balzac: from appearance into essence

Rodin’s memorial to Balzac, the great writer offended decency, and the prevailing taste of the public and a good part of the French establishment. Auguste Rodin’s statue of Honore de Balzac is an imaginary figure, conceived and sculptured half a century after the writer’s death. Yet, despite the controversy it stands as an authoritative work that establishes this Balzac as definitive; an image that comes to mind when we wander through “The Human Comedy”.

But this is not a conventionally heroic monument. The monk’s robe is a dressing gown with empty sleeves, carelessly thrown over his shoulders; the feet, poised in mid shuffle, are clad in what appear to be slippers. Even the rough hewn surface suggests that this is a workman-sculptor’s tribute to a workman-writer. Balzac as Prometheus, but corpulent and ink-stained. a morning after Prometheus.

"Rodin received the commission for "Monument to Balzac" when its original commissioned artist, Henri Chapu, died in 1891. Emile Zola was president of Societé des Gens de Lettres and asked that Rodin complete the work in 18 months, to be due in January 1893. When the work was still not complete in 1897, Rodin's ill health, numerous other commissions, and many undecided poses for the figure were partly to blame. According to an article on the monument on the Rodin-Web website, the pose the artist finally decided upon was rejected by the societé in 1898, sparking a heated controversy in which the sculpture was termed alternately a "heap of plaster" and a "colossal fetus," among other terms of derision. Read more: The History of Rodin | image:

“Such attention to the poses in his sculptures culminates in Rodin’s Monument to Honoré de Balzac, where the artist’s dedication to providing an inherently dynamic pose to his figure proves that Rodin had become more focused on creating an overall impression of his subject rather than detailing it in an academic manner. Exhibited in the Salon of 1898, the pose in this figure, though less active than in previous works, is wholly unpretentious; this greatly differs from the academic practice of ‘glorifying’ the subject, and thus makes the work much more potent and compelling. As the primary focus and most crucial element of the whole sculpture, the pose of Balzac here is meant to lend the impression of, in Rodin’s words, “Balzac laboring in his study, his hair in disorder, his eyes lost in a dream” Read More: a

"Rodin’s aim was less to create a physical likeness of Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) than to communicate an idea or spirit of the man and a sense of his creative vitality: "I think of his intense labor, of the difficulty of his life, of his incessant battles, and of his great courage. I would express all that," he said. Several studies for the work are nudes, but Rodin finally clothed the figure in a robe inspired by the dressing gown that Balzac often wore when writing." read more:

It was an influential work of modern sculpture. It also had the distinction of having been the most vilified , contentiously disputed piece of sculpture in the history of French art. The committee of literati who commissioned the monument refused to accept it, and got their money back. Critics termed it a libel on a great man, an “obese monstrosity,” a colossal fetus” and a “monument of insanity and impotence.” Art lovers were exhorted to “take a pickaxe and smash the shameful block”.

At the height of the uproar, in 1898, otherwise sane and enlightened men were challenging each other to duels over the statue. It was as though the expression of the eyes or the drape of the cloak were charged with a mysterious symbolism that touched a raw nerve in the beholder. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who had been Rodin’s secretary, described it as ” a face gazing and drunk with gazing, a face effervescing with creation: the face of an element.”

"For The Monument to Balzac, commissioned from him in 1891 by the Société des Gens de Lettres, under the impetus of its president, Emile Zola, he started wisely by studying contemporary portraits of the novelist. He pondered over the stature of Balzac, his facial features, his clothes (the famous dressing gown), but only retained the details which served his purpose (the corpulence of Balzac, the monk's robe he wore when he worked). The result was a figure which was both an allegory of the creative powers of the novelist and a moral rather than physical portrait of the writer. "It was creation itself which used the shape of Balzac to emerge: the arrogance of creation, its pride, feverishness and intoxication" (R.M. Rilke, Auguste Rodin, 1928)." Read More:

Though Rodin produced works like “The Kiss” and “The Thinker” that were better known and more profitable, he himself regarded “Balzac” as the most important of his sculptures. Rodin’s entire career had been a long drawn out struggle against the bourgeois ideal of beauty, as taught in the academies of fine arts. The nineteenth century was a terrible time for sculpture, which seemingly aspired to the art of the taxidermist. It remained for Rodin, rather belatedly, to do for sculpture what other artists: Baudelaire, Delacroix, and Berlioz had accomplished in their fields. His contemporaries thought of him as a revolutionary; he saw himself as a rediscoverer of a lost art and claimed to have invented nothing.

Indeed, his “Balzac” was not a quantum leap into a new dimension, like Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon” but a de

ve step,one that was carefully prepared from appearances into essences.


We can thus see here a large change in Rodin’s mindset; instead of attempting to depict Balzac in the academic sense – nude and authoritative, as he had in the previous sculpture of the writer – Rodin instead has fully embraced the impressionist method in this final revision, sculpting Balzac as he would have been seen in a spontaneous moment. The figure’s pose is unique: the shoulders are offset and asymmetrical, the torso twists back, and the right foot steps forward with its knee bent underneath a robe. These factors all combine to make the pose of Balzac truly dynamic, imparting the appearance of the writer pacing in contemplation – exactly the impression Rodin had hoped to achieve.Read More: a

---in the meantime the work on the 'Balzac' had slowed down due to Rodin's serious illness and his many other commissions. Still in the spring of that year, Rodin had worked on a Balzac with arms crossed, striding forward. But later, he abandoned this pose and started working on version 'F': an athletic figure with bulging muscles, holding his stiff penis and leaning slightly backwards - an attitude his younger colleague Medardo Rosso claimed to be 'stolen' from his 'Bookmaker'. Rodin ordered six plaster casts to be made, and had them covered with cloth, soaked in wet plaster. Abandoning the classical appearance step by step, Rodin finally arrived at a highly simplified version, showing a commanding, somewhat menacing Balzac, his sexuaL gesture covered by the empty-sleeved coat.---Read More:

“The bold image which emerged, “less a statue than a sort of strange monolith, a thousand-year-old menhir, one of those rocks on which the quirks of prehistoric volcanic eruptions froze a human face by chance” (Georges Rodenbach, L’Elite, 1899), ignited a controversy during the 1898 Salon. “Never has anyone had the idea of extracting the brain of a man and applying it on his face”, wrote Rochefort in L’Intransigeant (1st May 1898). The heated debate between those for and against the Balzac was all the more violent in that it broke out in the midst of the Dreyfus affair for which Zola, who supported Rodin, led the Dreyfus side with his famous “J’accuse”(L’Aurore, 13 January 1898). The alarmed Société des Gens de Lettres therefore refused the statue and ordered another one from Alexandre Falguière who executed a figure lacking in grandeur. It was so banal that it aroused the irony of the public. All Falguière needed to do, having “borrowed (from Rodin) the powerful neck, sturdy build, drapery, hair, chin, pupils of his Balzac (…), was to seat his personage, thus diminished, on a park bench” (Charles Chincholle, in La Petite République, 15 November 1898).Read More:

The enlarged version, exhibited at the 1898 Salon at the Champ des Mars , provoked a scandal fueled by the conservatives. The sculpture was associated with an erected phallus; other reactions interpreted the ‘Balzac’ as Narcissus, masturbating under his protecting coat, or as a “colossal foetus”, a “German larva”, or simply as a “heap of plaster”. Read More:

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