The Rodin Museum is a city-centre delight, both inside and out
Situated in the middle of Paris, the Rodin Museum is a completely unexpected oasis of artistic calm in the heart of the city. It achieves this in a way that, for all its scale, the Tuileries Gardens could never manage to do. Perhaps it has a lot to do with the fact that the park is enclosed on most sides so that it can’t become a through-way or perhaps it is to do with the fact that the main building in which the Rodin works are on display is a former convent. Whatever the reasons, it has been consistently voted as Parisians’ favourite museum.
“So many people say that they fell in love here, that now we are starting to do weddings here.” So says Museum PR Chief Clémence Goldberger, giving an insight into how special this museum has become in the hearts of the residents of the French capital. “After they are officially married, they come back here and they write letters to the Director saying that they fell in love here and that it was so romantic and that this is where they would like to have their union consecrated.”
She doesn’t mean literally, of course, unless that there are a few hedges behind which one can discreetly indulge in some brief consecrational activities.
“Tonight there is one at seven o’clock in the garden,” she adds, also pointing out that the gardens are a favourite for commercial launches of luxury products by the likes of Guerlain and Christian Dior.
As soon as you step through the gates of the Rodin Museum, the city traffic hushes behind you and seems to adopt more of the character of a sea breeze rather than that of industrial background noise. The superbly-maintained gardens are, in their own right, a pleasure to walk through. The gardens feel as though they’re on a slightly lower level than the world outside and the trees surrounding the site make for a visual buffer zone that blanks out much of the city except for the few exceptionally tall and beautiful buildings.The upper half of the Eiffel Tower, for example, catches your eye now and again as you stroll around the garden, stopping to admire the life-size cast of “The Thinker” – arguably Rodin’s most recognisable work.
All around the garden, you’ll find Rodin’s work placed in an open setting, where it is best viewed. “The Gates of Hell” cast is about the same size of the one that you can see in the Musée d’Orsay, but it’s darker and it’s set as though it were part of the garden wall, making for a much more striking and thought-provoking aspect of the complex and unsettling piece of work.
“The Burgers of Calais” is here too, as is one of his most talked-about commissions – the statue of novelist Honoré de Balzac. The ground-breaking writer had been deceased for decades by this point but the Société des Gens de Lettres who commissioned the piece was extremely unhappy with the depiction of Balzac. I can understand why. It isn’t exactly flattering, showing as it does, an overweight lazy looking slob of a guy that looked like it was sculpted by an ever more overweight slob of a guy. The piece was rejected outright but Rodin held onto it and it wasn’t until 22 years after the sculptor’s death that the piece was finally cast in bronze.
“With the monument to Balzac,” says Mmme Goldberger, “he was supposed to show the fame of the most prestigious French writer of the 19th century and he (Rodin) produced a man in his gown. That was so revolutionary, but the fact is that Balzac was writing in his gown every night.”
The administrative offices of the museum are situated near the entrance. At one point, the main museum building was a school, the director tells me. In fact, when the nuns were building the school, they were short of funds. Fortunately, the 18th-century buildings had a lot of gold leaf in the mouldings of the décor and picture frames. The good nuns scraped it all off in order to help make up the financial short-fall. Thus, today you get all the baroque flair but without the gilding.
Indoors, the museum gives you an insight into the process involved in creating sculpture the Rodin way. He seemed to work furiously with his hands, pulling shapes here and there and seemingly getting himself into a right mess before the shape that he is happy with emerges. Then it’s a case of refining the shape… to a certain extent. Rodin went for a fairly rough finish that echoed the more “blurred” tendencies of his painting colleagues in the Impressionist Movement of the time. In fact, you can almost regard Rodin’s sculptures as the three-dimensional cousins of impressionist paintings. What they lack in finesse and polish, they more than make up for in movement and passion.“The Kiss” – another of his landmark pieces – is housed indoors in a variety of versions from the original clay model to a full-scale cast. “There is one other version in London, but the difference between this one and the one in London is that in this one, you have the sex of the man,” says the Museum Director, before indicating with her finger the penis that the prudish Brits decided to amputate. Iconic though “The Kiss” is, Rodin made many other sculptures that depicted erotic passion which you can see here. An altogether more exquisitely beautiful one is “The Eternal Idol”.
“So many people come to see ‘The Kiss’ or ‘The Thinker’, but this one is so… delicate, so beautiful. You can see the man’s hands behind the back like he doesn’t dare to touch her. It’s adoration.”
The great love of Rodin’s life was the artist Camille Claudel. She was much younger than Rodin: “She was 18 and he was 40 when they met. They had ten years together and, as an artist, she was not just one more girl: he really admired her.”
It all ended badly enough for the two artists, by all accounts, and you can get an idea of the loneliness of the younger woman from the mood of her own works that are on view here too. Their relationship was the subject of a 1988 film starring Gérard Depardieu as Rodin and Isabelle Adjani as Camille Claudel.
August Rodin was, by all accounts, a tough, uncompromising and passionate man, as Goldberg explains: “This man was driven and he lived such a happy life. Artists are people who can be suffering a great deal; not being understood or appreciated. But Rodin had this great appetite for life… like Picasso. We always compare Rodin to Picasso. We call this the élan vital. It’s bursting out of you… you can’t help it.”
On that note, we leave the world of Rodin and make our way back into the streets of Paris.
Get Yourself There
Aer Lingus fly direct from Cork, Dublin and Belfast daily to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Tell me More
Musée Rodin, 79, rue de Varenne – 75007 Paris.
Phone : +33 (0)1 44 18 61 10
Fax : +33 (0)1 44 18 61 30
Metro : Varenne (line 13) or Invalides (line 13, line 8 )
R.E.R : Invalides (line C)
Bus : 69, 82, 87, 92
Vélib’ : 9, Bd des Invalides
Car parks : Bd des Invalides