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Auguste Rodin on Art and Literature

Dernière mise à jour : 24 févr. 2021


by Auguste Rodin

"Last year, at the close of a beautiful day in May, as I walked with Auguste Rodin beneath the trees that shade his charming hill, I confided to him my wish to write, from his dictation, his ideas upon Art.

“You are an odd fellow,” he said. “So you are still interested in Art ! It is an interest that is out-of-date. Today, artists and those who love artists seem like fossils. Imagine a megatherium or a diplodocus stalking the streets of Paris ! There you have the impression that we must make upon our contemporaries. Ours is an epoch of engineers and of manufacturers, not one of artists.

The search in modern life is for utility ; the endeavor is to improve existence materially. Every day, science invents new processes for the feeding, clothing, or transportation of man; she manufactures cheaply inferior products in order to give adulterated luxuries to the greatest number — though it is true that she has also made real improvements in all that ministers to our daily wants. But it is no longer a question of spirit, of thought, of dreams. Art is dead.

Art is contemplation. It is the pleasure of the mind which searches into nature and which there divines the spirit by which Nature herself is animated. It is the joy of the intellect which sees clearly into the Universe and which recreates it, with conscientious vision. Art is the most sublime mission of man, since it is the expression of thought seeking to understand the world and to make it understood.

But today, mankind believes itself able to do without Art. It does not wish to meditate, to contemplate, to dream; it wishes to enjoy physically. The heights and the depths of truth are indifferent to it; it is content to satisfy its bodily appetites. Mankind today is brutish — it is not the stuff of which artists are made.

Art, moreover, is taste. It is the reflection of the artist’s heart upon all the objects that he creates. It is the smile of the human soul upon the house and upon the furnishing. It is the charm of thought and of sentiment embodied in all that is of use to man. But how many of our contemporaries feel the necessity of taste in house or furnishing ? Formerly, in old France, Art was everywhere. The smallest bourgeois, even the peasant, made use only of articles which pleased the eye. Their chairs, their tables, their pitchers and their pots were beautiful.

Today Art is banished from daily life. People say that the useful need not be beautiful. All is ugly, all is made in haste and without grace by stupid machines. The artist is regarded as an antagonist. Ah, my dear Gsell, you wish to jot down an artist’s musings. Let me look at you! You really are an extraordinary man !”

“I know,” I said, “that Art is the least concern of our epoch. But I trust that this book may be a protest against the ideas of today. I trust that your voice may awaken our contemporaries and help them to understand the crime they commit in losing the best part of our national inheritance — an intense love of Art and Beauty.”

“May the gods hear you !” Rodin answered.

Une femme, par Auguste Rodin (1911)


“Literary people,” I said, “always praise the essential truths expressed in your sculptures. But certain of your censors blame you precisely for having an inspiration which is more literary than plastic. They pretend that you easily win the approbation of writers by providing them with subjects which offer an opening for all their rhetoric. And they declare that art is not the place for so much philosophic ambition.”

“If my modelling is bad,” Rodin replied sharply, “if I make faults in anatomy, if I misinterpret movement, if I am ignorant of the science which animates marble, the critics are right a hundred times. But if my figures are correct and full of life, with what can they reproach me ? What right have they to forbid me to add meaning to form ? How can they complain if, over and above technique, I offer them ideas ? — if I enrich those forms which please the eye with a definite significance ?

It is a strange mistake, this, to imagine that the true artist can be content to remain only a skilled workman and that he needs no intelligence. On the contrary, intelligence is indispensable to him for painting and for carving even those figures which seem most lacking in spiritual pretensions and which are only meant to charm the eye. When a good sculptor models a statue, whatever it is, he must first clearly conceive the general idea; then, until his task is ended, he must keep this idea of the whole in his mind in order to subordinate and ally to it every smallest detail of his work. And this is not accomplished without an intense effort of mind and concentration of thought.

What has doubtless led to the common idea that artists have little intelligence is that it seems lacking in many of them in private life. The biographies of painters and sculptors abound in anecdotes of the simplicity of certain masters. It must be admitted that great men who think ceaselessly of their work are frequently absent-minded in daily life. Above all, it must be granted that many very intelligent artists seem narrow because they have not that facility of speech and repartee which, to superficial observers, is the only sign of cleverness.”

“Surely,” I said, “no one can contest the mental vigor of the great painters and sculptors. But, to return to our question — is there not a sharp line dividing art from literature which the artist should not cross ?”

“I insist that in matters which concern me I cannot stand these limitations,” Rodin answered.

“There is no rule, according to my idea, that can prevent a sculptor from creating a beautiful work. What difference does it make whether it is sculpture or literature, provided the public find profit and pleasure in it ? Painting, sculpture, literature, music are more closely related than is generally believed. They express all the sentiments of the human soul in the light of nature. It is only the means of expression which vary."

But if a sculptor, by the means of his art, succeeds in suggesting impressions which are ordinarily only procured by literature or music, why should the world cavil ? A publicist lately criticised my Victor Hugo in the Palais Royal, declaring that it was not sculpture, but music.

And he naïvely added that this work reminded him of a Beethoven symphony. Would to Heaven that it were true !

Auguste Rodin, "Monument à Victor Hugo" (Etude, 1895)

(Musée Rodin / Paris)

“I do not deny, moreover, that it is useful to reflect upon the differences which separate literary from artistic methods. First of all, literature offers the peculiarity of being able to express ideas without recourse to imagery. For example, it can say: Profound reflection often ends in inaction, without the necessity of figuring a thoughtful woman held in a block of stone. And this faculty of juggling with abstractions by means of words gives, perhaps, to literature an advantage over other arts in the domain of thought.

The next thing to be noticed is that literature develops stories which have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It strings together different events from which it draws a conclusion. It makes people act and shows the consequences of their conduct. So the scenes that it conjures up gain strength by their sequence, and even have no value except as they make part of the progress of a plot. It is not the same with the arts of form. They never represent more than a single phase of an action.

That is why painters and sculptors are wrong in taking subjects from writers, as they often do. The artist who interprets a part of a story may be supposed to know the rest of the text. His work must prop itself up on that of the writer; it only acquires all its meaning if it is illuminated by the facts that precede or follow it.

When the painter Delaroche represents, after Shakespeare, or after his pale imitator, Casimir Delavigne, the Children of Edward (les Enfants d’Edouard) clinging to each other, it is necessary to know, in order to be interested, that they are the heirs to a throne, that they have been imprisoned, and that hired murderers, sent by the usurper, are just coming to assassinate them.

When Delacroix, that genius whose pardon I beg for citing him next to the very mediocre Delaroche, takes from Lord Byron’s poem the subject of Don Juan’s Shipwreck (Naufrage de Don Juan) and shows us a boat in a storm-swept sea, where the sailors are engaged in drawing bits of paper from a hat, it is necessary, in order to understand this scene, to know that these unhappy creatures are starving and are drawing lots to see which of them shall serve as food for the others. These two artists, in treating literary subjects, commit the fault of painting pictures which do not carry in themselves their complete meaning.

Eugène Delacroix, "Le Naufrage de Don Juan", 1840

Yet, while that of Delaroche is bad because the drawing is cold, the color hard, the feeling melodramatic, that of Delacroix is admirable because this boat really pitches on the glaucous waves, because hunger and distress convulse the faces of the shipwrecked, because the sombre fury of the coloring announces some horrible crime — because, in short, if Byron’s tale is found mutilated in the picture, in revenge, the fiery, wild, and sublime soul of the painter is certainly wholly there.

“The moral of these two examples is this; when, after mature reflection, you have laid down prohibitions which seem most reasonable in the matter of art, you will rightly reproach the mediocre man because he does not submit to them, but you will be surprised to observe that the man of genius infringes them almost with impunity.”

Roving round the atelier while Rodin was talking, my eyes found a cast of his Ugolin. It is a figure of majestic realism. It does not at all recall Carpeaux’s group; if possible, it is even more pathetic. In Carpeaux’s work, the Pisan count, tortured by madness, hunger, and sorrow at the sight of his dying children, gnaws his two fists.

Rodin has pictured the drama further advanced. The children of Ugolin are dead; they lie on the ground, and their father, whom the pangs of hunger have changed into a beast, drags himself on his hands and knees above their bodies. He bends above their flesh — but, at the same time, he turns away his head. There is a fearful contest within him between the brute seeking food and the thinking being, the loving being, who has a horror of this monstrous sacrifice. Nothing could be more poignant.

Auguste Rodin, "Ugolin et ses enfants", vers 1882

“There,” said I, “is an example to add to that of the shipwreck in confirmation of your words; it is certain that it is necessary to have read the Divine Comedy in order to represent the circumstances of Ugolin’s torment — but even if the stanzas of Dante were unknown, it would be impossible to remain unmoved before the terrible inner conflict which is expressed in the attitude and the features of your figure.”

“It is true,” Rodin added, “when a literary subject is so well known the artist can treat it and yet expect to be understood. Yet it is better, in my opinion, that the works of painters and sculptors should contain all their interest in themselves. Art can offer thought and imagination without recourse to literature. Instead of illustrating scenes from poems, it need only use plain symbols which do not require any written text. Such has generally been my own method.”



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