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Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Auguste Rodin Gets Quality Control

At Philly Rodin Museum
and in North Carolina

By Richard Carreno
[WritersClearinghouse News Service]
Raleigh, North Carolina
Quality versus quantity.
It's a old story, as old as the 150-year-old, or thereabouts, history of modern American encyclopedic museums. Acquisitive for the most part. And, oh yeah, in search of the best, as well.
I was reminded of the aphorism when I visited this week the North Carolina Museum of Art, a financially well-endowed, state-supported gem located here in North Carolina's capital city.
I knew the museum had undergone an expansion. More like a re-creation, in a new 127,000 square-foot, $72-million home that more than doubles gallery space, apart from that already in an existing building. I also knew the museum boasted a portrait by Thomas Eakins, and I'm always eager to get up close and personal with the works of my favourite American -- and Philadelphia -- painter. (More on Eakin's painting later).
My main interest in visiting the museum though was Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). The NCMA houses arguably the largest installation of Rodin sculptures and statues in the South (more than 30 in all). The two most extensive collections in America are located at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia (about 120 items) and at the Stanford University Museum of Art (about 200 items).
My objective: Seeing how masterworks by Rodin are installed, showcased, and curated at a major regional museum. In other words, compare and contrast. Inevitably, 'quality versus quantity' also reared its head.
Like the Stanford Collection, the Rodin bronzes at the NCMA come by way of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, a California-based charity that over recent years has been hell-bent to disburse hundreds of Rodin works and related-Rodin pieces. The fortuitous result has been that more than 70 museums, including the Metropolitan, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have been the recipients of the foundation's generosity.
This beneficence, in turn, is the result the acquisitiveness of the late B. Gerald Cantor, who amassed about 750 large and small sculptures, statues, statuettes, and like Rodiniana from his first seminal purchase in 1946. (Mrs. Cantor still guides the foundation).
What the Cantors collected was arguably the largest accumulation of the Rodin works in the world. (Even trumping that at the Musee Rodin in Paris). But what about its quality?
In the world of Rodin, this is always a sticky question.
Generally speaking, the 'originality' of Rodin's bronzes -- thus, those most coveted and most highly valued -- are divided by a date certain, the sculptor's death in 1917. Before 1917 lie the 'originals.' After, the 'copies.'
Those designations are loaded with high-octane controversy, and may even be spurious in that, in a sense, all of Rodin's un-counterfeited works -- cast from original molds by the 'lost wax' method -- are real and 'original.' Still, artistic and marketplace cachet are attached to earlier castings of the bronzes, especially those manufactured during Rodin's lifetime and under his direct supervision.
Indeed, French law guarantees the integrity of these later works. Moreover, any one Rodin piece is limited to 12 castings. That is in practice from the 1970s. when French authorities got serious about monitoring Rodin production, an area that's further muddied by the sculptor himself. Rodin, in his lifetime, was a highly successful artist -- and marketer. Thus, he himself cast his works in the dozens, in original dimensions and in scaled-down sizes.
The iconic The Thinker, for one, was knocked off by Rodin in marble, as well in bronze. There are about 20 'originals' of the well-known bronze monumental version. One graces the exterior courtyard at Philadelphia Rodin Museum. Another is on loan here at the NCMA for two years, and still others, in the United States, are at the Baltimore Museum of Art and at Columbia University.
That said, how does the NCMA Rodin collection measure up? Or, for that matter, the collection at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia?
First, most of the 30-odd pieces here are studio studies, or scaled-down models of the later versions. Many of these, destined as contributions to the Gates of Hell, are sized accordingly. But not The Thinker, nor The Three Shades (part of the NCMA's permanent Cantor Collection). Both pieces, in smaller versions, are also included in the Gates of Hell.
Moreover -- and this was particularly telling -- I noticed that most of the NCMA's pieces were cast in the 1970s and 1980s. Their purchase dates were obscure.
Works in Philadelphia's Rodin Museum stand in stark contrast. First, most of the museum's works were cast during Rodin's lifetime or shortly after his death. This, for no other reason than the museum's donor, Philadelphia cinema mogul Jules Mastbaum (1872-1926), was a near contemporary of Rodin.
Mastbaum started collecting Rodin's works, including his masterpiece, the Burghers of Calais, in 1923, almost a quarter of a century before B. Gerald Cantor began his efforts. What resulted was Mastbaum's Rodin museum and garden, designed by French architects Paul Cret and Jacques Greber and opened in 1929, three years after Mastbaum's death. (The museum is administered by the Philadelphia Museum of Art).
I introduced myself to a docent, who was leading an informative tour of the NCMA's Rodin Court. 'Oh, you're from Philadelphia,' she said. 'I'm going there in December for the Army-Navy game. But I'm looking forward to visiting your Rodin Museum. It's the best.'
Interestingly, another Philadelphian, Thomas Eakins, was also a Rodin contemporary. But as for the Eakins portrait I had hoped to see, that of Dr. Albert C. Getchell of Worcester, Massachusetts, that encounter didn't happen. The portrait (1907), I was told, was in storage.