Here’s a brainteaser for ya: what’s the first sign of summer? Nope, it’s not the first day that hits 20°C. It’s not the first May flower sighting. It’s not even when Zara starts whipping out the bikinis and crop tops. After all, as far as fashion is concerned, seasons are obsolete.
But in nature, despite the steady creep of global warming, seasons still very much do matter. So every time April rolls around, it brings a steady stream of showers—of “how to get your best summer bod” articles, that is.
Don’t worry, this is not one of those stories. No need to put the spoonful of Nutella down as you read this piece—this is a judge-free zone. But since we’re all about to suddenly remember that we have bodies—which may or may not include love handles, thighs that chafe like hell in July and abs that resemble a smooshed croissant more than a washboard, this seems like a good time to delve into a body-related topic: Rodin’s drawings.
Minerva, unknown date.
When you hear Rodin, you probably think The Thinker or The Gates of Hell, which isn’t wrong. But that’s leaving out all the fun bits. Let’s face it; the man “loved women,” which is a polite, fin-de-siècle way of saying that he was a bit of a nympho. His saving grace was that he managed to make revolutionize art history while sculpting perfectly squeezable booties.
But there is a much less recognized part of his oeuvre that’s also worth paying attention to. While best known for his sculpture, homebody also made around 10,000 drawings, some of them studies for his sculpture, but most not. At the end of his life, Rodin himself made it clear that these shouldn’t be brushed aside as secondary: “It’s very simple. My drawings are the key to my work.”
Female Nude With Left Leg Outstretched, c. 1890.
Like his sculpture, Rodin’s drawings are anything but lifeless. They show the human form in motion, infused with a sensuality and sexuality that is dynamic and extremely animated. Whatever you think of Rodin’s sculpture, his drawings are much more graphic and explicit, and scandalized his contemporaries that much more.
Even in our day, his shock factor lives on. A century and a half after Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, periods are still too shocking and grapefruits are still too obscene for a NYC subway ad. If we can’t stomach a grapefruit, then what are we to make of a drawing of a woman masturbating on her back, complete with a close-up of her face mid-O?
It’s ironic that the shock factor of Rodin’s drawings comes from his trying to capture the body—specifically, the female nude—in its natural state. Or in a highly sexualized version of its natural state, we who took Feminist Theory 101 should add. Objectifying or not, Rodin’s work clearly veers away from the stoic and poised marble goddesses that had been the menu du jour for two millennia. His bodies live, breathe, slouch, lounge, luxuriate, hunch and, yes, fuck. They definitely fuck.
Rodin’s drawings proved so revolutionary that they inspired an entire new school of drawing. His spiritual descendants are everywhere, from galleries to your high school Tumblr. So in honor of celebrating real, living, breathing bodies—not the cyborg Barbies that Equinox blasts you with to lure you into their fold—let’s take a look at some of the most famous artists influenced by Rodin’s drawings.
From GUSTAV KLIMT. With a Catalogue Raisonne of His Paintings. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968.
The leader of the Vienna Secession, an artists’ movement that broke away from the conservative Austrian Artists’ Society Künstlerhaus, Klimt produced one of the most iconic works of art of the modern era, The Kiss. If you haven’t seen it Vienna, you’ve definitely seen it on phone cases, prints and magnets all around the world.
Like Rodin, his contemporary, Klimt’s drawings were less famous than his primary media, in his case painting. But both artists’ drawings showcase similar techniques and preoccupations as their paintings and sculpture.
Klimt wasn’t just a symbolist; he was the symbolist, weaving references to sexuality, pleasure, suffering, sin and transgression into his work. For him, like for Rodin, sex revealed everything essential in the human condition. From the highest to the lowest, from spirituality to perversion, you could find it all in the good ‘ol P in V (remember, these were hetero artists working in hetero times). When Rodin saw Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (1902), he loved it, calling the piece “so tragic and so divine.”
The Beethoven Frieze: The Longing for Happiness Finds Repose in Poetry. Right wall, 1902.
Lay their drawings side-by-side and it’s impossible to miss the similarities. For starters, the lines are loose, gestural and decidedly un-Academic. They preserve a sense of movement, figures paradoxically captured in a moment somehow feels uncontained. Time bleeds.
Two Reclining Female Nudes, c. 1916-17.
In Klimt’s work like in Rodin’s, you’ll also find an intense exploration, even an obsession, of the female body in all its transgressive possibilities. If you don’t think transgressive is a word, you clearly haven’t read enough Bataille, which is arguably a good thing… but that’s a different article.
From the pedestal of the present, it’s pretty easy to dismiss both Klimt and Rodin’s drawings as either mild—what’s so exciting about a thigh?—or blandly objectifying. A century later, we’re desensitized enough to graphic nudity thanks to Internet porn, and woke enough thanks to a few waves of feminism, for both of these readings to hold up. But taking the pictures out of context unfairly strips the artists of their groundbreaking achievements at their own place in time.
Many historians have argued that Rodin freed women of the tropes forced on them by Classical, then by Christian culture, letting them be natural and even—the audacity!—express pleasure. The same could be said for Klimt, maybe even more so. In his drawings, many of which are studies for paintings, he shows women lounging around, napping, in short, doing stuff that women actually do. At the same time, his paintings and drawings are filled with beauties who tower, command and even dominate. There’s a sense of psychological self-possession contained in his portraits that’s missing from Rodin’s drawings, which, to this amateur art historian, at least, still feel very consumptive.
You can’t deny the perviness of some of these sketches, but can we blame them? Think of Klimt and Rodin as teenage boys who just touched boobs for the first time after years of thumbing through Uncle Jerry’s Playboy under the covers. Coming out of an ultra-repressive Victorian era, where sex didn’t exist except on weekly visit to the friendly neighborhood brothel, their generation’s act of rebellion was to let it all hang out in the public sphere, shocking the bourgeois and forcing them to face their hypocritical morals. After a century of denying sex, the pendulum swung to the other extreme. Now, sex was everywhere—in the bedroom, in the brothel, in the park and even in Aunt Myrtle’s peonies. Thanks Freud.
Still, we shouldn’t lump Rodin and Klimt together just because they were contemporaries. In Klimt’s drawings, you’ll find many of the same poses—women on their backs, legs in the air, labia out and proud—as in Rodin’s. But you’ll also find something that rarely appears in Rodin’s work: clothes.
Standing Female Nude (study for Beethoven Frieze).
While Rodin often erased or abstracted his subjects’ identities, using them as allegories for the broader human condition, Klimt’s focus hovers closer to the individual psyche. Rodin’s work evokes the universal tragedy of human sexuality in relation to the ever-present shadow of sin, but Klimt’s beauties are haunting precisely in their individuality. They are specific women who are strong, powerful and beautiful and sensual at the same time, and that’s what made them terrifying to the early 20th century man.
If Rodin liberated the woman, he left Klimt to grapple with her. In his drawings, especially his mid-career drawings of gaunt, imposing, vampiric women, we see a clue to how contemporary men might have looked at women who were beginning to break free of the bonds of Victorian society: with a mixture of awe, fear and desire.
Paar im Umarmung (couple in hug) , 1914.
Klimt’s young protégée, Egon Schiele followed in the tradition paved by his master. The Kurt Cobain of turn-of-the-century Vienna, Schiele was the artist equivalent of the poète maudit: the tortured artist, equally obsessed with sex and suffering. It was a big mood.
Before his untimely death at 28, Schiele had already done a lion’s share to push the envelope of figurative art. Like his forefathers, his portraits explored the connection between sex, spirituality and suffering. But while Rodin was all about the smooth booties, and even Klimt’s ethereal vampires retained degree of hazy softness, Schiele terrorized his viewers with a punishing take on sex and life. His signature style shows figures with faces twisted into grimaces, bruised, emaciated and broken into jagged lines. A Renoir or a Fragonard he definitely was not.
Reclining Nude With Left Leg Drawn In, 1914.
In his style and in his content, Schiele, like Rodin and Klimt, railed against the strict, moralistic authorities of his day. Still, it’s somewhat ironic that, far from vindicating sex, his work seems to uphold the Christian opposition of Heaven-chastity vs. Hell-sexuality. You’re free to engage in as many Baudelarian bacchanals as you want—in fact, it’s encouraged—but in the end, pleasure won’t save you. Quite the opposite.
In fact, this sense of tragedy, present in Rodin’s and Klimt’s work but that peaks in Schiele’s, stems from this paradox at the core of the human condition. We’re doomed (or damned, if you like) to strive for the eternal, divine, ultimate Truth, which can only be found, according to Georges Bataille and co., in death or in sex. But both of these acts, especially sex, drag us down into sin, lust, suffering and sorrow, and so we shoot for the stars but land in hell. How cheerful.
Cardinal and Nun (Caress), 1912.
Of the three, Klimt’s work comes closest to celebrating sexuality in its innocent, “pagan” form, untouched by original sin. The shadow of religion more clearly falls on Rodin’s and Schiele’s work. Rodin’s The Gates of Hell give ultimate expression to his notion of lust-driven downfall, and as for Egon Schiele, you need look no further than Cardinal and Nun (Caress). In Schiele’s case, with a little Freudian digging, the source of his bleak philosophy is easy to tease out: his father died of syphilis that he contracted in a brothel when Egon was only 19.
Suffer Love II, 2009.
“Some of my favourite drawings I have done with my eyes closed – or so drunk I do not remember making them,” Tracey Emin wrote in The Guardian in 2009. A century later, she’s proudly carrying Rodin’s torch, living the life of the bohemian artist: drinking, carousing and making art.
Of course, it’s not just her lifestyle that marks this Young British Artist as the spiritual descendent of Rodin’s school of drawing. It’s her work—her style, her treatment of her subjects, and ultimately, her psychological and philosophical investigation of sex and the body. “I wonder if drawings can be the imprints of our souls?” she asks. Klimt and Schiele would surely concur.
It’s true that her work has the same stolen quality of sketches by Rodin, who actually did many drawings blind, without ever looking down at the paper. At first glance, you could even mistake the two’s work for one another—you’ll find naked women in many of the same poses and similarly loose, deconstructed strokes.
No Time, 2010.
Unlike Rodin and Klimt, but like Schiele, Emin commonly takes herself as her subject. Of course, three waves of feminism later, the fact that she is a woman drawing herself expressively and explicitly takes on a whole different bouquet of meaning. While men’s sexualized pictures of women can almost always be read as objectifying, a woman’s erotic pictures of herself become defiant, probing, urgent, and, to use a word that should never really be applied to a girl’s nudes, brave. But in the way her drawings alchemize her emotion, Emin falls closest to Schiele, whose tortured self-portrait reveals a hundred diaries’-worth of angst.
Is This A Joke, 2009.
Emin’s philosophy, if we can call it that, sticks pretty closely to Rodin’s Baudelarian vision of life, which boils down to sex and suffering. Love, especially physical love, is often masochistic in Emin’s work. The title of her 2009 exhibit at White Cube, Those Who Suffer Love, says it all.
In an age when sexuality is pretty much required to be empowering and liberating, this perspective remains as contrarian as it was in Rodin’s day. If your sex isn’t fun and freeing, you’re doing it right, contemporary pop culture screams at us. But Emin is clearly having sex, and she’s not afraid to tell us that it’s not all fun, games and feminism. Her work brings up a moot point in today’s sexual climate because it brings up all the ways that consensual sex can still be confusing, painful and damaging. She shows that we’re still grappling with the same sex/sin/suffering paradigm as in Rodin’s day. But coming from the mouth—or the pen—of the woman herself, Emin’s message rings all the more loudly.
Text by Katya Lopatko
Images via WikiArt, Musee Rodin, Kurt Gippert, Smithsonian Mag, Royal Academy of Arts, The Art Stack, Pixels, Super sweet, Counter Editions, Art Basel.