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In 1879, Auguste Rodin entered 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). The elite twelve-member jury of art experts eliminated his entry, The Call to Arms, 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.
When composing his figure for the dying warrior, Auguste Rodin turned to Michelangelo (see Part One).
When considering his figure of Liberty, he visited one of the most powerful women in France, Marianne.
As one of the allegorical symbols of France, Marianne has many looks: an ancient Roman goddess, a maternal intellectual, an infantry soldier, a flapper,
a Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve look-alike.
She can be a woman of color.
But when you need a Marianne who’s going to fight to the death to defend your freedom, take a walk along Paris’s L’avenue des Champs-Élysées.
In August 1792, during the midst of the French Revolution (1789-1799), a furious French population captured and imprisoned their king, Louis 16th, and his family. Concerned that revolution might take hold in their own countries, the other monarchies of Europe considered whether to intervene and help Louis or to take advantage of the chaos in France.
A month later, the mighty royal armies of Austria and Prussia attacked France. Thousands of volunteers united and formed France’s first citizen-army; within a few weeks, they defeated the invaders at The Battle of Valmy. Victorious, the new French government immediately abolished its monarchy and the First French Republic was born. Due to its legacy, that the majority seeking equality successfully disposed of a wealthy and powerful monarchy, the Battle of Valmy is regarded as one of the most significant battles in history.
In 1806, Napoleon I commissioned a great arch to honor the Battle at Valmy and other French military victories. The Arc de Triomphe was built at one end of L’avenue des Champs-Élysées at the juncture of twelve radiating avenues.
Each of its four massive pillars is decorated with a sculpture. The most famous of these is François Rude’s The Departure of the Volunteers in 1792 (La Marseillaise), 1833-36.
Overlapping figures of warriors arise out of the pillar in a surging wave. Marianne, as a female allegorical figure of Liberty, hovers above them in armor and calls citizens – not subjects of the king – to fight against tyranny in defense of freedom.
This winged Marianne, the most famous figure on the largest triumphal arch in the world, is the one that Rodin chose to reference in his design for a public monument to honor the French citizens who died during the Franco-Prussian War.
While Marianne on the Arc de Triomphe rallies the living in exhilaration and victory, Rodin’s tattered Liberty, enraged by defeat, raises the dead.
Her eyes are pupil-less, deeply gouged-out sockets. Her nose is a twisted lump of clay. Her Phrygian cap, worn by freed slaves in ancient Greece and Rome, alludes to the success of the French Revolution.
Infuriated and disarmed, she thrusts out her arms with clenched fists and screams in fury in defiance of the enemy.
Despite a bent and broken left wing, her wings extend halfway back and out, as if in mid-flap, pulsing ferociously. As the rhythmic drumming of her beating wings cuts through the air, she begins to levitate . . .
. . . and with her only her left thigh, lifts the collapsing soldier away from a partially buried canon ball.
So that “life would surge from her center”, Rodin modeled her form to contract and expand. From her open thighs that support the soldier as they rise, to her abdomen that contracts as she cries out, energy erupts up and out through her extended arms and wings to the surrounding space.
The shadows and reflections created as light travels across the irregular surfaces appear to move and lift the figures into the air.
When Rodin submitted his entry, theories about and standards for French sculpture were clear: the purpose of art was to manifest beauty; the human form should look heroic and emote nobility; surfaces should be smooth; and, although sculpture exists in space, it should not significantly engage the surrounding space. Rodin’s submission – with figures who reference Michelangelo’s The Deposition and the Arc de Triomphe’s Liberty, the interplay of shadows and reflections across the surfaces, the sense of movement and muscle tension, the expression of agony and rage that explode into the surrounding space – was too unconventional for the conservative jury. The collapsing warrior was “insufficiently heroic” and in general, it “lacked the decorum necessary for public statuary”.
The winning entry, La Défense de Paris by Louis Ernest Barrias, met all of the requirements:
- The placement of the figures is balanced and harmonious.
- The young, beautiful figure of Liberty wears the turreted crown of the city on her head and a clean French National Guard’s uniform. She leans on a canon and holds a tattered flag.
- A handsome young soldier loads his rifle with his last shell.
- They protect a shivering little girl who huddles in the back.
Today, the area where Barrias’s work was originally placed has become Paris’s financial district. The sculpture is now surrounded by skyscrapers, fountains, a large shopping mall, restaurants and movie theaters.
As for Rodin, four years later, he experimented with the sculpture by removing the soldier. He called it The Spirit of War.
He continued to exhibit The Call to Arms in plaster many times, hoping to receive an order for an enlarged cast of it in bronze. That happened twice, but it was Rodin who ordered both.
In 1912, Rodin donated one to a fund-raising campaign to buy airplanes for the French army.
In 1916, the Dutch League of Neutral Nations commissioned Rodin to create a monument as a gift to the French town of Verdun, where the largest and longest battle of the First World War was fought. New technology delivered hell to Verdun: machine guns, tanks, grenades, flamethrowers, and gas. After three hundred days of warfare, over 800,000 French and Germans soldiers were dead or missing; the largest track of territory gained amounted to a mere five miles.
Rather than create a new work, Rodin, then seventy-six, donated an enlarged bronze cast of The Call to Arms and refused to accept any payment. By the time sculpture was erected in 1920, Rodin had died.
When August Rodin sculpted The Call to Arms, the works that would one day result in his recognition as the father of modern sculpture had yet to be either created or understood. He rebelled against the academic standards for sculpture and instead, visualized inner states of the mind, such as suffering, indomitable resolve, and grief, through depictions of the nude figure. Many of his other public sculptures were even more controversial; power, politics and money sometimes supplant creativity. Within The Call to Arms, those who no longer survive because they fought for freedom breathe.
A bronze cast of Auguste Rodin’s The Call to Arms can be seen at The Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, PA, USA.
– Meighan Maley
*Bob Marley, Redemption Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrY9eHkXTa4