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12 November 1840 – 17 November 1917
"The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live."
“No part of the body was insignificant or trivial, for even the smallest of them was alive. Life, which appeared on faces with the clarity of a dial, easily read and full of signs of the times, was greater and more diffuse in bodies, more mysterious and more eternal.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, 1902.
For an artist whose most famous work is a paragon of heterosexual desire, Auguste Rodin has a fair amount of queer connections. This is perhaps not surprising when realising he lived in Paris during the Fin de siècle, the epicentre of a lesbian revolution (as well as a sticky web of warring romances) namely due to one Natalie Clifford Barney (more to follow on her exploits) (the ex of the ex of the life partner of Virginia Woolf’s ex.)
“Fin-de-siècle Paris was the capital of lesbianism. However, until the mid century, and despite the acknowledgment of male homosexuality, female homosexuality had been considered absurd….Lesbianism in the public realm was a sexual preference that, while common, was negatively judged by French conservative society and for this reason was conducted with subtlety and partially obscured. In fact, many of the biggest stars of the Parisian circuses, dance halls and café-concerts were lesbian or bisexual, including Jane Avril and May Milton”
TOULOUSE-LAUTREC: Paris and the Moulin Rouge. 2012.
Characterised by rough-hewn surfaces Rodin carves an unashamed presentation of sexuality through the momentum of bodies. Flesh is pillowy, soft, sinewy, and taut. Dimpled and creased. Spiralling forms roll into one another, skin against skin, half engulfed, consumed. Limbs plaited in ecstasy and misery.
“Sculpture is the art of the hole and the lump”
Rodin was unafraid of renewal and reinterpretation, routinely Frankensteined together old works. Whilst he did use mythology and allegory as a basis for inspiration, we can see from the continuously changing titles, that Rodin did not permanently attach a specific meaning or story to a piece (Youth Triumphant, n.d.)
“The inner life that makes up this age is formless and intangible; it is, in short, in flux.... [Rodin] took hold of everything that was vague, developing, and constantly changing—all of which was in him too—and gave form to it.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, 1902.
Women shaped Rodin’s life and work, as inspirations, as models, assistants, friends, romantic and sexual partners and patrons.
Rodin worked from life, encouraging his models to move as they pleased to maintain the reality of form, rather than a cold academic pose. He routinely employed dancers. Researching through his preparatory sketches and life studies reveals the ‘Couple Saphiques' he kept in his circle, but also an open queerness within the creative scene. Sapphic lovers weren’t just regaled to closed sketchbooks either.‘Metamorphosis’ was originally conceived as part of ‘The Gates of Hell’
“Rather than illustrating a specific story, the two female embracing figures evoke the spirit of Ovid, who was a favourite author of Rodin. Art critics of the late 19th century had difficulty in writing about these overtly erotic groups. They often described them as 'fantasies', and in so doing, ascribed less importance to them than to other sculptures by Rodin. But this aspect of Rodin's work held great appeal for young sculptors and writers of the 1890s who wished to confront Victorian culture.”
Victoria & Albert Museum, 2007.
Contemporaneously, artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles Baudelaire and previously Gustave Courbet peaked past the curtain of sapphic desire. Toulouse-Lautrec found friendship in the sexworkers of Paris, his 'Dans Le Lit' series inspired by and modelled on these sapphic relationships.
“Lautrec’s depiction of lesbianism is particularly notable because it doesn’t fetishise sexual intimacy between women or present it as spectacle for the male gaze. Lautrec was trying to capture small, tender moments in the lives of the women he met, and he did so with humanity and sensitivity. In a world of constructed sexuality and fantasy, he finds the real relationships, and reveals to us the hidden lives of queer women in the 19th century.”
Depictions of Lesbianism by Henri Toulouse Lautrec, 2014.
Courbet, G. 1866. 'The Sleepers (Le Sommeil)'
Toulouse Lautrec, H. 1892. 'In Bed
Toulouse-Lautrec, would feature Mme Palmyre, manager of the lesbian brasserie La Souris several times. Cafes Le Hanneton and Le Rat-Mort were other sapphic meeting spots. According to Albert (2011), the authorities were in denial when it came to female homosexuality. It was a criminal offence to write about lesbian sex, but French authorities preferred to turn a blind eye to lesbian meeting places.
“The courts condemned authors who wrote about lesbians and their physical relations because they feared the visibility it gave lesbians more than the so-called vice itself,”
Albert (2011, cited in Caulcutt, 2011)
Rodin, A.(c.19th-century) 'Two women embrace and lookat each other, the right one is kneeling’.
Rodin, A. (c. early 20th century) 'Kjærlighetspar 'Love Couple'.
"In this enormous collection of almost unknown art from the later Rodin (the drawings were made during the period from the turn of the century to his death), the female body is caught with a few lines and patches of color: bodies sleeping, playing with each other like young athletes, or sexually active and alone. Many of the drawings are titled "Sapphic Couple" and represent women embracing, kissing, and making love. Sapphism, as it was called, had gained a fashionable aura by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France, so much so that the Paris of the Belle Epoque was also called "Paris Lesbos" or "Lesbos-sur-Seine." Rodin was not breaking new ground by representing female couples. Like Proust, however, he was giving homoeroticism its title of nobility [lettres de noblesse], retrieving it from cheap commercialization. His treatment of the sapphic subject is different from the usual postcard or peep-show representation of the topic: this difference appears in the supple postures of the figures and in the paradoxical way that the illustrations make the viewer feel privy to the scenes without suffering the sense of performing a voyeuristic invasion. In most cases the artist's gaze seems unobtrusive, respectful of the couples' privacy. The women either seem too absorbed to pay heed to the artist looking on or are absent in sleep (in one version of the classical "sleeping beauty" topos, each female body is reclaimed by the other in a movement of crossing over that invites as well as denies visual appropriation)."
Mahuzier, 2001, p.403.
In 1912, Rodin said,
“People have often accused me of having made erotic sculptures. I have never made any erotic works. I have never made a sculpture for the sake of the erotic element. Most of the people cannot conceive this because they are unable to conceive what sculpture is because they are forever looking in sculpture for literary and philosophical ideas. Sculpture is the art of forms.”
Rodin, A. 1904. The Kiss. [Pentelican marble] At: Tate Britain, London. N06228
The two lovers are the adulterous pair Paolo and Francesca, whose doomed love can be found in Dante’s Canto V of the Inferno. The book in Paolo’s hand in the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. Their one and only kiss is interrupted by Francesca’s husband, who slaughters the two, condemning them to a eternity in hell.
Originally the two were also a part of ‘The Gates of Hell’ until 1886, when Rodin decided that the intended sensuality and delicacy of the pair did not fit. Instead of discarding the pose, he remodelled it to stand alone for exhibition in 1887.
“When Rodin loaned The Kiss to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, it was such a scandalous piece that it was hid”den away in a separate chamber, viewable only upon special application.”
Rodin, as a little less pleased with his own work, describing the statue as ‘a large sculpted knick-knack following the usual formula.’
Three full scale versions were made in Rodin’s lifetime. In 1900, Edward Perry Warren, an American antiquarian living in England, commissioned a replica for his own collection. There were a few requests.
Edward Perry Warren and John Marshall.1895. [Photograph]
Edward Perry Warren, is a rabbit hole of a person in his own. With a lifelong fascination in the arts and a robust family wealth came a vast art collection. His name can be found on many ancient objects, mostly notably the (in)famous The Warren Cup. The roman drinking cup depicts two gay male couples having sex, and was never sold in Warren’s life time. Perhaps this was in knowing that censure would have it hidden away, or maybe to avoid the attention the cup would bring to his own life. Warren alongside his partner archeologist John Marshall, lived a contented life in East Sussex.
The Warren Cup (c. 15BC - AD15) [Silver drinking vessel] At: The British Museum, London. 1999,0426.1
Now with this replica, Warren, having seen the previous versions, requested that “the genital organ of the man must be completed”. Rodin delivered in the summer of 1904, but the statue was too large to fit into the house, and was instead stored, anticlimactically, in the stables.
In 1914 Warren loaned the statue to the local town hall: “It was installed in the Assembly Room,” says Lampert, “which was a recreation space for troops billeted in the town. Regular boxing matches were staged in the room.” But the indecency of its nude protagonists proved so offensive to puritanical locals, who feared that it would incite lewd behaviour among the soldiers, that it was surrounded by a railing and covered with a sheet.” (Sooke, 2015) It was returned in 1917 and hidden once again in the stables, surrounded by hay bales to protect it from shelling. In 1953, it was donated to the Tate Modern, where it can still be found.