You might know Auguste Rodin for his famed sculpture The Thinker, but the French artist’s work stretches far beyond that. “He really was a great innovator, and in many ways, very radical in his approach to sculpture,” says Claudia Einecke, the curator of European Art for the High Museum of Art. “If you think about traditional classical sculpture from the Greeks onwards, it’s all about making the body beautiful and proper proportions and smooth skin or whatever it is. When you look at Rodin’s work, especially later, it becomes almost abstract.” Rodin’s work is scattered around the world, but fortunately for Atlantans, it’ll be at the High’s exhibit, Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern, running October 21 through January 15.
The exhibit will include 45 sculptures and 25 works on paper that represent the artist’s rise in the United States (he was popular in Europe but didn’t make a splash in the United States until around 1900, says Einecke). The exhibit tells the story of how Rodin caught the eye of various collectors around the country from Philadelphia to San Francisco.
What’s exciting about this exhibit?
If you’ve ever wanted to see The Thinker or The Kiss in person, now’s your chance. The first of these sculptures reside at the Musee Rodin in Paris, but multiples were made using the same mold Rodin originally used. “From that mold, you can cast more than one, and they’re all considered originals because they’re from the original mold,” explains Einecke.
For the purpose of this exhibit, it was important to Einecke that the bronzes sourced matched a particular chapter in the exhibit. One chapter of the exhibit is about Jules Mastbaum, the Philadelphia movie mogul-turned-Rodin collector in the early 1920s. The pieces that fit into that part of the exhibit, then, needed to be sourced from Philadelphia (which is now home to one of the largest collections of Rodin outside of Paris).
Beyond the bronze sculptures, however, Einecke is particularly excited for people to see Rodin’s lesser-known works. One display case, for example, will contain little plaster studies of arms and hands. When Einecke first saw them, she figured Rodin had made a cast of hands—and then she realized that they’re only three inches big. “He actually sculpted them because he was so interested in figuring out how the human body can be so expressive,” says Einecke. “It doesn’t need accoutrements and symbols. It can be just in the poses and the expression of the body can be very powerful.”
So how does an exhibit of this magnitude come to life?
Planning for the Rodin exhibit began, like most of the High’s exhibits, about a year ago. Einecke and Skye Olson, the head of exhibition and design, worked in the model room (located in the depths of the museum) where they could tangibly plot out the exhibit and the pieces of it—a bit like a game of chess. The model itself looks reminiscent of a dollhouse. “All of our models of the exhibition spaces are half-inch equals one-foot scale,” explains Olson. “We’ll start with the gallery layout. There are some walls that will move around depending on the scale of exhibition.” Everything has been thought of in the model, down to the wood grain on the floor. (This element especially helps with the scale, Olson says.)
Using the model, Einecke and Olson arranged printed miniature images of the sculptures and the drawings. They even used a 3D printer to make little platforms that the model sculptures sit on. “The purpose of these platforms is to provide what we call ‘touch distance.’ The general rule of thumb is, someone’s arm shouldn’t be able to touch the work of art when standing just at the edge of the platform,” says Olson. “That’s really for the safety of the artwork. We try to make those not inviting to step on.”
The model also helps them imagine how visitors might experience the work—something that’s especially important from an ADA perspective. “We try not to keep things too high for children or people in wheelchairs. We want to make sure there’s a variety of things and things are as accessible as they can be,” says Olson. They also have models of the section text to check the scale of the copy and to make sure it’s readable and high contrast.
Even the wall color gets taken into account in the model. Slips of colored paper with potential hues hug the walls of the model. The duo ended up opting for a light green and almost neutral pink. “The color choice is actually very important. It’s not just decorating, those ideas, but they really can influence how you see the works,” says Einecke. Adds Olson, “The lighting and the color is always in support of the art and the material and shouldn’t stand out too much, but it is important to have some contrast for the dark bronzes, but in a tone that’s not competing, where you can really see those strong silhouettes of the work.”
How the heck do these sculptures travel?
These sculptures are not light, to say the least, so it’s a modern marvel that they can travel across the country. “The technology for packaging these days is amazing,” says Einecke. Take, for instance, a marble sculpture: it has customized padding that fits to the sculpture and is then placed in a crate that fits inside another crate. To get a bronze sculpture on the pedestal requires about six people to move it. Some of these pedestals even have hidden steel reinforcements. But, almost like Rodin’s work itself, you’ll never know just how much work went into it just by looking at it. “Sometimes that’s when we’ve done our best work, is when you don’t see it at all,” says Olson. “It’s supposed to look effortless.”