In Rodin’s extensive oeuvre of drawing and sculpture, the human body takes a primordial role. He built up an anatomical catalogue of powerful musculature and twisting poses through observation of the model, but going far beyond anatomical accuracy, he used the body as a vehicle for expression of the soul.
Despite being famous for his sculpture, Rodin produced around 10,000 drawings throughout his career. Contrary to expectation the majority were not intended as studies for his sculpture but works of art in their own right. He said “It’s very simple. My drawings are the key to my work.” They offered him a means to explore the human figure with freedom and spontaneity before transferring the lessons he learned into three dimensions. Dancing Figure from 1905 demonstrates his free flowing line, giving a sense of movement. He preferred to work from his models in motion rather than academic poses. He would get them to move around the studio taking up natural poses whilst he drew, without taking his eyes off the model. He is known to have kept an address book of his models of all ages and genders with details on their physical characteristics.
Rodin’s method of drawing created anatomical distortions which translated into innovations in sculpture that moved away from accepted conventions for representing the figure. It would be impossible for a model to hold the natural poses he sought for as long as it would take him to sculpt them, but he used his memory as the source for spontaneity.
He frequently returned to dance as a subject, possibly motivated by his desire to capture the impulses of the soul through movement. For this reason he wasn’t interested in the disciplined style of classical ballet, but preferred the free and experimental dance of the Ballets Russes, Isadora Duncan and Nijinsky, whom he saw in performance of Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un faune in 1912.
Nijinksy posed for Rodin that same year. In this sculpture he is depicted bringing his leg into his chest in an awkward pose reflective of his dance style, with the other leg bent as if he is about to leap in the air. The sculpture has a strong profile which pays tribute to Nijinsky’s choreographic style, inspired by Greek bas-relief sculpture.
One of Rodin’s most iconic sculptures is ‘The Thinker’, although it was originally conceived on a smaller scale as part of ‘The Gates of Hell’, inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. The thinker is believed to represent Dante, observing the circles of hell from the top of the gates, whilst lost in thought about his work. For this reason it is designed to be seen from below and the top half of the body appears enlarged to compensate for this. Once again Rodin uses the body as an expression for the soul, this time an almost damned soul who is transcending his suffering through poetry and silent contemplation. The figure’s nudity relates back to the heroic tradition of Michelangelo whose work Rodin admired, making it a more universal representation of intellect. It was enlarged as an individual piece in 1904, which emphasises the powerful musculature of the figure and suggests more of a capacity for action as well as philosophy.