(Above: Rue de Rivoli, Paris; 1871)
What makes a war memorial appropriate or inappropriate? Whom or what should be remembered? Honored? Valorized? How should the sacrifices of the defeated be portrayed? How should the facts and memories of a nation’s history be preserved?
Apparently, not like this.
During the 1800s in France, many sculptors’ livelihoods depended upon designing monuments for city parks and squares. In 1879, the French state held a competition to design a war memorial honoring the Parisians who defended the city while it was under siege during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Creating public sculpture was not a discipline where innovation was encouraged; it was formulaic. Contestants were instructed that entries should be colossal, standing, and consist of a female allegorical figure that represented the defense of liberty and a male combatant. The elite twelve-member jury of art experts eliminated Auguste Rodin’s entry, The Call to Arms (Rodin Museum, Philadelphia), on the first round – too undignified and extreme, lacked decorum, they said.
Perhaps the problem was that Rodin had no interest in creating a memorial merely about the defense of Paris – after all, the French had lost the war. He wanted to portray something more universal, that the humanity of the defeated was worthy of recognition and respect, and that the fury of those who struggle to live in freedom cannot be silenced.
Why was Rodin’s entry considered to be inappropriate? First, take a closer look at his figure of a dying warrior.
Rodin failed the entrance exam to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris three times. Twenty years later, he was still subsisting by working as a sculptor’s assistant. Left untethered from studying under the direction and influence of a living master sculptor, Rodin pursued his education by studying artworks at the Louvre Museum (Paris), where he discovered sculptures by the Renaissance master, Michelangelo (1475-1564).
One of these was Michelangelo’s The Atlas Slave. Named after the ancient Greek mythological figure who held up the entire world on his shoulders, the figure twists in an ascending spiral up against the heavy marble that threatens to compress and imprison him. In Michelangelo’s hands, this condensed energy of opposed movement becomes impassioned and intense. “At every turn, Michelangelo’s figures contradicted the truths I thought I had finally acquired. Why this incurvation of the torso? Why this raised hip? Why this lowered shoulder?”, Rodin is quoted as saying.
In 1876, Rodin traveled to Italy where many museums had been holding special exhibitions to celebrate Michelangelo’s 400th birthday. In Florence and in Rome, again and again Rodin revisited Michelangelo’s figures in sculptures and in paintings, moved around them, examined their profiles, filled sketchbooks with pencil drawings, studied the shadows and reflections of the figures’ masses, rhythms, muscle tension and torsion, and in the evening, kneaded clay in his hands. He wasn’t looking for a motif or inspiration for a single sculpture; he wanted to change everything. “I wanted to learn how Michelangelo breathed life into his figures.”
Left: Michelangelo; Moses, c. 1513-15 (San Petro in Vincolo, Rome) and Right: Rodin, Study Drawings of Works by Michelangelo, c. 1876 (Musée Rodin). Rodin’s drawing of the Virgin and Child borrows the posture of Michelangelo’s Moses.
Rodin’s ability to analyze the complexities of Michelangelo’s mastery just through intense close looking, translate his insights into quickly penned drawings and then into clay is considered by art scholars to be a seminal event in the history of modern sculpture.
When he returned from Italy, Rodin abandoned the staid, formulaic conventions for sculpture that were being taught at the art academies at the time. “It was Michelangelo who liberated me from academicism,” Rodin said. “He is the bridge from which I passed from one circle to another.”
Three-years later, the competition to create the war memorial was announced. When thirty-nine year-old Auguste Rodin considered how to best honor the French men, women, children, and infants who were killed or died as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, he recalled seeing an astonishing figure in Florence, the lifeless body of Jesus as it was removed from the cross after crucifixion, Michelangelo’s The Deposition.
Comparing Michelangelo’s The Deposition and Rodin’s The Call to Arms
Michelangelo intensified the emotional impact of a body collapsing into death through the use of twisting, spiraling figures that fall and fold laterally onto deeply angular, limp legs. Rodin’s warrior rotates and contorts his torso back as he heroically tries to lift his sword one final time.
In Michelangelo’s time, “right” and “left” frequently had symbolic meanings in art: right could indicate what was considered to be correct, the most important person, or the future; left might suggest leaving, that what remains, to be of less importance, or the past.
- To suggest past and future, Michelangelo’s religious figures often bend the knee: the right-facing direction of Jesus’s bent knee symbolizes what Christians believe happened next, that he returned to earth after death. In contrast, the bent knee of Rodin’s dying warrior points left, signifying human mortality.
- Michelangelo directs the viewer’s gaze from Jesus’s right foot, up to the right knee and then thigh, up the curving torso and through the neck, to the touching faces of Jesus and his mother. The movement of the viewer’s eyes anticipates that after the deposition, Jesus was mourned by his mother. Rodin leads the viewer to look in a similar zigzag-like ascent, from the soldier’s left foot and up the leg, to his right elbow and shoulder, to the face of Liberty. The soldier’s head tilts back and releases a cry of tormented agony and exhaustion.
- Although Jesus’s left arm hangs lifelessly, the right arm, supported by the hooded figure (Michelangelo), curves and continues to protect a follower even after death. The left arm of Rodin’s soldier is a direct reference to Michelangelo; the right forearm curves inwardly downward, death is imminent.
When Michelangelo and Rodin were alive, their works were seen either outside in various weather conditions or inside by flickering candle or gaslight. By continuously altering the sculpture’s surface with small projections and indentations, shadows and reflections appear to move as light fluctuates and travels across the irregular surface. These patterns of contraction and expansion suggest changes in muscle tension and movement of the figure, and even emotions. From Michelangelo, Rodin learned how to extend the expressive possibilities of his figures, such as the dignified resolve of a falling soldier.
What remains is the story behind the ferocious figure of Liberty. How do you capture the rage of Parisians who were so hungry during the siege that when all of the rats and sparrows were eaten, they broke into the zoo?
And what did the winning entry look like?
Please see Part 2.
*Bob Marley, Redemption Song; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrY9eHkXTa4
Avigdor W. G. Posèq. “Aspects of Laterality in Michelangelo.” Artibus Et Historiae, vol. 20, no. 40, 1999, pp. 89–112. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1483667.
Ruth Butler, Rodin: The Shape of Genius
Rodin and Michelangelo: A Study in Artistic Inspiration; by Fergonzi Flavio et. al; published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1997