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Scholars examine "New Studies on Rodin"

The French sculptor Auguste Rodin worked an expressive sensuality into the cold material of his art.

Walk down Lomita Drive to the Rodin Sculpture Garden, on the south side of the Cantor Center, and it looks as though Medusa had caught a nudist camp by surprise during calisthenics and left her victims cast in metal instead of stone. By the same token, the figures seem as though they could suddenly shift out of their oblique postures and step off their pedestals.

Bronze muscle and sinew pulsate with unseen nerves that communicate never-ending messages of pain, lust, sorrow and loss. Rodin eschewed the staid academic style of the late 19th century, and, some scholars would argue, single-handedly ushered in the era of modern sculpture.

A two-day symposium celebrating the publication of Rodin's Art: The Rodin Collection of the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, a catalog by Albert Elsen, was held Friday and Saturday in Annenberg Auditorium. "New Studies on Rodin" featured lectures by more than a dozen scholars from universities, galleries and museums across the nation.

Elsen, the late Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, left a draft of the catalog at the time of his death in 1995. Rosalyn Frankel Jamison, a former graduate student of his, prepared the final manuscript and wrote some missing entries; Bernard Barryte, chief curator of the Cantor Center for Visual Arts, edited the final draft for publication with the help of two structural editors.

In the keynote address Friday, Ruth Butler, the sculptor's eminent biographer and professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts, recalled troubles with Cecile Goldscheider, then-director of the Musée Rodin in Paris, and how Elsen outmaneuvered her.

Goldscheider was an academic obstructionist who kept the museum's valuable archival materials -- newspaper clippings, letters and photographs -- out of the hands of other scholars.

"I remember I was in the office of the director's secretary, and I saw spread out on her desk all these old, yellowing clippings from newspapers, and I gasped, thinking how much that was going to help my work if I could just read them," said Butler, who was a Fulbright student in Paris at the time.

To get permission, she made an appointment with Goldscheider, who summarily recommended a trip to the Paris main library while failing even to acknowledge the existence of the museum's clippings.

"She was a very powerful person in the French museum world, and she saw to it that no French student would even breathe a moment of interest in Rodin," said Butler. "Rodin belonged to Cecile Goldscheider."

So it was with some astonishment that, several years later, Butler read in the preface to Rodin's Gates of Hell (1960), by Elsen, that the attic of the Musée Rodin was full of boxes containing newspaper clippings. Elsen later told Butler (the two became lifelong friends) that he once hid in the museum until it closed, then climbed into the attic. Armed with a flashlight, he looked through all the material stored up there.

"He was always much more daring than I was," Butler said.

Mme Goldscheider ousted

Elsen, it seems, did not suffer fools gladly, and in 1967 ­ the 50th anniversary of Rodin's death ­ he published a scathing editorial in The Burlington Magazine, a scholarly journal of art history, denouncing Goldscheider's failure to give students access to the archives. In 1973, the French government replaced Goldscheider as head of the museum. "Al certainly can take some credit for this," Butler said.

But she also noted the irony of the museum director's tyranny: Had Goldscheider been more forthcoming, Elsen might have had more competition "Al's position as the most important and respected Rodin scholar of the 20th century might have been different.

"The French, with the exception of the grande dame Cecile, were basically barred from working on Rodin. And, as far as creative scholarship, Cecile Goldscheider is no match for Al Elsen."

It was also in 1967 that Elsen went to see a small exhibition of Rodin's work at the Los Angeles County Museum. The pieces in the show belonged to the collection of a wealthy financier named B. Gerald Cantor.

Cantor, however, had unwittingly -- and, for that matter, blamelessly -- gotten off on the wrong foot with Elsen: Cantor had purchased the pieces from the Musée Rodin, which was still under the control of Goldscheider. And Goldscheider, Butler explained, was on Elsen's enemies list.

For that reason, Elsen panned the exhibit -- both in the Los Angeles Times and in a television interview, according to Butler. When Cantor's curator, Ellen Landis (now art curator at the Albuquerque Museum), ran into Elsen a few months later, she arranged to have the two men meet. It was the beginning of a friendship that spanned close to three decades and spawned numerous collaborative efforts. Even before Cantor began donating objects from his collection to Stanford, he made it possible for many of Elsen's students to travel to Paris to do research.

Stanford's flagship art collection of more than 200 works by Rodin represents the largest such collection outside of Paris, and it owes everything to Cantor and Elsen.

The sculptor

Elsen is largely credited with restoring Rodin's reputation. When he began his dissertation on The Gates of Hell in the late 1940s, Rodin was, in the words of Butler, "totally un-chic." The abstract movements between the world wars, as well as the truth-to-material movement, had largely eclipsed interest in the sculptor.

In the preface to The Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin (1985), Elsen writes, "You don't outgrow The Gates, you grow into them."

It's a statement that resonates not only with the way Rodin approached his work -- he never considered anything finished, even after it had been cast in bronze, Butler said -- but also, somewhat eerily, with the tangle of bodies and limbs that protrude in high and low relief from the tortured, passionate facade of the massive portal, for which Rodin took his inspiration from Dante's Inferno. The organic quality of Rodin's sculptures -- the sense that he may have had designs on altering them even after they were cast ­ reflect on the pieces themselves.

Gates was Rodin's first major commission, and it gave birth to many of his major works -- The Thinker, The Kiss, The Shades, Adam and Eve, to name a few -- that he designed for it. (Rodin would enlarge these figures or tinker with them, or both, to exhibit and sell as independent works.)

Whether Rodin actually considered the opus done by the time of his death is a matter of some controversy. In his 1985 book, Elsen sums up his assertion in the title of the eighth chapter: "The Gates of Hell, 1900-1917: Complete But Not 'Finished.' "

The work was reconstituted by Léonce Bénédite, the first director of the Musée Rodin, after Rodin's death in 1917. That plaster, which sits in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, is the model on which Stanford's Gates is based.


By John Sanford

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