ST. PETERSBURG — The sculptures make a big impression.
Some are monumental and imposing, others intimate and sensual, but all of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures are brimming with emotion and movement.
A major sampling of the renowned sculptor’s works are on display, as well as rarely shown paintings by his impressionist contemporaries, in “True Nature: Rodin and the Age of Impressionism” at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg through March 26.
Drawn from the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the exhibition explores the way Rodin (1840-1917) and his contemporaries reacted artistically to the changing world during the late 19th century in Paris.
It extensively showcases Rodin’s bucking of artistic tradition — despite his desire for academic recognition — and creation of avant-garde sculptures.
Viewers may notice that many of the works originally conceived in the 19th century were recast in the 1960s. This is because Rodin, like many artists before and after him, had a team working for him to create the sculptures. They have been reproduced and exhibited in large numbers around the world. This speaks to Rodin’s ambition and the indelible mark he made on the canon of art history.
Stanton Thomas, the Museum of Fine Arts’ senior curator of collections and exhibitions, gave context to some of the most dramatic works.
St. John the Baptist Preaching
“St. John the Baptist Preaching” (1878) shocked people who first saw it, Thomas said, because the figure is completely nude and not depicted with the idealized beauty common for biblical figures in art. The figure’s modeling and forward stride shows the beginning of Rodin’s distortion of realism to convey expression. As time went on, Rodin pushed further away from strict realism and focused on form and negative space, ushering in modernism.
Between Two Loves
This sculpture by Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse was included in the exhibition because Rodin worked for the sculptor. It also functions as a stark contrast to Rodin’s work: The smooth lines of the marble and sweetness of the subject matter were traits both he and the impressionists were working against.
The Beach at Honfleur
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Thomas said that Rodin and Claude Monet were “frenemies on occasion,” but Rodin collected Monet’s work, as well as that of other impressionists. Monet painted this scene of a beach on the Normandy coast en plein air, with a focus on light, like many impressionists did. By capturing the rocky shores and churning ocean in a rough style, he was pushing boundaries. The inclusion of the lighthouse and simple boats was also a break from the status quo.
The Prodigal Son
By distorting the hands and body, Rodin captures the figure’s desperation, as he reaches upward to the heavens in a gesture of imploring God for forgiveness.
This sculpture started out much smaller, as part of the sculpture “The Gates of Hell,” based on Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.” It depicted three Shades — souls of the damned — as they pointed down at “The Thinker.” Rodin developed it into larger sculptures. Reminiscent of Michelangelo’s “David,” Rodin was inspired by the artwork he saw in Florence, Italy, which Thomas said was important for his artistic development. The distortion of the neck’s flatness gives the impression that something is weighing him down — like the sins of mankind.
La Place du Théatre Francais
Camille Pissarro’s “La Place du Théatre Francais” depicts a bustling Paris street. Pissarro painted it from a hotel room after being advised to stay inside because of problems he was having with his eyes. There is no horizon line on this bird’s-eye view of life during that time.
This imposing figure, Jean D’Aire, came from a group of sculptures Rodin made, “The Burghers of Calais.” Rodin is referring to the battle between England and France in 1347 during the Hundred Years War. After an 11-month siege of the French city Calais by the English, the city’s six most wealthy residents had to surrender to King Edward III wearing sackcloth and ropes around their necks. Rodin captures the seething emotion of the men who thought they were being marched to their death, although they were rescued at the last minute by Queen Phillipa, Edward’s wife. Artists prior to Rodin portrayed these figures as noble and patriotic, but Rodin depicts the more natural emotion, raw anger.
Nude Study of Balzac
With “Nude Study of Balzac,” Rodin pays tribute to Honoré de Balzac, the 19th century French novelist who chronicled the dark underbelly of middle and upper middle class life. Rodin was commissioned to make the sculpture by a prestigious literary organization. It was publicly rejected by the organization because it didn’t follow the classical tradition of portraiture.
The Bible’s first woman is depicted covering her nudity in a pose of shame. But she is also bracing in anticipation of something coming down onto her. Her hand blocks one ear, as if she is trying to muffle the voice of God, perhaps telling her she is being evicted from the Garden of Eden.
Rodin was very interested in sexuality and pioneered depictions of it at a time when people’s taste ran more modest. This popular small work would have been reproduced from a much larger model so people could display it in their homes.
Once again inspired by “The Divine Comedy,” Rodin depicts the story of Paolo and Francesca. Francesca was in love with Paolo but was married to his brother. The forbidden lovers were found out and doomed to be forever on the wind next to each other but never touching. Rodin captures the movement of the swirling wind and the emotion of an eternal yearning.
Still Life With Cherries and Peaches
Curator Thomas pointed out that Paul Cézanne is playing with different viewpoints, but in such a way that the composition doesn’t look off-balance. The angles are early shades of Cubism.
If you go
“True Nature: Rodin and the Age of Impressionism” is on view through March 26. Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, 255 Beach Drive NE. 727-896-2667. mfastpete.org.