront the modern body, just as Impressionists had confronted modern cities and landscapes. Again coincidentally, Rodin and Degas both made studies of dancers and other active models as they moved or adopted the pose appropriate to their professions. In artistic – if not personal – sympathy, the two men also ranged across the generations, immortalizing children and adolescents as well as models of both sexes from adulthood to old age. In this important sense, Rodin and Degas were united in their humanity and in their celebration of life.

Yet here the similarities between the two almost cease. Where Degas for much of his mature career was first and foremost a publicity-shy painter, pastelist and printmaker, Rodin rose to fame as a full-time sculptor with an apparently inexhaustible appetite for scale, drama and public controversy. Many of his most famous statues – The Age of Bronze, The Thinker, and above all his Burghers of Calais – were life-size or greater, and the sheer bulk of his three-dimensional output dwarfs that of Degas, who made just one sculpture that approached natural height; The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. This unique achievement resonated in the 1870s and still fascinates us today, but it can easily be forgotten that the youthful figure also began life as a series of drawings. At least twenty studies on paper can be related to the young girl and her distinctive pose, as the artist struggled with his own skills and ambitions. The three graphic works by Degas in this exhibition, by contrast, relate to his subsequent career when a mastery of charcoal, chalk and pastel allowed him to devise expressive, intimate accounts of his female models that were unprecedented in European art.

The sculptural works by Rodin come from several different points in his career and show extraordinary technical skills on a relatively small scale and in various expressive modes. It was sometimes Rodin’s habit to begin with a form that had emerged from his mind or caught his eye, then enlarge it for a more ambitious creation and modify it appropriately as he went forward. His Head of a Man with One Ear, for example, might almost be a ‘life-study’ of someone he had glimpsed and whose features and demeanor intrigued him. Similar characters reappeared later and led him on to different works and larger statements. In time Rodin hired several assistants to help him with these proliferating schemes and contribute to the processes of enlarging, reducing or integrating such sculptural sketches into yet more dramatic combinations. By the 1880s, this way of working seemed to fill his studio with bodies that could be spectacular in their implicit energy, such as the work known as Flying Figure where he has omitted the head and parts of the legs. Energy itself seemed to fascinate him, along with the sometimes unexpected positions of limbs, torsos and heads that accompanied their contortions and athletic movements. We struggle to imagine how such poses could be held long enough for the artist to record them, and then struggle again to conceive of their replication in clay, wax or other material. Almost an embodiment of this tendency is The Juggler or The Acrobat, as it is known, thought to have emerged in the mid-1890s and conjuring up the vision of a circus performer that seems closer to the young Picasso than to the aging Rodin. Here most of the assumptions about classical art have been set aside, as two lithe young bodies appear to be writhing in space without plausible support.

Still distant from each other at the turn of the century, the two now-elderly artists were both – probably unwittingly – exploring the possibility of making sculptures and drawings of dancers in energetic movement. A contradiction in terms for most sculptors, this theme nevertheless absorbed Rodin and Degas from time to time and once again reflected their contrasted temperaments. Degas would make at least thirty such figures in his later years, ranging from ballerinas in full stage costumes to figures who are in dance positions but shown completely naked. Preparation pour Arabesque is a wonderfully elegant work that speaks of the ballet classrooms he once frequented and the hundreds of rehearsals and performances he had attended. Still hiring models in the late decades of the century, he remained in awe of their discipline, their poise and their elegance.

Rodin’s group of dancers represents a later phase when the Ballet Russes company was known in Paris and other startling dance gymnastics had hit the headlines. His almost airborne sculpture, Nijinski, is a tour de force of perception and conception, as we imagine the Russian star in motion even when he is presented in bronze. Rodin made Dance movement in 1911, a stunning image of human vitality that seems to belong with the world of Matisse and even the Italian Futurists with their exaltation of human and mechanical dynamism.

By Richard Kendall