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Transcript of 'Danaid', Auguste Rodin podcast

Right, if you've come to hear the talk about Rodin's sculpture 'Danaid' please draw closer. There are seats just round the corner if you want to, but it's probably quite good if you actually stand, if you don't mind standing for a while.

I'm going to be looking at, today, this sculpture by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, called 'Danaid'. And I'm going to be talking about how Rodin managed to transform what sculpture was and how it was thought of and what people looked for. So that by the beginning of the 20th century, what people thought a sculpture could be and what it could look like was totally transformed. There were three elements that Rodin in particular developed in his sculpture.

One was stylistic innovation and we'll be having a look at how he both combined extreme facility in naturalistic modelling of the figure, along with a very abstracted symbolism and expressiveness of the figure.

Now this woman that we see in front of us, this naked woman, is meant to represent Danaid. Danaid was one of the fifty daughters of an ancient Greek king and the king Danaus was in a feudal rivalry with his brother and his brother happened to have fifty sons. The sons forced themselves on the daughters in a forced marriage. The father, the King, to get back at his brother, effectively, commanded or ordered all his daughters to murder their husbands on their wedding night.

For this sin, all the daughters were condemned to Hell. Not only were they condemned to Hell, but when they were in Hell, they had to perform the totally fruitless and futile task of continually trying to fill broken jugs and broken pots with water.

If you look closely you can see, around here, Rodin has sculpted a cracked and broken pot out of which water is flooding. The water is suitably combined with the flowing hair of the Danaid herself. So, we have here a sculpture of somebody who is essentially slumped to the ground in frustration, but also agony, because she is meant to be in hell.

You can see in this sculpture alone how Rodin managed to combine both his naturalistic and symbolic style with other elements that he introduced into sculpture. Other elements that he helped develop - the different subject matter and symbolic subject matter that he chose. And, more importantly, how he came to choose the subject and how he came to choose the form in which he sculpted the figure.

Finally, what he introduced was actually the way he went about sculpting. And these three elements he combined into forming sculptures which one of his greatest promoters in Britain was the art critic and poet, Henley, who actually referred to Rodin's sculpture as 'his sculptures were an expression of passion' and different passionate forms.

If we want to understand what Rodin brought to sculpture and how he innovated we have to think and look at what had come before. What he was rebelling against. A key way of thinking about this or looking at this is if you think about the sculpture that you all see when you come into the Walker Art Gallery in the middle of the Walker's cafe which is by an Italian neo-classical sculptor called Giacomo de Maria, called 'The Death of Virginia'.

One of the key things about that, other than comparing it with this sculpture, is not only that it's in marble as opposed to this bronze. But the key thing about the Giacomo de Maria is that it has one principal viewpoint. You are meant to see it as you see it when you come through the door - right bang in front of you. This sculpture by Rodin and other sculptures by Rodin almost compel you to walk around it, to explore it from all angles in order to understand what it depicts and how it depicts it and how it's showing you the form.

And that was a key factor of Rodin's work and he understands that very well. Quite interestingly, he didn't write a lot about what he was intending with his sculpture. He wasn't a sort of promoter of himself in literature so to speak, but interestingly enough, when James Smith, the collector from Blundellsands who bought this sculpture, bought it, Rodin immediately wrote to him and offered to send him a turntable for this sculpture and in fact he also offered a turntable for the ‘Death of Athens’, which is the marble sculpture over there.

So, interestingly enough, Rodin was aware of the fact that in order to appreciate his sculptures properly you had to literally walk round them or turn them round on a turntable. And one of the things that is quite often said about Rodin and the expressiveness of his female models and female nudes is that he could make a woman's back as expressive as her face and this certainly is the case in this sculpture, in the sense that the sheer sensuousness of the curves of her hips and the way it's very naturalistically modelled but at the same time is exaggerated so that the sharpness of the hips and the shoulder blades are exaggerated so that they echo and almost conform to the ground on which the Danaid is lying.

The sensuousness of this tortured figure may actually be emphasised by the fact that the model for this figure… it's thought that the model was probably one of Rodin's female assistants but also his lover, Camille Claudel. Camille Claudel in the 1880s worked alongside Rodin in his studio. She became his lover and she was a gifted sculptress in her own right and they had a very impassioned but also very tortured relationship. As, in fact, Rodin had with quite a few of his lovers and she, in fact, ended up in a mental asylum.

You get the feeling of this passionate relationship with the figure is emphasised perhaps by this relationship with the model. It's quite interesting that Rodin was very aware of his particular facilities in modelling and the element that I discussed about how he could make a woman's back as expressive as her face. For example, he used to keep plaster models of some of his sculptures in his studio and he would invite publicity and photographers into his studio and the full-size model of Eve, of which a small size model is there, the central standing figure there. He actually deliberately had that photographed from the back view, because he considered that the back view of his Eve was the most expressive view of her shame and abandonment.

So Rodin was very aware of his abilities and, to go back to the Danaid, I'm calling it the Danaid and saying what the figure symbolises but one of the other unconventional elements of the way Rodin worked was that he quite often did not have a subject matter in mind when he started a sculpture. In addition to that he quite often, even when he attached a title to a sculpture, he might change it, or in fact it might be a title that didn't get used.

With the Danaid figure, he started formulating the form of the figure in the mid-1880s, probably in relation to his major project, his major state commission that he was given in 1880. That was to model and create the huge bronze doors to what was intended to be a major museum of decorative arts in Paris. These doors were going to be about 20 foot high in bronze and he was allowed to choose the theme of the doors and he chose the theme to be related to Dante's poem, 'The Inferno'.

So, the figures on these doors were all meant to be figures from either literature or the Bible, or Greek and Roman legend, who were the condemned of history, the damned souls. Then they were going to have, at one point in his concept for the doors, they were going to have Adam and Eve as huge figures on either side of the doors. The Danaid, the storyline, is eminently suitable for being one of these figures on the doors.

It's an extremely peculiar idea for an entrance to a decorative arts museum. In addition to the fact that his original idea was that he was going to have right at the top, across the tympanum of the doors, the phrase that Dante has at the entrance to Hell, 'abandon hope all ye who enter here'!. So it was a very bizarre concept and you may not be surprised to know that the doors were never completed and the museum was never built.

But despite the fact that the doors were never completed, he used his work on the doors as a way of generating lots of ideas and themes and models for separate and distinctive sculptures that were then either produced in bronze or marble and sold separately.

The Danaid probably starts off like that, generated from the doors in about the mid1880s, but the figure doesn't actually get a title until 1889, when it is first shown as a marble figure. So the first concept he had of the Danaid was a marble sculpture which was shown in an exhibition alongside Monet's impressionist paintings. So, in 1889, it was considered an example of naturalistic impressionism and was shown alongside Monet's works.

Now, that's 1889, this sculpture wasn't actually commissioned by James Smith until 1901. In 1901 we think he actually saw the marble sculpture on exhibition in the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris and he went along to Rodin's dealer in Paris, a chap called Glaenzer, and said that he'd like to commission a bronze version of the sculpture. Quite interestingly enough, when Glaenzer writes to Rodin saying he's got this new commission, he doesn't call it the Danaid, he refers to it as the figure of the woman crouched on the ground in an attitude of despair.

So that is how it was conceived of and that's partly because of the way that Rodin went about sculpting. He was fascinated and obsessed with trying to capture particularly the female body and express it in all its possible moods and poses and movements, in particular movements. And the way he would start work on a possible sculpture was actually not as a sculpture at all but as a watercolour drawing.

He would get his models and he quite liked to have non-professional models. For example, the Eve was modelled on an Italian woman, who happened to be a working class Italian lady. And he would get them to move around the studio and whilst they moved around he would draw and do beautiful watercolours, if you ever get to see some they are extremely fluid watercolours.

And then he would also model whilst they moved, model very quickly and he had an extraordinary facility for modelling either in wax or clay. and it was from those models that he would then develop the sculpture. What was interesting to him was actually the form and the pose and the subject matter came later, so to speak.

His intervention in the sculpture was therefore the crucial intervention was his original modelled sculpture and figure and then his other intervention was at the end of the whole process because you must realise that bronze sculptures are in fact a reproductive medium. They are a way of reproducing the sculptor's original idea. The actual process of casting a bronze sculpture is highly technical and the sculptor would not be involved in it, not even Rodin.

The technical side was all done by bronze foundries and so the key things were that the sculptor created a model either in clay or wax and then a mould was made of that model in plaster, a heat-resistant mould. And then it was lined crucially with wax. And then you would extract the original sculpted model and pour into the mould clay to form a core, so you ended up with an outer plaster mould and an inner core and crucially a layer of wax between the two.

You then heated up the mould and of course the wax would melt and run out through channels that were specially built into the mould and that would leave a gap between the core and the outer mould which actually gave you this outer figure. and then, in the foundry, you would pour in the molten bronze and you would also probably spin the mould at the same time in order to make sure that the bronze actually got into all the crevices.

- Was the mould that the foundry used also made of plaster?

The mould that the foundry used would have an inner plaster core and then it would be built up outside with what's called an investment in clay so it would be quite a large sort of object. Then it would be in the foundry and then you'd wait until it cooled down and then you break the outer mould and take away the inner core and you had your cast bronze figure.

- So that's got nothing inside of it?

Yes. Most of the bronzes are hollow and they have to be hollow because a) if you had a solid bronze, even of this size which is quite small, it would be so impossibly heavy you couldn't move it or position it easily. But also for technical reasons you want it hollow.

You want a thin layer of bronze because bronze will cool at different rates depending on how thick it was and that is a recipe for absolute disaster because if you have the metal cooling at different rates at different parts of the sculpture you're going to get fractures and breakages and so on. In fact, we know that with this Rodin cast they did have a problem with the casting and they had to do it again and that is why although James Smith commissioned it in 1901 he didn't actually get it to his house at The Knowle in Bludellsands until 1903.

It's a highly technical and dangerous job. But the other way that the sculptor can intervene in what the sculpture ends up looking like is by the choice of patina, what's called patina. Now, Rodin was actually very interested in intervening at this stage and selecting the appropriate patina for a sculpture and quite a lot of sculptors weren't at all interested and they just left it to the foundrymen. But Rodin would actually select a particular patina for a particular sculpture.

And we know that he was asked what patina he wanted for this particular sculpture and he came up with this sharp and slightly bitter green tone for this anguished figure and if you look around at the other five sculptures which are made of bronze or have bronze elements, although they all went straight from Rodin's studio to James Smith's house where they would have been kept, inside at his house, they all have different colours and tones to their bronze patina.

Patinas are there primarily to protect the bronze underneath and where a patina gets rubbed off you can see that here on her hip bone that there's a sort of dark brown colour, that's where in the past the patina has actually been rubbed off by people touching the figure.

As well as a protective aspect, patina also has this aesthetic aspect that Rodin was particularly aware of and so he chose as I say this sharp green for the Danaid but a much more sort of olive/mournful green for the Eve. And then if you actually look at 'Sister and Brother' that has more of an orangey/yellow, almost a skin tone type to the bronze. So that was the other way that Rodin could intervene in what the finished product looked like.

Rodin had quite an impact on British sculptors. Rodin was already being appreciated by British, not just British collectors, but British artists and painters and sculptors in the 1880s. And we know that British painters like John Lavery had sculptures by Rodin in their collections, usually in fact the prettier, rococo and smaller sculptures in their collections, but Rodin had a huge studio of apprentices and assistants and he was very open and accepted assistants from everywhere including Britain.

And so there are British sculptors who went and started as assistants in Rodin's studio and one of them was William Goscombe John who was in Rodin's studio in the early 1890s. Now the Walker has a work by William Goscombe John that you can actually see if you go downstairs and right at the back of the sculpture gallery you will see a bust called ‘Age’ that shows an old woman and you can see in that bust sorts of elements in Rodin's work that attracted the British sculptors. They were called the New Sculptors in the late 1880s, 1890s 1900s.

They were very attracted by the use of bronze and in fact if you think about it if you go to our sculpture gallery you start off, you walk in and you start off in the 18th century, early 19th century and it's almost all marble, white marble and then as you go towards the back where you come to the 1880s, 1890s work, it suddenly all turns dark and it's bronze.

So that was one effect, but a much more specific element that the British sculptors took up and admired in Rodin's work particularly was this intense interest in surface texture and you can see here the difference between the beautifully smooth shining nude flesh of the Danaid and the marvellous hair as it trails across the rocky ground and the way the actual facets of the rock have been modelled and moulded.

That was the sort of element that British sculptors took up in the early 20th century and if you actually think about the way this figure is slumped and the sheer sort of passionate and impassioned nature of the figure and symbolic nature of the figure and what it's meant to represent - the sort of tortured and the anguished figure, without Rodin, without this sort of figure by Rodin, you could never have had what you see over there which is Henry Moore's figure of the fallen warrior.

That was how Rodin essentially transformed the nature of what sculpture was about, simply by introducing new ways of thinking about the figure and how you compose it and what sort of poses were acceptable in sculpture.