Photo courtesy Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation
BY DIANE MANUEL
The waves that batter the rocky shore at Victor Hugo's feet evoke the seas that separated the poet-playwright from his beloved France during 18 years of exile on the Channel Islands.
Or perhaps Auguste Rodin's sculpted bronze depicts folds in a material that is draped across Hugo's lap, rather than flowing waves.
"My own view is that this is perhaps Rodin's most successful monument to another creative individual," Bernard Barryte, chief curator at the Cantor Arts Center, says as he takes in the immensity of the 2,750-pound work. "As Hugo listens to the muse, he's withdrawn inside himself and yet he's gesturing outward. Rodin depicts a whole process of thought and action."
The bronze sculpture is a physically and spiritually compelling centerpiece for the new exhibition that opens at the Cantor Center today. "Rodin's Monument to Victor Hugo" is making its final stop at Stanford on a cross-country tour that has given American audiences their first glimpse of a little-known masterpiece by the 19th-century French sculptor.
When Rodin met Hugo in 1883, the author already was revered as the most famous literary figure of his day and as a defender of the democratic principles of the French republic. Following his involvement in the bloody 1848 civil war, Hugo had left France for self-imposed exile on the isle of Jersey. Expelled from that Channel Island by the British, he journeyed on to Guernsey, where he wrote some of his greatest works, including Les Contemplations, a collection of lyric poems, and Les Misérables.
When Rodin could not convince Hugo to pose formally for a bust, the artist spent hours one day on the veranda of Hugo's home. Rodin completed 60 quick sketches as the author paced at a distance.
After Hugo's death in 1885, Rodin was commissioned by the French government to design a monument that would be installed in the Panthéon, an 18th-century church built to honor Sainte Geneviève, patron saint of Paris, that subsequently was secularized by the authorities.
Rodin unveiled an incomplete plaster model of his monument to Hugo at the Salon of 1897, but it was rejected by a government commission. As he struggled for 10 more years to reconceptualize the work, the three Muses he originally designed for the monument were reduced to two allegorical figures: the Tragic Muse who soars above Hugo's head and the Interior Muse who stands quietly at his side.
Rodin gradually tired of and ultimately abandoned the project, but not without completing a number of smaller bronzes.
"As Rodin worked on the monument, he was intrigued by the bits and pieces," Barryte says. "He took elements of the large composition and produced independent sculptures of sirens and muses."
In 1964 the first bronze cast of Rodin's 1897 plaster was commissioned and unveiled in Paris. It now stands at the intersection of the avenues Victor-Hugo and Henri-Martin.
The exhibition that opens this week features the second bronze cast of Rodin's monument, which was commissioned in 1995 by the late art patron B. Gerald Cantor. The traveling exhibition was organized by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, and the Stanford showing is made possible by gifts from Dr. A. Jess Shenson and Jill and John Freidenrich.
"Rodin's Monument to Victor Hugo" features 24 studies and sketches in various media, augmented by historic photographs from the center's permanent collections, most of which were gifts from B. Gerald and Iris Cantor and art Professor Al Elsen.
"It's wonderful to have this opportunity to do a monographic study of a single piece," Barryte says. "It's a chance to get some insight into Rodin's creative process and to study the evolution of the project over time."
Writing about the evolution of a retrospective exhibition of Rodin's work in 1900, the writer Gustave Geoffrey was equally impressed:
"The poet, nude as a god, powerful as a giant, is seated at the edge of the sea, among the rocks where the first waves break. He has in front of him the abyss, which he contemplated for 20 years, from the promontories of Jersey and Guernsey, the vast sea sculpted by the wind, changing, tinted with color, terrible and graceful, the Ocean toward which his thoughts always go. . . .
"Inspiration comes toward him. He listens to the voices that the waves and the air carry to him. A woman swoops down on the rock, above his head, with the movement of a hurricane. Another rises behind him in the foam of the waves. The one is virile and untamable, she speaks and sings in a loud voice: This is the muse of history, of legend, of anger; she has wandered the earth and she brings with her the protests and revolts of humanity. The other is gentle, melancholic, and enchanting; her body, youthful and fresh, is impregnated with the water of the sea, and it is she who murmurs and whispers the soft words that are brought by the babbling waves, that rustle in the verdant river banks and that are sung by children, young women, and lovers.
"Rodin has made his idea visible for
everyone. These two women are not apparitions. They are voices. The
poet does not look at them. He listens to them, while space unfolds
in front of him, and never has the double action of a physiognomy
been better expressed: The eyes, small, alive, deep, give off an
extraordinary power of vision, while attention, reflection take
hold of the face, giving to the body that attitude of strength to
the point of abandonment. Interior life manifests itself through
the body's repose, through the brow bent and inclined forward, and
through the beautiful, instinctive gesture of the extended hand."