Rodin’s “The Gates of Hell” served as a source for multiple sculptural pieces, including “The Three Shades,” above, that migrated into new contexts and took on new identities. (Christian Baraja)

Most people who make even occasional visits to an art museum probably feel they know Auguste Rodin fairly well, for his work is everywhere. Even modest regional museums may have a bronze cast of one of the iconic statues, and new casts are still being made, and sold, by the Musée Rodin in Paris. Indeed, the museum funded the renovation of one of its buildings, the Hotel Biron, Rodin’s Paris studio, through the sale of new original bronze casts.

The museum’s closure for renovation also allowed curators at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to mount a major exhibition of Rodin’s work, focused on his creative process and the plaster casts that most directly bear the marks of his evolving ideas. “Rodin: Evolution of a Genius,” first seen in Montreal (under a different title), opens this weekend at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and even those who fancy themselves well versed in Rodin’s vision will probably find much to surprise and delight them in this extensive show.

The highlight of the experience is in the second room, a long, hall-like space in which dozens of small works are displayed on sturdy tables, with large overhead lamps giving the gallery the feel of the workshop or studio. This is the heart of the show, where Rodin’s basic syntax of forms is laid out, his habit of reusing figures, or fragments of figures, in different contexts, joining together unrelated torsos to create new erotic possibilities, grafting arms and bodies together from an extended tool kit of interchangeable parts, mixing various figures from his “Gates of Hell” to ambiguous states of ecstasy and desire, combining a disembodied head with disembodied hands to create a new vision of deep thought, or despair. Assemblage — the reuse and recombination of existing forms — was essential to Rodin’s process, though one rarely sees it so clearly laid out.

In an adjacent room, under specially made protective bell jars, assemblage takes a radical twist, small forms that Rodin called “flowers.” These are, in fact, combinations of Rodin’s basic sculptural elements with small terra-cotta or stoneware vessels from antiquity. And so a small plaster nude of a woman (with one of Rodin’s mix-and-match heads known as the Slavic Woman) is presented sitting on a small, ancient alabaster amphora, her feet not quite touching the ground, or the same Slavic Woman’s upper body is positioned in a black piece of pottery, as if she is emerging from a chrysalis or taking some kind of ceremonial bath.

Occasionally, these little follies would migrate from the private, conceptual realm into independent, unified sculptures that elide their origins in the combination of ancient and the new: A plaster form showing a woman with no arms standing in a small basin is a cast made from the assemblage of ancient alabaster and one of Rodin’s basic female forms.

Auguste Rodin’s (1840-1917) “The Thinker.” (Christian Baraja)

Artists had repurposed ancient work to create new forms before Rodin, and if they incorporated a tool or contemporary object in an original clay model, they would often just insert the contemporary object into the clay before casting it (creating something that would look superficially like these small “flowers”). But these Rodin sculptures are more fundamentally heterogenous, joining the ancient and contemporary together without embarrassment, and with no effort to minimize the dissonance or hide the seams between past and present. This is far removed from the Renaissance habit of mounting an ancient sculpture on an elaborate pedestal, and much closer to the contemporary idea of assemblage, from the use of newspaper clippings in pieces by Picasso to the acres of derivative work built up from found objects and garbage still cluttering galleries in Manhattan today.

Assemblage is only one element of Rodin’s visual syntax explored in the exhibition. There are also fragmentation and enlargement. In 1878, Rodin created a standing figure with outstretched right arm and bearded face, known as “Saint John the Baptist.” Years later, a fragment of that work — the torso — became part of a new sculpture, “The Walking Man,” which depicts a headless figure seeming to stride forward resolutely, yet with both feet planted on the ground. Versions exist of the torso in its original Saint John context (seen in this show in a medium-sized plaster version), as a torso with no legs (which suggests an ancient bronze and underscores Rodin’s lifelong passion for ancient art), and at different scales as part of the Walking Man (including, in this exhibition, a version mounted on a tall bronze column).

The use of columns or pedestals is yet another avenue for rethinking basic forms. Perhaps the most striking example is a large foot mounted on a formal plaster pedestal, with fluted sides and a vine motif. The foot is from “The Thinker,” perhaps the most iconic of Rodin’s forms, but presented here in a manner that — if you didn’t know it was by Rodin — you might think was dadaist provocation. The standard reading of many beloved Rodin works, that they seem to emerge from the raw material of their stone or metal base, doesn’t quite fit these provocative hybrids, in which the pedestal itself has been rendered in the fragile medium it should support. The incorporation of the plaster pedestal into the Thinker’s foot is more about emphasizing the radical fragmentation of the foot itself, demanding that it be seen not as disembodied, but aesthetically complete in and of itself.

Many of these basic forms, including the Thinker, were part of “The Gates of Hell,” the colossal set of doors commissioned by the French government for a building that was never constructed. Rodin never finished “The Gates of Hell,” inspired by Dante’s “Inferno,” but several casts of the giant ensemble were made after he died in 1917 (including one installed at Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum). But during his life, it served as a source for multiple sculptural pieces that migrated into new contexts, took on new identities and were combined into different ensembles. It is seen in the exhibition in a large photograph, and in a smaller bronze version known as the third maquette. But its elements are everywhere throughout the show, recurring as “The Kiss,” “The Falling Man,” “The Three Shades,” “Adam” and “The Thinker” (represented by an enormous plaster cast).

The obvious and unsettling question of what constitutes a finished or genuine Rodin is a recurring theme of the show. Since about the middle of the last century, thinking on the issue has changed substantially. The bronze and marble pieces that were so highly prized by collectors and museums were, in fact, the work of craftsmen in Rodin’s extensive studio. The plaster casts, however, are the first and perhaps most authentic imprint of the raw clay in which the sculptor worked out his ideas (the clay “originals” were usually lost in the making of the plaster casts). But as this exhibition demonstrates, it makes more sense to set aside definitive answers about final works and focus instead on the constant evolution of the forms in a studio system overseen by Rodin as the conceptual if not physical author of the work.

It was, like so many things in Rodin’s oeuvre, both a throwback to an older system of making art and a surprisingly contemporary organization of the production process. Rodin’s studio resembled those of Renaissance artists, with multiple assistants and specialists, and the “artist” both a designer and an entrepreneur, overseeing the organizational challenges. But it also resembles the outsourcing of the actual physical production of the artwork, a practice these days of many artists, who ship an idea generated in the computer to a fabricator (often in China) to create the physical object. It’s never wise to speculate, but it seems likely, given how essential assemblage was to the artist, that he would have been quick to adopt digital tools and computer modeling if he were alive today. (Whether that would be good for his reputation is another matter.)

By the end of the exhibition, it’s clear that Rodin was not the sort of sculptor suggested by the old joke about how Michelangelo created his heroic statue of David. (Punch line: the sculptor says, “Get a huge block of marble and remove everything that doesn’t look like David.”) The joke (which may have its origins in a specious inspirational tale about the virtues of humility) suggests a conception of sculpture in which the form lives in the material, and the sculptor’s job is to uncover it. Which emphasizes the direct contact between the artist and the material he works. Rodin wasn’t indifferent to material, and he prized working with plaster that he could work relatively easily, allowing one piece to be grafted on another. But there was no mythologizing about secret forms locked in the raw stone or wood. Rather, there was an imaginative vocabulary embodied in the forms he repurposed and re-contextualized. He didn’t release ideas from the natural world, but invented them and then made them physical.

Auguste Rodin’s “The Hand of the Devil,” 1903, plaster. (Christian Baraja)

A short 1915 film of Rodin, shown chipping away at a giant block of stone, is thus a bit misleading. It shows us a bearish, bearded man, tapping on a chisel. But it’s best to think of those tools as symbols, telling the viewer that he is a sculptor, rather like the keys in the hand of a saint telling us he is Saint Peter. His actual practice, explored in this exciting and revelatory exhibition, involved a lot more thinking, and moving little things around with the mind and the hands, and not a lot of hammering or melting, pouring and polishing.

Rodin: Evolution of a Genius is on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through March 13. For more information visit