The nearly claustrophobic exhibit of sixty-three Auguste Rodin sculptures crammed into two second-floor galleries at the U-M Museum of Art, swarming with visitors on the weekday I visited, left me with mixed feelings: awe at the beauty of Rodin's expressive modeling of the body, and queasiness that these treasures aren't displayed in a spacious hall that would heighten the dignity of each piece and allow visitors to refresh their mental palates between works, by framing each one in empty space. And behind ropes — no sooner had I read a warning not to touch the works, since skin chemicals cause irreversible damage, than I saw some idiot touch one.
Expensive piles of Rodin merchandise in the gift shop — which juts into the airy apse where some of the larger works would be better displayed — include T-shirts, mini-Thinkers, magnets, and a puzzle packaged in a bottle. The items and the sculptures' crowded presentation give an uneasy impression of Rodin-as-commodity that threatens to subsume the pleasure of pondering the sculptures.
The small work Iris Waking Nymph (right) shows the fairylike Iris alighting on the thighs of a sleepy nymph. The glossy black work offers visual rhymes — the nymph's bent arm mirrors the forty-five-degree angle of Iris's leg, and Iris's straightened arms echo the nymph's lower legs in poetic parallelism.
In contrast, the massive Orpheus is a study in agony. Depicting the moment Orpheus realizes Eurydice is lost, the work shows an emaciated man stumbling to one knee. A severed hand — the touch of the woman severed from him — appears ghostlike on the back of his harp. The work was inspired in part by Rodin's affection for Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice. This opera also inspired local dance luminary Peter Sparling's original dance Orfeo, which will be performed by Julianne O'Brien Pedersen for free at the museum June 5.
The white marble carving Danade combines the sensual fluidity of Iris and the strained anguish of Orpheus. Clenched into an exhausted ball, the body of this despairing woman from Greek mythology, sentenced to punishment in the underworld, is rendered in sensuous dips and flaring bony bumps that hint at Art Nouveau stylishness.
Like The Thinker and The Kiss, Danade is one of the many Rodin works that were originally components of his masterwork, the eight-ton Gates of Hell. A big photo of these two giant doors, crowned by the familiar figure of the Thinker, representing Dante, shows the door covered with swirls of tortured figures from Dante's Inferno. A nearby documentary video details a 1977 attempt at casting the work in metal, which Rodin never achieved in his lifetime.
Auguste Rodin: The Cantor Collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art runs through August 24.