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When first exhibited in Europe, the U.S., and Japan in the early 1900s, the life-sized sculpture of Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss was perceived as so shamelessly erotic that it was screened off, covered with blankets, or put in a private room where it was only accessible to viewers by private request.
The Kiss hidden under blankets, 1915; Lewes, England
The brazen lovers are Paolo and Francesca from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (Italian for “hell”), part of a long narrative poem, The Divine Comedy, that was written in the early 1300’s. They are also a brother- and sister-in-law who, while reading a romantic book about the legend of Lancelot and Guinevere, were swept away by passion and began to make love. Discovered and killed by Francesca’s outraged husband, they are condemned to spend the rest of eternity in a whirlwind of Hell reserved for those who’ve committed sins of the flesh.
The love! The guilt! The secret glances! The burning desire! The torrid love affair of Paolo and Francesca was a popular subject for artists throughout the 1800s.
Top row, left to right: Romanelli; Paolo and Francesca, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1851; Romanelli Collection, Florence / Ingres, Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca, 1819, Musée Turpin de Crissé / Delacroix; Paolo and Francesca, c. 1824 / Munro; Paolo and Francesca, exhibited 1851; plaster; Wallington, Northumberland
Bottom row, left to right: Dyce, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1837, Scottish National Gallery / Cabanel, The Death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1870, Musée d’Orsay
Rodin’s plans for a sculpture of Paolo and Francesca, however, went well beyond romanticized melodrama.
In 1880, Rodin was commissioned to create an enormous sculptural undertaking, a set of doors for a museum of decorative arts that was to be built in Paris. He initially planned to fill the doors with characters from the Inferno who, through the expressivity of their nude figures, visualized anguish, desperation, revulsion, suffering, shame, and the agony of a soul without hope – The Gates of Hell. In Rodin’s early models for the doors, Paolo’s and Francesca’s sins, especially their forbidden kiss – the cause of their death and damnation – earned a prominent spot for them on the left door.
Left: Rodin’s Third Architectural Model for “The Gates of Hell”; modeled in terracotta c. 1880-81; 39 1/2 x 24 3/4 x 6 3/4 inches (100.3 x 62.9 x 17.1 cm); Right: Detail of left door showing Paolo and Francesca (about six inches tall); Rodin Museum, Philadelphia
As Rodin continued to add more figures, his design for The Gates of Hell became more fluid and chaotic. Damned figures float, hang precariously, climb, fall, and are trapped in in bubbling and floating seas of fire, wind, ice, mud, and wind without a sense of traditional gravity or space. Paolo and Francesca appeared to be enjoying themselves too much to imagine that they were spending eternity condemned in Hell. So, Rodin removed them from The Gates of Hell and created other couples who more convincingly expressed torment, despondency, and despair.
Details from The Gates of Hell; Modeled 1880-1917; cast 1926-1928; Rodin Museum, Philadelphia
Now freed from Hell, Paolo and Francesca were an independent small clay sculpture. However, nineteenth century modeling clay dried out and deteriorated quickly. Until Rodin decided what would become of them, their figures needed to be preserved in a permanent and relatively inexpensive material.
After Rodin completed modeling a work in clay, he handed it over to highly skilled assistants, who –
Rodin; Balzac, Final Study for Head, c. 1897; Modeling clay, Musée Rodin
made a hollow cast of it in plaster, which destroyed the clay model.
The hollow mold was then rejoined and tightly sealed together. Plaster was poured in from the bottom of the mold. Once set, the outer hollow mold was broken apart to release the solid plaster cast inside. Rodin routinely had twelve plaster casts made from each original clay model to preserve his work. With this inventory of plaster molds and models, he could experiment with new ideas while still retaining the original model and starting point.
Images of the process are from Nasher Sculpture Center: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOKW2Aq90GU; Right: Rodin; Head of Balzac; Plaster, 1897, Musée Rodin
The figures of Paolo and Francesca were only several inches tall, and Rodin wanted something larger. His team included specialized assistants (called pointers) who used a technique based on a pantograph to make mathematically precise plaster casts in whatever size he wanted. Rodin directed his staff to enlarge the cast of Paolo and Francesca to about thirty-four-inches in height (0.86 meters).
Using a pointing machine, the small plaster cast of the clay model sat on one turntable and a plaster “blank” in the desired size sat on another.
The machine kept the model and the blank in the same orientation while a technician used a tracing needle linked to a sharp instrument to transfer the form of the sculpture onto the plaster blank. The technique is called mise au point.
Now Rodin had something to market – a medium-sized plaster cast of Paolo and Francesca that could be placed on a base. In 1887, Rodin began to exhibit the plaster cast under different names, including The Kiss, Intimacy, and Adam and Eve, hoping that a buyer would order it to be cast in bronze or carved in marble.
The plan worked. In 1888, the French government ordered a full-size (about six-feet tall, or 1.8 meters) sculpture of the lovers in marble.
As a young man, Rodin had worked as a pointer and carver for other sculptors. Now, as a successful sculptor, he centered his time creating new works in clay.
Rodin didn’t single-handedly quarry a piece of marble, transport it back to the studio, and then spend months to years personally carving the final work; he hired assistants to do that. By the end of the 1800s, when Rodin was in the peak of his career, he managed five studios across Paris and employed about fifty people.
Those photos of seventy-year-old Rodin chiseling away? Brand marketing.
Before carving the figures in marble, Rodin’s assistants first created a full-size plaster model of Paolo and Francesca. That cast was then used as a visual reference for talented stone carvers whom Rodin hired to translate his work into in marble while he meticulously supervised the process.
Ten years later, the sculpture finally made its public debut, full-size and in marble, at the Paris Salon (exhibition).
Rodin modeled the sculpture so that viewers could encircle it and take in every detail of their unfolding story. Begin at the back where Paolo’s left hand presses one side of an open book against a rock; not only does the rock suggest that they’re about to make love outside, its course texture enhances the smoothness of their skin. Francesca’s bent right elbow brushes against the book’s pages as the back of her hand barely touches his left breast.
Reaching up with her left arm, she pulls Paolo toward her and rests her hand on the back of his neck.
Francesca is in the process of turning toward Paolo. As she rests her left foot on top of his foot, she lifts her right leg across his thigh.
Her curving, turning figure counterbalances Paolo’s erect torso and forward-facing legs.
Paolo is still slightly hesitant. His right wrist has yet to rest on her thigh. Three fingers brush against her skin; his thumb and forefinger are still up (a detail lost in subsequent enlarged versions).
With weakening willpower to resist his sister-in-law, the toes on his right foot dig and curl into the rock.
Their kiss is partially obscured by the inward turn of their arms and shoulders and shadows. To see it, you must dart about to find the best vantage point. In the original plaster, his lips are still closed and hers are opening. The Kiss is the moment just before they kiss. Having encircled the lovers, Rodin leads your eyes down the curve of his arm and back to the book and their story begins again.
The Kiss, 1886; painted plaster cast from original clay; Milwaukee Art Museum
This kiss is not just a kiss. It’s a merging of bodies and limbs, trembling, pulling together, bringing each other close. Without any visual references to identify the lovers as literary or allegorical figures from Dante’s Inferno, the public felt uncomfortably voyeuristic. And delighted.
It wasn’t just that the figures were nude or because it portrayed an illicit affair. Rodin had created something much more scandalous.
It was the image of a woman, not the man, as the seducer. The sight of a woman, even one made out of marble, shamelessly enjoying her sexuality so shocked the critics and the public that there was only one possible outcome – internationally infamy.
The Kiss became Rodin’s most censored work.
Recognizing an opportunity to add to his reputation and income, Rodin immediately contracted with a foundry to produce over three-hundred bronze casts in four sizes. (French law now limits the number of bronzes that can be made. According to a 1978 French law, only the first twelve bronze casts can be called “original editions”. See video in references to watch bronze casting process.)
The Kiss; Bronze cast by Alexis Rudier Foundry in 1912; National Wales Museum
Only three full-size original marble sculptures of The Kiss were carved while Rodin was alive. Because each was carved from a unique block of marble by a different sculptor, the three vary slightly.
The first, which was commissioned by the French government, was carved between 1888-98 by Jean Turcan, the sculptor who was in charge of carving marble in Rodin’s workshop, and other assistants. It’s the same sculpture that was exhibited at The Salon of 1898 and is now in the Musée Rodin in Paris.
The second was ordered in 1900s by Carl Jacobsen, an art collector and founder of the Ny Carlsberg brewery. It was carved by one of Rodin’s assistants between 1901-03 and is now on view in Copenhagen at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (glyptotek means “collection of sculpture”).
The third was ordered by Edward Warren, an American who lived in Lewes in Sussex, England. The contract specified that the man’s genitals (absent in the original) must be complete and not covered by fig leaves. When it was delivered in 1904, it apparently didn’t fulfil Mr. Warren’s expectations because the sculpture sat in his stables for ten years. In 1914, the sculpture was towed by horses to the town hall for public display. After local citizens became concerned that viewing the sculpture might “encourage the eagerness” of soldiers who were billeted in the town at the time, The Kiss was surrounded by a railing and covered by blankets to prevent peeking. Peeking is now possible at its permanent home at the Tate Britain, London.
There are only three full-size original marbles of The Kiss; there can never be a fourth.
Ok, there is a fourth, but. . .
Rodin’s will stipulates that, since he’s no longer available to supervise, none of his works may be carved in marble after his death (a limited number of bronzes, yes; marbles, no). Due to a convergence of unusual, highly-unlikely-this-will-even-happen-again circumstances, sculptor Henri Gréber was given permission in 1929 (twelve years after Rodin died) from Musée Rodin in Paris to access the original plaster as a reference and carve The Kiss as a full-size marble for the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. Although remarkable, it’s considered to be a copy and Gréber had to clearly carve the word réplique on the back.
The process of creating a sculpture by making intermediate models from an original made by a sculptor is called indirect carving. There are advantages: the end result is very controllable; with difficult sculptures, any changes made through trial-and-error are reasoned out before carving in expensive marble begins; and the work can be done by assistant sculptors, which increases productivity. Disadvantages include the risk of losing expressive details and an ever-greater distance between the artist and the artwork.
For some sculptors in the early 1900s, The Kiss’s interpretation of a story, sentimentality, depiction of emotion through body gestures, the use of other sculptors to carve it in marble, and the concept of multiple originals eliminated the essence of what sculpture should be.
Sculptor Constantin Brancusi disliked the process so much that he referred to results of indirect carving as corpses.
After working as pointer in Rodin’s studio for less than two months, Brancusi left to discover his own path. What he sculpted was exceptional and unprecedented. Next month’s article will take a closer look.
– Meighan Maley
Top Image: Rodin in his studio with The Kiss, 1887-90; Unknown photographer; Musée Rodin
To learn more about direct carving, the process of excavating marble for sculpture, and perhaps the most famous direct carver, Michelangelo, click here.
Bronze Casting Process, Nasher Sculpture Center https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IJFBBkHNrY
Casting and Molding Sculpture https://www.britannica.com/art/sculpture/Casting-and-molding
Elsen, Albert and Rosalyn Jamison. Rodin’s Art: The Rodin Collection of Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center of Visual Arts at Stanford University in Association with Oxford University Press. 2003.
Paolo and Francesca https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesca_da_Rimini
Rodin’s Working Methods
Tancock, John L. The Sculpture of Auguste Rodin: The Collection of the Rodin Museum Philadelphia. 1976.
The Kiss Hidden Under a Blanket https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/oct/31/rodin-the-kiss-photo-archive-reveals-hidden-history
What is an Original Sculpture by Rodin and What is a Reproduction? http://www.musee-rodin.fr/en/musee-rodin/respecting-moral-right