The San Antonio Museum of Art is among the U.S. museums to host “Rodin: The Human Experience, Selections from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collections,” on view from March 5 to May 29, 2016. The tour, which has been traveling for three years, commemorates the 100th anniversary of the sculptor Auguste Rodin’s death in 1917. The exhibition showcases 32 Rodin bronzes taken from the Cantor Collections, ranging from small-scale to monumental works.
Merribell Parsons, museum curator of European art, worked with Judith Sobol, executive director of the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation to bring the exhibition to San Antonio. This is Parsons’ first installation since joining the museum in 2014. Her distinguished career has included positions as chief curator of sculpture and decorative Arts at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, assistant director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, and CEO/director of the Columbus Museum of Art. She specializes in European art history, 17th-19th century, with a focus on sculpture and decorative arts.
This is an unusual exhibition for the San Antonio Museum, which does not have any large-scale holdings in bronze sculpture, and one that bolsters the European collections nicely. The exhibit is an opportunity to examine a range of works by Rodin, perhaps best known for his work “The Thinker,” up close and personal.
Included in this installation are elements from “The Gates of Hell,” “The Monument to the Burghers of Calais,” and “Saint John the Baptist Preaching.” Cantor was very fond of Rodin’s hands, and it shows in the exhibit through the “The Hand of God,” which was the first piece he ever collected. When he purchased the piece in 1946, Rodin had fallen out of favor with the art world. You won’t see “The Thinker” or “The Lovers” in this group, but you will see many of the lesser known sculpture and a number of Rodin’s erotic nudes.
Cantor became close friends with Cécile Goldscheider, the legendary director of Paris’s Musée Rodin at the time, who served as his art advisor in these early years. She steered Cantor toward these partial figures and hands which were of tremendous interest to Rodin himself.
Bernie Cantor was indeed the Cantor, founder of Wall Street giant, Cantor Fitzgerald Inc. He was a titan of business who found purpose and passion in his collecting of Rodin. Cantor had already passed due to complications of diabetes in 1996, long before the tragic loss at the World Trade Center in 2001. His widow, Iris Cantor, continues as the leader of the foundation to this day, providing philanthropic leadership in medicine and the arts.
For more than 35 years, the Cantor Foundation has made its Rodin collection — the most important outside the Musée Rodin in Paris — available to the public through its traveling exhibition and research programs. In a pre-opening interview, Sobol discussed the Cantors’ passion for Rodin. Today, the Cantor Foundation has 250 pieces in the collection, but at the all-time high there were more like 750. She said, “Bernie never wanted the Rodins in a dark basement. It was his desire to see the collection always alive.”
Since 1978, the foundation has assured that the legacy of Rodin found deep roots in the U.S. and internationally by sharing their collection and making very generous donations and supporting scholarship. They have seeded numerous collections in museums and universities, public and private collections alike, across the land. There are usually two exhibitions running on tour simultaneously, and according to the website, the exhibitions have attracted more than 10 million visitors at venues throughout the world.
Sobol was very complimentary of Parsons’ installation, “I’ve been on the job for 15 years. You can really overpower this stuff with too much installation. You wouldn’t think it possible to overpower such wonderful sculpture, but you can. This is just right.” She continues, “The mark of a good museum is how well it lights its Rodin shows.” Parsons is one to give credit where credit is due to her installation team and their expertise, thanking them for all of their hard work. Curators don’t work in a vacuum and it is wise and generous to give kudos to the behind-the-scenes staff that work together with them to bring a vision to fruition.
Rodin is today recognized as the first truly modern sculptor, although the art establishment in Paris at the time didn’t think much of his early work. One can put his sculpture in the same league with the Impressionists active during this period beginning in the mid-1870s. Where the depiction of the fracturing of light and planes was important to the painters of the period, it is equally important in Rodin’s muscular modeling.
Parsons placed a terracotta sculpture by Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse in the gallery as a counterpoint. This is a work by Rodin’s first employer, a “favorite portraitist of the fashionable elite during the Belle Époque.” One can see how the young Rodin probably chafed at the bit.
The bust, “Grande Dame in Elegant Dress, with Flowers in Hair,” is very pretty and very fussy. In contrast, Rodin worked messy. He was open to the elements of chance. It is very educational to have an opportunity to make such a close study of the master’s work. It is guttural and abrupt. The hand of the artist is apparent in the modeling of the original terracotta. The sculptor rejected the traditionally tight representation, which was fashionable at the time, in favor of more subjective depictions of the human form.
Sobol pointed out the fact that his work was full of movement, making an example of the way Rodin had a tendency to capture the human form in motion, rather than at rest.
“This was the time of the advent of the motion picture. He had one of the first autos in Paris. He was very interested in movement and depicting that,” Sobol said. Whether the motion was walking, playing the piano, dancing with abandon or making love, Rodin captured it with gusto.
Recognized as the first truly modern sculptor, Rodin’s work revolutionized the way sculpture was conceived and created, which led the way to more modern interpretations of form and content. One can still see his influence today.
Although interested in forging his own strong identity and technique in new ways, Rodin’s studio operated in much the same way that sculpture studios had operated since the Renaissance. When the master completed his original in clay, he was finished. This original was then passed on to the supporting atelier of master craftsmen who reproduced the work in stone or metal, usually bronze. Rodin trained and supervised these craftsmen, but it was left to these assistants and foundries to work with the patron to reproduce a piece to their specification.
Rodin was not just a gifted sculptor but, as Sobol points out, was sort of the Jeff Koons of his day. He was a savvy businessman and by the turn of the 20th century he had become extremely famous, with his work much sought after in the public and private sectors. However, the artist was intent on not only being famous and successful in his own lifetime, but beyond, after his death.
It was with his legacy in mind that Rodin left everything in his studio to the nation of France and authorized posthumous casts of his works. The sales were to be used to fund the ongoing operations of the Musée Rodin in Paris. The bronzes in this exhibition are originals as set forth by Rodin’s will and as affirmed by the nation of France.
The authorized posthumous casts in this exhibition carry the necessary Musée Rodin stamp. This stamp tells the year the cast was made by the Musée Rodin, which owns the copyright. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the French government capped the number of editions that could be produced. An attorney is employed full-time to investigate any unauthorized reproductions of Rodin sculpture. So, while it isn’t illegal to own a fake, it is illegal to sell one. When detected, it will be confiscated and destroyed by the French government.
If you are one to enjoy a good lecture, the story of Cantor and his magnificent obsession with Rodin is a fascinating one. Sobol is quite a raconteur, and this lecture will be worth attending on Sunday, March 6, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.
The Rodin exhibit opens to the public on Saturday, March 5, 2016. Admission costs $10 for adults, $7 for seniors over 65, and $5 for students and military with ID. Children 12 and under enter free. For more information about the museum and its programs click here.
*Top Image: “Rodin: The Human Experience, Selections from the Iris and B.Gerald Cantor Collections.” San Antonio Museum of Art, 2016. Photo by Page Graham.