Passion for Rodin
Don't buy tickets to France. The greatest collection of Rodin bronzes outside Paris is here at Stanford.
Rodin! The Complete Stanford Collection opens today and will remain on view indefinitely.
It is the first time the Cantor Center for Visual Arts is giving the public a chance to see its entire collection: about 200 works of stone, wax, plaster, terracotta and bronze by the legendary French artist Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).
The reason for the museum's stellar Rodin collection is B. Gerald Cantor and his wife, Iris.
"The gentleman was obsessed with Rodin," said Bernard Barryte, curator of European art at the museum. He added that B. Gerald Cantor, who died in 1996, was "the latest and the greatest in a succession of Americans obsessed with Rodin."
Cantor's magnificent obsession began when the business mogul, then a 29-year-old veteran in postwar New York, visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and saw Rodin's marble The Hand of God.
"He couldn't live without it," Barryte said. He didn't have to, and he didn't even have to wait long: He began his collection 18 months later by purchasing a bronze version of The Hand of God.
He went on to be the founder and chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald, a global securities firm with offices in the major cities of the world. Meanwhile, he continued to collect, eventually amassing the world's largest private collection of works by Rodin. Fortunately for the world, he was open-handed with his acquisitions.
The Cantors have donated more than 475 works by Rodin to over 70 institutions around the world. They endowed museum galleries and sculpture gardens at Stanford, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and elsewhere; they have underwritten important exhibitions.
A stroll around the campus shows the fruits of their munificence: the bust of Victor Hugo in Green Library, the larger-than-life Burghers of Calais in Memorial Court, and the sculpture garden, featuring the mammoth Gates of Hell, which over decades became "a repository for [Rodin's] artistic ideas," Barryte said. Stanford's Gates is the fifth of seven worldwide, and the first to use the "lost wax" technique of casting, which produces greater fidelity than sand casting.
For the exhibition, the museum has dedicated two-and-a-half galleries to Rodin, forming a small metropolis whose denizens are bronze and plaster rather than flesh and blood. It's a city where politicians jostle with artists, a Parisian police inspector (Rodin's own father) shares living space with a pontiff. Each sculpture has a story of its own.
The pontiff, Benedict XV, apparently didn't get on with the artist. Rodin requested a dozen sittings from the pope; he was granted three. Rodin tried to walk around his sitter, but the pope shifted restlessly; he only wished to be viewed from the front. Benedict's aggravation can be seen in the final bronze: "It looks like him," Rodin concluded wearily, "but … it's a far cry from the masterpiece it could have been, with a little patience."
Some of his sitters complained openly about their treatment: "He tires me out with his way of looking at me, of imagining me naked; I'm worn out by the need to fight for my dignity against his hunter's gaze," grumbled Anna de Noailles, writer and salonière, whose bronze bust is included in the exhibit.
One prominent subject in the collection, Honoré de Balzac, didn't have to sit at all: In 1889, the Société des Gens des Lettres commissioned Rodin to sculpt the larger-than-life author of La Comédie Humaine, who had died in 1850. Rodin made mammoth heads of Balzac, and portrayed him in a frock coat, the Dominican friar's habit he wore while working at night and even as a nude, which caused the selection committee to recommend Rodin portray the writer "at an age when he was less potbellied, when his neck had not disappeared beneath the fat." The Société rejected the final sculpture that has come to be regarded as a masterpiece. Scandal ensued.
A manifesto defending Rodin, the man who is now considered the progenitor of modern sculpture, was signed by Monet, Debussy and future prime minister Georges Clemenceau—not that the journalist, physician and statesman Clemenceau was happy with his own portrait, years later. He complained that Rodin had sculpted him "like a Mongolian general." He refused the final sculpture and forbade it to be exhibited with his name on it. It is included in the exhibit.
To those who protested that his mesmerizing and unconventional figures were "ugly," Rodin responded with magisterial loftiness: "In Art, what is false, what is artificial, what seeks to be pretty … instead of being expressive … is ugly. … For the artist worthy of his name, everything is beautiful in Nature."
The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m. Admission is free, which, in bad economic times, is good news.