The Thinker at the Gates of Hell
May 7, 2013 4:46 AM   Subscribe

A twenty-five minute doctumentary about Auguste Rodin's monumental sculpture "The Gates of Hell," which exists in two radically different versions. From the first version spring many of Rodin's best known sculptures, including his most famous, "The Thinker," originally conceived as a portrait of Dante gazing at Hell from above. It was never cast in bronze during his lifetime and was somewhat notorious for never having been completed, but is now considered to be one of the greatest sculptures of the modern era.
posted by Kattullus (23 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
For more, read this article by Rodin expert Albert E. Elsen. It is scanned from a book to pdf and wasn't proofread (e.g. very often "h" gets turned into "li" and numbers are generally a mess).
posted by Kattullus at 4:48 AM on May 7, 2013

Auguste Rodin has entered a fey mood!

Auguste Rodin has made The Gates of Hell, a bronze door. All craftdwarfship is of the highest quality. On the item is an image of humans in bronze. The humans are suffering. The artwork relates to The Inferno, a book by Dante Alighieri. It menaces with spikes of bronze.

posted by Zarkonnen at 5:16 AM on May 7, 2013 [17 favorites]

Thanks for this post. I haven't watched the documentary yet but I will try to squeeze it in this afternoon. One of the casts of The Gates of Hell (according to Wikipedia there are six) is outside the Kunsthaus in Zürich and Mr daisyk and I spent quite some time examining it recently. It's great to find out more about it.

The second link says,
It is imposing without being utterly frightening. Rodin ... also included some unexpected things, like The Kiss within the doors and perhaps that little bit of romance and sweetness is the reason that we are not terrified of this massive vision of Hell’s Door.
I disagree with this. The more I looked at the sculpture, the more frozen moments of human emotion I saw in it, the more it frightened me, because the figures expressing the romance and sweetness are already half-entangled in the substance of the gates or being swept into its vortex. It's a very powerful work of art.


On preview: Mr daisyk's reaction may have been slightly different from mine...
posted by daisyk at 5:19 AM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

I saw this as a kid and its unbelievable size, coupled with all the details, blew my mind.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:28 AM on May 7, 2013

Yay! Kattullus post!
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:30 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I have a spare afternoon in Philadelphia, I love to go to the Rodin Museum. It is somehow both intimate and massive.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:36 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ah! item!
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:37 AM on May 7, 2013

The real problem with Rodin's work is that he never finished the rest of the city of woes, despite the detailed plans provided by architectural firm Dante & Virgil. He only did the door - and then blew the rest of his fee on hootch.

God, who was motivated by divine power, supreme wisdom and primal love to commission the work, was extremely pissed off, and when Rodin died he immediately sent the sculptor through the door. Unfortunately Hell had not been built so Rodin just walked out into an open-air museum in Rue de Varenne, where he immediately crept behind a tree to have a piss, such a full bladder he had. And that is why the museum is called the "Musée Rodin" to this very day. You can even visit the Musée Rodin for a small entry fee and still see Rodin's carefully-preserved wet patch. Also there are some statues and things.

But some say he actually emerged in Philadelphia, which is French for "hell", and indeed history tells us that in West Philadelphia Rodin was born and raised, and on the playground he spent most of his days - chilling out, maxing, relaxing all cool, and shooting some b-ball outside of the school. But then one day, a couple of guys (who were up to no good) started making trouble in his neighbourhood. Rodin got in one little fight and his mom got scared, and said "You're moving with your auntie and uncle in Bel-air".

And that is the story of Auguste Rodin.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 5:49 AM on May 7, 2013 [13 favorites]

And that is the story of Auguste Rodin.

That is not the story of Rodan. His egg was preserved for millions of years, then irradiated in an atomic test, then he hatched and fought Godzilla and, later, King Ghidorah (ather of MeFi's Own, true story!)

What? Someone was going to make the joke....
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:15 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I remember being overwhelmed when I saw the Gates of Hell in the back garden of the Rodin museum in Paris. But I was in high school on a school trip to France, so I was pretty much overwhelmed, period.
posted by jillithd at 6:24 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Tragically damaged through vandalism March 24, 1970

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Thinker is one of the last of twenty-five cast and patinated under Rodin’s supervision It was acquired in 1916, and given to the Cleveland Museum of Art early in 1917.
At approximately 1:00 am on March 24, 1970, a bomb irreparably damaged the Cleveland Museum's version of Rodin’s The Thinker. The bomb itself had been placed on a pedestal that supported the enlargement and had the power of about three sticks of dynamite.
No one was injured, but the statue's base and lower legs were destroyed. The remaining sections of the cast were blown backward to form a 'plume' at the base, and the entire statue was knocked to the ground. . . .
According to the Cleveland Police Department, this act of vandalism was committed by the Weather Underground. [This occurred just eighteen days after a Weather Underground group blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse. ] [N]o one was ever arrested or charged.
The incident highlighted some of the ethical and practical issues inherent in the field of conservation. Since the piece was so dramatically damaged, the Museum was unsure how to proceed.
They considered three options:
  1. Replace.
  2. Repair.
  3. Display the damaged sculpture.
The third option was chosen largely because it preserved what was left of Rodin’s original work and because the damaged sculpture would bear vivid witness to a period of political unrest in the United States during the Vietnam War. Like the museum's other outdoor sculptures, The Thinker now receives routine maintenance twice a year. It is washed and rewaxed each spring and fall.
Tradition of Outdoor Public Placement
Because the original Gates of Hell were designed as outdoor sculpture, and Rodin's first enlargement was placed outdoors in front of the Pantheon, most of Rodin's subsequent enlargements have ended up outdoors as well [including one located over the grave of Auguste and Rose Rodin]. Unfortunately this leaves these works unprotected from both the elements and the public.
Although created for The Gates of Hell, The Thinker took on an alternate significance and became a symbol of freedom and knowledge.
posted by Herodios at 6:47 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

The Gates of Hell is the subject of one of my favorite poems, "A Parallax Monograph for Rodin" by Norman Dubie.
posted by vibrotronica at 7:08 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is fantastic, thanks. I have spent a good bit of time at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, where they have a very fine Rodin collection (including The Thinker out front), and learning that he placed many of these within the context of this larger work makes me want to go back again.
posted by resurrexit at 7:39 AM on May 7, 2013

Rosalind Krauss' writing on the subject is worth a read for an in depth analysis of Rodin's great masterpiece.
To some—though hardly all—of the people sitting in that theater watching the casting of The Gates of Hell, it must have occurred that they were witnessing the making of a fake. After all, Rodin has been dead since 1918, and surely a work of his produced more than sixty years after his death cannot be the genuine article, cannot, that is, be an original....

.... At the time of Rodin’s death The Gates of Hell stood in his studio like a mammoth plaster chessboard with all the pieces removed and scattered on the floor. The arrangement of the figures on The Gates as we know it reflects the most current notion the sculptor had about its composition, an arrangement documented by numbers penciled on the plasters corresponding to numbers located at various stations on The Gates. But these numbers were regularly changed as Rodin played with and recomposed the surface of the doors; and so, at the time of his death, The Gates were very much unfinished.
posted by snaparapans at 7:44 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Musee Rodin represented by my personal favourite Rodin
posted by infini at 7:51 AM on May 7, 2013

Great post. I first visited the Musee Rodin in college. The Gates of Hell was an overwhelming piece and after a few moments studying it, I had to move away from it. I went over the rest of the museum and became astounded at the way Rodin could create movement in work cast from static materials. The curves, lines, energy and flow of his work that I experienced that day remains one of the seminal art moments of my life. Eternal Springtime and Danaid, in particular, made me pause for very long stretches of the afternoon. Studying these pieces made it easier to return to The Gates of Hell and take it the massive scale of it. Now, I particularly seek out Rodin's work when I'm traveling and have enjoyed seeing it in cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco.

I also became interested the relationship and tragic life of Rodin's student and lover, Camille Claudel, whose The Age of Maturity is one of the most emotional pieces of sculpture I've ever seen.
posted by weeyin at 7:57 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I remember when the National Gallery had the enormous _1492_ exhibition (perhaps the most amazing one I've ever seen), and they were loaned one of the version of Gates of Hell. Brilliantly placed, too -- they put it on one of the large open stairwells, so you descended down it and could really see all the details, plus there was a echo of the mythical descent into Hades. My second favorite thing about that exhibition, and only second because Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" is even more astounding in person.
posted by tavella at 8:52 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I remember when the National Gallery had the enormous _1492_ exhibition . . . Gates of Hell . . . My second favorite thing about that exhibition, and only second because Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" is even more astounding in person.

Even with all the Albrecht Dürer works they had?
posted by Herodios at 9:06 AM on May 7, 2013

The Dürers were also amazing, and there was some fabulous Da Vinci drawings and astonishing sculptures from Mexico... there wasn't anything uninteresting in the whole exhibit, but I still spent a huge amount of my time with my face practically pressed to the glass protecting "The Garden of Earthly Delights" and gawping, I say gawping at the way so many of the tiny figures are just a brushstroke or two yet had so much power and life to them. And the Gates of Hell genuinely made me gasp when I stepped out into the stairwell where it was.
posted by tavella at 9:15 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is why i like metafilter, because it can't be said often enough on the rare occasions when serendipity happens.
posted by infini at 9:57 AM on May 7, 2013

There are several small Rodin bronzes scattered around the civic center grounds of the city I work for, and a couple of busts (Balzac and one other I cannot recall right now) up in the administration office of my library. I guess he lived here for a while. My favorite is the male torso (Walking, I think?) in the City Hall entryway; I could stare at it all day.

I've always been aware of 'Thinker' but had no idea it was part of a larger sculpture. Thanks for filling it all in Katullus. As enjoyable a post as ever!
posted by carsonb at 10:41 AM on May 7, 2013

I also became interested the relationship and tragic life of Rodin's student and lover, Camille Claudel, whose The Age of Maturity is one of the most emotional pieces of sculpture I've ever seen.

Her Clotho is also very powerful.
posted by ersatz at 11:06 AM on May 7, 2013

Great post. Thanks, Kattullus. It's nice to have you around again.
posted by homunculus at 3:10 PM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

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