Rodin Museum next door to the Barnes but a world apart in approach

"The Kiss," returned to its original place on the Parkway after years in Memorial Hall. It is a replica of the sculpture in Paris' Musée Rodin.
"The Kiss," returned to its original place on the Parkway after years in Memorial Hall. It is a replica of the sculpture in Paris' Musée Rodin.
Posted: July 23, 2012

For the Philadelphia tourism industry, the consummation devoutly to be wished has arrived at last.

The reopening of the Rodin Museum last weekend, its original character sensitively restored, completes the longed-for "museum mile" along the Parkway that tourism promoters hope will prove to be an irresistible magnet for the culturally motivated.

The Rodin, the new museum of the Barnes Foundation next door, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few blocks west certainly create a destination worth a special journey, as the Michelin guides would put it.

The question now is whether this new synergy will benefit all three museums, particularly the Rodin. Despite the French sculptor's exalted reputation, it doesn't attract nearly as many visitors as its counterpart in Paris, which draws about 700,000 annually. (The Philadelphia Rodin Museum's biggest year since 1996 was 2002, when 63,523 people came. Average annual attendance during the decade beginning 2001 was 51,123.)

Having the Barnes collection next door should benefit Rodin, which has coordinated its opening hours with those of its neighbor.

However, the Barnes is such an overwhelming experience, especially for first-time visitors, that doing Rodin on the same day might strike even committed aesthetes as a too-formidable challenge.

Certainly the two collections demand different mind-sets. The Barnes offers many artists shoulder-to-shoulder, in an apparently illogical presentation, while the Rodin is small, intimate, and intensely focused on the grandiose vision of a single artist.

Jules E. Mastbaum, the movie magnate who founded the Rodin Museum, was gripped by a passion for art as intense as the vision that energized Albert C. Barnes, who went dizzy over Renoir and, to a lesser extent, Cezanne and Matisse.

Mastbaum pulled together his Rodin collection in roughly two years, between the fall of 1924 and his death at the end of 1926.

He was able to achieve this in part because he didn't have to scour the world for sculptures; he obtained many of the more than 200 that he eventually acquired (plus more than 600 drawings) by commissioning casts from the Musée Rodin in Paris, to which the artist had bequeathed responsibility for his artistic legacy.

The most imposing of the bronzes cast for Mastbaum is the nearly 21-foot-high The Gates of Hell, which greets visitors at the museum's entrance,

The Gates represents Rodin's major preoccupation as an artist; he worked on this massive, encyclopedic catalog of human folly and destiny for more than 35 years.

Many of the individual motifs that Rodin imagined for The Gates, based on Dante's Inferno, evolved into large, stand-alone sculptures like The Kiss and The Thinker, two of his most popular works.

The restoration of the Rodin Museum involved architectural and programmatic revisions. Architecturally, four layers of previous renovations were stripped away.

Faux-marbling on the walls has been replaced by a fabric that closely approximates the weave, texture, and color of the original. Small octagonal galleries at the building's rear corners are restored to their original burgundy-red color, and the beaux-arts ornamental decoration at the base of the ceiling has been refreshed.

Visitors are more likely to notice how the installation has changed to refocus attention on Rodin's most obsessive theme.

All the sculptures in the main gallery now relate to The Gates. The most prominent of these is a white marble replica of The Kiss, back in its original place after years of banishment to Memorial Hall.

Because it's clearly marked (on the back) as a replica, and even though it's one of Rodin's most popular works, this Kiss is a bit controversial.

Mastbaum asked the Musée Rodin to create a replica, apparently at the request of his art adviser, Albert Rosenthal, and Rodin Museum architects Paul Philippe Cret and Jacques Greber.

Even though the artist had specified that none of his marbles was to be copied after his death (three copies were made during his life), the Paris museum agreed, and hired Greber's father to carve one for Philadelphia.

The Kiss was duly installed for the museum's 1929 opening, and remained in place until John Tancock became the Rodin Museum's curator in the 1960s.

In part to accommodate large bronzes that needed to be moved indoors, he shipped The Kiss to Memorial Hall in 1967 to Fairmount Park, where it remained, ignominiously, until the Please Touch Museum took over the building a few years ago.

Technically, The Kiss is a replica, but conceptually and aesthetically it's only slightly more removed from Rodin's hand than the bronzes, which were cast by specialists from his molds. Apparently the sculptor who carved it, Henri Greber, worked from a plaster copy of the Paris version.

As the largest sculpture in the museum's vaulted central gallery, it certainly transforms the space, previously dominated by the monumental bronze The Burghers of Calais. That piece has been moved outdoors to the east terrace, but it can be viewed from indoors through large windows.

Sunlight from a skylight washes over The Kiss, causing it to glow in a way that makes the other sculptures in the room seem subsidiary, except for an 1880 terra-cotta model of The Gates. In this preliminary conception, one can locate an early manifestation of the image, which Rodin had removed in subsequent conceptions.

Building the reinstallation around The Gates was a logical and intelligent decision, given the prominence of this work in Rodin's oeuvre. Just as The Kiss was born in The Gates, so were The Thinker and The Shades — three bronze figures representing ghosts from the underworld that sit outdoors on the west terrace.

Putting sculptures back in the museum's exterior niches and in the so-called Meudon gateway to the surrounding formal garden animates the building as it serves as a précis of the museum's contents.

Although the Rodin Museum is small, it contains a good deal to occupy the eye, the imagination, and the emotions. Small plaster studies in the rear gallery provide glimpses of the artist's creative method — as we see, he was a modeler, not a carver.

The corner galleries at the rear represent other major projects, such as Rodin's massive portrait of the author Honoré de Balzac and studies for public monuments.

The room behind the main gallery holds his larger-than-life statute of a striding Saint John the Baptist preaching, which beautifully conveys Rodin's ability to communicate movement, just as The Kiss embodies intense emotion and sensuality.

Rodin was a sculptor of vast ambition who took Michelangelo as his model. He is not nearly as revered today as he was when this museum opened, but his figures retain their primal life force and their often astonishing plasticity.

The Rodin isn't a museum to attempt after being bombarded by the Barnes. It deserves an exclusive appointment, and to be experienced with a clear palate.

Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.

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