The giant atrium of the National Gallery's East Building has at last been challenged -- by the towering, passionate art of Auguste Rodin. In the Show "Rodin Rediscovered," which opens Sunday, his small marble nudes huddle below while the giant figure of his "Balzac" soars above, commanding the space like a triumphant giant swathed in bronze.

Rodin equated sculpture with creation, and himself with the creator, nothing less. In the swirling universe of figures he has formed -- the contorted nudes, the impassioned lovers, the anguished sinners tumbling into hell, the tormented, armless torsos -- he has indeed created a world of his own.

At the turn of the century Rodin (1840-1917), the romantic, prolific creator of "The Thinker" and "The Kiss," was unrivaled as the most famous sculptor in the world, and his four clipping services had provided him 100,000 articles to prove it. But his reputation was swept away after his death by a rising tide of modernism and abstraction.

Though younger artists owed him a great debt -- a point made incontrovertibly in this show of 400 works -- many, including Brancusi and Matisse, actively sought to throw off Rodin's dominance by loudly scorning his work. There is irony in the fact that this exhibition is being held in a building dominated by a giant Calder mobile. It was Calder who once compared Rodin's marbles to "shaving cream piled on the floor," his bronzes to chocolate mousse. A whole generation of art historians also taught their students that Rodin was too sloppy-sentimental, too romantic. It was the 20th century, after all, and passion was out; intellect was in.

This exhibition isn't called "Rodin Rediscovered" for nothing.

Rediscovery is very much the goal -- and the impact -- of this splendid show, another high-water mark for the gallery, both in terms of the installation and the new scholarship it unfurls. Divided thematically rather than strictly chronologically, the exhibition has 10 parts, each supervised by one of a team of Rodin scholars who organized the show and wrote the catalogue under the direction of Prof. Albert Elsen of Stanford University. It begins at the top level of the East Building and winds its way down, via a circular stair, to the concourse, exploiting every level of the building to brilliant advantage.

The show begins and ends by establishing Rodin within the context of his contemporaries at the beginning and end of his career, and in between examines his working methods and his subjects from the creative geniuses of his time to the lovers of his imagination. There are early and late drawings, plaster never before seen, as well as photographs taken in his studio by Steichen, Kasebier and others. At the heart of the show is his 23-foot-high "Gates of Hell," one of the most extensive sculptural projects undertaken since the Renaissance and here shown in a new eight-ton bronze casting, the sharpest and most precise to date.

The show begins at the top in more ways than one. To set the scene and establish the art context Rodin confronted at the start of his career, a typical 1870s Paris salon has been stunningly recreated -- palms, skylights and all. Installed within it are 27 of the most important sculptures actually shown in salons of that decade, including five by Rodin.

It took Rodin 11 years, starting from his first rejection in 1864, to gain admission to the Paris Salon -- the sine qua non for any artist seeking public and private commissions. This was due in no small part to his earlier failure to gain admission to the official Ecole des Beaux Arts, which fed directly into the salons.

The first works finally accepted were a bust titled "Man With the Broken Nose" and a terra cotta portrait of a Parisian gentleman named "M. Garnier." They show Rodin to have been, at the time of his debut at 35, a mature and able artist, buy clearly not the titan he was to become.

The mood of defeat following the Franco-Prussian War is epitomized in the centerpiece of this composite "Salon" -- Antonin Mercier's vision of triumph in defeat titled "Gloria Victis." Among the literary subjects is a touchingly innocent carving of Paolo and Francesca, the ill-fated adulterous lovers of Dante's "Inferno." It is worth remembering this work, for these same models would ultimately play considerably more erotic, passionate roles as the two nude lovers in Rodin's famous "Kiss."

And just as he stripped the Renaissance clothing from these figures, so did Rodin later strip away the genteel overlay of neoclassicism so prevalent at the time. Even in the earliest standing figures -- "The Age of Bronze" and "St. John the Baptist Preaching" -- the classic, static stance has been broken, and the body set in motion -- albeit limited motion, given the gyrations that were to come.

When "Age of Bronze" was first shown in 1880, it struck audiences as so real that Rodin was accused of taking the cast from life. He would soon add emotional reality to his work, in the form of passion, anguish, the sheer exuberance of creation that he expressed in his great monuments: "The Burghers of Calais" and the magnificent "Balzac." This grows to a great crescendo in the course of this show, culminating in the "Walking Man," which, though armless and headless, is the apotheosis of these powers.

In the next section, "In Rodin's Studio," plasters and drawings conjure the world of the Meudon studio. Surrounding the studio are several enlarged photographs showing the red-haired artist, some of his mistresses and his sister, who died at 20 -- after which Rodin spent a year in a monastery. What we really begin to wish for here -- and don't get -- is a little more feeling for Rodin the man, obviously a magnetic, impassioned force whose life is never rendered in the round in this show. Prof. Elsen insists that "the art is a thousand times more interesting than the biography," and obviously feels that the myth has already too long muffled the reality of Rodin's genius. Nevertheless, the persistent eroticism -- obviously central to both Rodin's life and art -- is bound to arouse curiosity.

But we have the facts of his career: After the 1880 Salon, Rodin's reputation began to soar, and he won many of the most coveted public commissions: "The Burghers of Calais" (who look as if they've walked across the Mall from the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden); the great "Balzac" (with accompanying studies), which looms from the mezzanine bridge and, when seen from the rear, conjures a giant phallus. Perhaps most important, however, was Rodin's first commission in 1880 to design the bronze doors for what was to be a museum of decorative arts in Paris.

Though the museum was never built, and the doors never cast in Rodin's lifetime, the project resulted in an outburst of imagination and impassioned creativity that produced hundreds of sculptural ideas, including "The Thinker" and "The Kiss."

Five sets of "The Gates" have been cast posthumously, the first commissioned by the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia and another by Hermann Goering, who had lost the war by the time they were completed and sold to the museum in Zurich. The present cast, the only one made by the lost-wax method, was commissioned by the world's largest private Rodin collector, B. Gerald Cantor. The "Gates" are here shown together with their writhing, contorted and often very passionate offspring for the first time. The installation is nothing less than spectacular.

Rodin's most important contribution to modern sculpture was the use of the partial figure, which influenced every major sculptor before World War I. The exhibition ends in a room full of works by the artists who condemned Rodin, including Brancusi and Matisse. His importance even to them is incontrovertible.

Being able to look at the sculptural context from which he sprang -- as opposed to just reading about it -- is one of the great joys of this exhibition, and for it we are indebted to the work of Dr. Elsen, Dr. Ruth Butler of The University of Massachussetts, Kirk Varnedoe of NYU and the gallery's own design Wunderkind, Gaillard F. Ravenel, aided by Mark Leithauser and ELRoy Quenroe. And IBM, which helped foot the bill.