The Danaïd: Rodin’s Transformation of Sculpture

On Friday, I had my presentation on Auguste Rodin’s marble sculpture, the Danaïd (modelled in 1885, carved by Jean Escoula and exhibited in 1889). I saw and photographed this sculpture during my trip to the Musée Rodin, which is in Paris, where I was lucky enough to go on a study trip as part of my degree! During the trip, we had to choose one piece of art to do a 20 minute presentation on, which counts for the entirety of the marks for the module. A slightly daunting prospect, but one I wanted to push myself to do, and I was proud of! I went to Paris thinking I would do Claude Monet’s Nymphéas (Water Lilies), in the Musée de l’Orangerie. I have been here before, and the museum as an entirety creates an atmosphere of dreamy calmness as you walk around the unique exhibit, which includes eight of the Water Lily paintings. However, at the end of the trip we went to the Musée Rodin, and I was immediately swayed to research a piece of his sculpture.

Rodin’s Danaid
Interior of the Musée Rodin

As you can see from my photography, the setting created in the Musée Rodin is very important, and I appreciated the grandeur of the estate.  However, it is important when exploring his iconic masterpieces around the museum to not simply appreciate the lovely aesthetic qualities created between sculpture and setting, but also to analyse how the body is manipulated by Rodin to explore the themes of desire, mythology, sensuality. All of these themes contributed to Rodin’s innovation of sculpture. The light cascades out of the panelled windows to streak across the surfaces of the sculpture, revealing the qualities of the medium and the skills of the sculptor.

The mythological background…

Rodin’s Danaïd sculpture takes a mythological theme. It is based on a Greek myth, where the daughters of Danaos, called Danaïds, were condemned to hell and had to fill up a bottomless barrel with water as punishment for killing their husbands on their wedding night. In conventional iconography of this mythological theme, the Danaïd is portrayed in her act of filling up the barrel with water. However, Rodin chooses not to do this, and instead he evokes the despair she feels as she realises the pointlessness of her task. She is exhausted, and rests her head on her arm as she gracefully slumps over the rock. This positioning allows Rodin to highlight the curve of her back and neck, mimicking the contours of the rock.

Rodin’s Danaid

Rodin reveals the signs of production…

Rodin’s approach to marble sculpture is unique, due to how he wants to pay attention to the signs of production. The figure of the woman literally emerges out of the marble block. This gives the effect that it is not a fully formed sculpture, as he chooses to leave evidence of the original marble block. This is an allegory of the sculptural process itself. This is highlighted by creating a strong contrast between the woman and the marble block. The woman’s skin is a polished, smooth surface. Whereas where she emerges from is rough, directly showing the markings made by the tools used to carve with. Despite the mythological theme, as a whole, the sculpture is a challenging of the normal traditions and boundaries between marble block, pedestal, and body. This is because he has pushed all of these elements together forming an entirety, rather than keeping them all separate. The effect of this overstepping of sculpture boundaries created a new way of understanding sculpture. It does not have to be finished, it does not have to be whole, and it does not have to be framed by its pedestal.

However, I think that through its placement in the Rodin museum in Paris, this concept is changed. As you can see in my photo, the Danaïd is raised up on a wooden pedestal (beginning at around my waist height if you were standing), and contained within a glass box. It is placed corresponding to the window behind it, which frames the sculpture as the Danaïd fits centrally within it. This is very effective, as the light from the big window illuminates the side of the sculpture. Having it raised up also works very well because you can walk all the way around it, and the effect of the light illuminates the smooth curves of her skin, changing as you look from different angles around the pedestal. The concept of being able to walk all the way round is very key. In Rodin’s Danaïd, and in his other famous marble sculptures, for example The Kiss (1882), the viewer feels compelled to walk around the sculpture. As I was there in the gallery, I wanted to look at the figure from all angles of viewpoint, in order to understand what it is conveying, and how it did this. The aspect of being able to walk around the entirety of the sculpture was a key innovation in Rodin’s work. He achieved this desire to want to see more of the sculpture through making the female figure’s back as telling as her facial expressions. The curve of her back is very sensuous, through how Rodin has naturalisitically modelled her. However, at the same moment he also exaggerates the sharpness of her hips and shoulders, and the result of this makes them mirror and mold to the rocky ground on which the Danaïd lies. The light from the window also highlights the roughness of the block of marble from which she emerges. So despite the changing of giving the sculpture this separate pedestal, I think it is very effective in creating a relationship between the sculpture and the setting, because the squared panelled window creates streaks of light across the sculpture and illuminates it in different ways. This effect of light reveals the qualities of marble.

Rodin’s Danaid

The medium of marble has a ‘susceptibility to almost imperceptible nuances of smoothness.’

Elsen, Albert E., Rodin, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1963

Elsen’s complimentary use of marble can be understood upon close inspection of the sculpture, Rodin has sculpted a cracked and broken pot, upon which water cascades out. This water mirrors the Danaïd‘s hair and they merge together, and it is through the use of marble which aids in creating this fluidity. Rodin combined his naturalistic modelling of the female figure with his abstracted use of iconography and expression of her pose. It is this combination of innovations that able Rodin to transform sculpture.

Rodin’s reputation…

Louis Morin ‘La Sculpture Moderne’, Revue des Quat Saisons, No. 3, 1900

Louis Morin portrays a brutal version of Rodin at work in front of a model in his caricature. Rodin is depicted in his studio, but instead of sculpting, he is grappling with the female body. No sculpting tools are depicted, and it is shown to be very physical. This could also reflect how it wasn’t him that modelled the marbles – and so I thought that the cartoon could also be a criticism on this.  During the period when Rodin was alive and for many centuries earlier, it was a usual thing for the artist to first create in clay and plaster before having the sculpture then interpreted into stone. Rodin went about this by employing a small group of assistants as his stonecutters who would duplicate his work. The strongest criticism that Rodin received was directed by the sculptors a generation after Rodin, who criticised that as a result of not doing his own carving into the stone, he had no real feelings for the medium. This leads to the questioning of authorship upon Rodin’s marble works. Is it fair for Rodin to take the credit for the work when he did not carve it? I would argue yes, as it is his primary creation of the form of the figure and his decision of the suitability of the choice of marble –the museum label rightly credits Jean Escoula who did model the Danaïd – however in my research this is all he ever gets, so there is definitely room here for more research upon the marble carver. To go back to the caricature and the critique on Rodin’s treatment on women, it is noticeable that he has massive hands, and the way he peers in gives very graphic connotations. Rodin is depicted as predatorial and vulgar. The representation of models around the studio portrays how he got his models to pose in highly revealing and sexual ways.

It is hard to decipher if what Rodin was doing was negative or positive. Rodin did not care for the negative cartoons response, which makes you think that he did not care that it was the truth. The other thing to consider is to ask if his work was feminist? The way he got his models to pose was about contortion and using different angles, and this was a modern idea. In his work is the expression of female bodies, and female desire is more liberated (and not passive) – and so it can be argued that it was innovative. On other hand, people said he was randy and seedy. To look at Morin’s cartoon again – the model in the foreground is referencing the position of the Danaïd sculpture. It needs to be enforced however, that this is a caricature, not a photograph. But Anne Wagner points out in her text ‘Rodin’s Reputation’ that this is what Morin was aiming for, this likeness to make it recognisable, like a photo. There are many questions to consider as a result of this caricature: should we the viewer, ignore these allegations by Morin to separate the working process from the end product? Might the intense concentration the caricature presents be essential for Rodin’s completion of the work? Many questions can be posed after researching; my intrigue increased the more I read!

Rodin transformed the idea of what sculpture was about; he broke away from its confinements. He achieved this by portraying the female figure in new poses, which introduces different ways of thinking about the figure. He redefines and questions what was acceptable in sculpture. Despite not modelling the marble himself, he still pays attention to the medium through showing the signs of production, using contrast between the figure and the rough rock from which she emerges. He produces a new way of understanding sculpture.

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