THE EXHIBITION "Rodin Rediscovered" at the National Gallery of Art, which ends Jan. 31, is the result of more than 20 years of studies by the art historian Albert Elsen. The exhibition was conceived in themes, but one topic should have been further explored: Rodin and sexuality.
It's a major element in Rodin's work and makes him a 20th-century sculptor, a precursor of psychoanalysis. Albert Elsen, as early as 1963, wrote in his Rodin catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art in New York apropos of the sculpture "Balzac": "His head has become a fountainhead of creative power, and by a kind of Freudian upward displacement it continues the sexual emphasis of the earlier headless nude study."
In the exhibition, it would have been much more effective to have the room with all the studies of "Balzac" up to the final version, together with the sculpture "Iris, Messenger of the Gods" (1890-1891), along with a wall of Rodin's erotic drawings. Such a presentation would have emphasized Rodin's deep sexual involvement in his work. Rodin did several hundred drawings of couples, including lesbians, with explicit genital detail. In the show, one could see some of them, such as "Burning Bush" 1905, "Tree of Liberty" 1905, "Naiade," "Semi-Nude with Lifted Leg." Considering that he created a large volume of such drawings, it would have been significant to represent them more fully, and not as though they were only a minor concern.
To rediscover Rodin would have been also to discover what was/is really scandalous about the "Balzac." This sculpture reveals all the beauty of statuary; it's monolithic mass in the round. The work was shocking at his time because of its sexual excess, its phallic shape. The "Balzac," more than any other work in the entire history of Western sculpture, reveals the secret of verticality, the nature of creative genius in relationship to the body and sexuality. But much of its impact is diluted in the context in which it is seen here.
Rodin said that he was able to capture Baudelaire's genius with the sculpture of his head only, but with Balzac he needed to depict the whole body. If Rodin's sexual candor was disturbing in his time, it remains so today. Most of the sculptural art of the 20th century under the cubist and constructivist influence had often left behind the fundamental concept of statuary, vertical mass in the round, in favor of transparent effects and of visual qualities versus tactility. It is probable that this attitude reflects a hidden form of modern puritanism.
Also to rediscover Rodin would be to show the more sexual nature of his work in the context of America, a country of Protestant tradition. Rodin came from a country of Catholic tradition, a country of the Gothic, a country where the focal point of femininity is the cult of the Virgin Mary. Femininity is not taboo, woman is never a predator or a sin.
"Iris, Messenger of the Gods" represents Rodin's celebration of female sexuality, as a counterpart to the Balzac. The sculpture is a headless female body with thighs apart. It is the most powerful expression of feminine eroticism since the sculpture of Saint Theresa by Bernini in Rome.
In this very large exhibition, to emphasize his relationship with sexuality would have been a revelation. beautiful as it was, the show was too chaste for Rodin.