When you surprised yourself in the mirror, when you became a stranger to yourself, who was the who you dreamt yourself to be?
̶ Mirror, mirror, tell no lies, how do I look in Rodin’s eyes?
̶ On cream-coloured drawing paper, in black lead and blending stump, you lie on your back with your legs apart. One hand is reaching up from under your buttocks, the other is rounding your raised thigh: Each is intent on satisfying your insatiable sex. Look! The line springs and swells as abandonment floods your body and your head fades away: Intimately feeling what the eye sees, the hand of the artist flows unconstrained…
Rodin has often been praised, in loose parallel with Freud, for “unmasking” the centrality of the erotic in human experience. In such a view, the triumph of the modern outlook involved the bold removal of a crust of accumulated convention, in order to reveal “timeless” truths beneath. Lately, however, we have become more skeptical about this kind of either/or opposition between “natural” or unchanging aspects of humanity and time-bound, contingent aspects that are shaped by a particular culture and material circumstances. Freud himself, after all, can be read as saying something quite contrary: that our erotic behavior and even our erotic mental life, like everything else about us that may seem spontaneous and “natural,” is always, and inextricably, the determined product of the contingencies of early individual experiences, and of the cultural constraints that surround us. His followers have gone even further in examining the unconscious as culturally structured, rather than primal and pre-existing.
The erotic in Rodin’s art, then, may better be thought of as something made, rather than something simply found or discovered; and the forms in which eroticism appears in his work might profitably be examined, not as transparent vehicles for transmitting a transcendent truth, but as representational devices whose own nature and history are enmeshed in the meaning of the work. In this context, the artist’s later pencil and watercolor drawings of nudes are central.
They contain the boldest and most frequent representations of sexual display, masturbation, and lesbian intimacy in the artist’s oeuvre; and, at the same time, everything about their conception – the random, unposed motion Rodin encouraged in his models, the rapid-fire way he initially drew without looking at the sheet on which he was working, and the extreme simplicity of the one-line contours and one-tone watercolor wash – seems to embody aspirations toward purified simplicity, and spontaneous freedom from convention, that are central to early modern ideals of art’s power to refresh our vision of the world.
The erotic in these works is as much a part of the dream of its time as of the specific inner history of its author. If we rethink the relation of these innovative images to the earlier drawings that most fully record Rodin’s development and education as an artist, we can establish a subtler set of linkages between Rodin and Freud, and also connect Rodin’s later focus on the erotic with the motivations of Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, and others, stressing a powerful, shared conviction central to early modern ideals: the conviction that a powerful new art was to be made neither by merely imitating the ideal forms culture gave us from the past, nor by rejecting them entirely, but by rediscovering their truth in forms of immediate experience that had previously been marginalized or thought too ephemeral and chaotic to bear any significance.
They were spoken about, one knew they were there, somewhere. Certain were seen here or there, but it was difficult to imagine them grouped for attack, forming a breach like no other in the representation of bodies.
Here they are, then, these drawings. I believe one should imagine them as the true light of the sculptures scattered across the night, the true light of a darkroom revealing the meaning of the twisted bronzes and plasters in the museums, the gardens, the streets. What is The Thinker thinking about? That. What is Balzac—leaning back, closed in upon himself—contemplating? That. What do The Gates of Hell open out onto? That. What is Hugo dreaming of? What is it that he cannot speak of? That. Where do so many busts and hands, legs and gestures, sinewy couples, tense faces, impetuous demi-gods and goddesses come from? From that. Yes, from these singular-plural women in an extreme situation, discovering in movement their sex, directing a hand to it, oblique or full frontal. And thus Medusa is stared down at last by a radical explorer and outlaw: the usual suspect, a Frenchman, focused and steadfast in the ambient regression. Propriety outside his restricted studio, furious action within: Is it any wonder the results could only be shown much later?
With the hôtel Salé-Picasso, the hôtel Biron-Rodin makes Paris definitively the mysterious city. Sade, Baudelaire and Proust approve this construction. You who enter Paris, abandon all hope of learning more elsewhere: It is here, and only here, that lust comes under such scrutiny. Get yourself locked into the Rodin Museum at night. The Eiffel Tower and the Invalides will whisper to you, in the shadows, all manner of crude, venomous noises: The Serpent will be there. Paradise lost—you will learn why it can be regained through its inverse.
Do not forget against what these drawings are done: puritanical folly, the persistence of repression behind its passing disguises, the climate of opinion, journalism, Queen Victoria, modern style, the decorative turn of the turn-of-the-century, politics, advertising. And for what: in an ocean of lies, to keep the goal in sight. These positive incisions are there to allow the secretion of the precious, forbidden substance, the auto-erotic hormone that gives one the right to immediate consumption of all possible women, equivalent to all the other standing, modeled or cast bodies. Old Rodin? Old Picasso? Old Matisse? Here they are breaking the law of laws: biological prejudice. Never have they been younger, or rather: Satyric youth is only achieved by the delegation of a deep-seated energy, one without age, using pencil or brush. It’s not easy to become a god. Youth, so often insipid, inhibited, is only the shadow of potential divinity. When Rodin wanted to deliver Iris, Messenger of the Gods, he had her at hand, on his examination table. ‘A God’, Epicurus said, ‘is a happy, indestructible animal’. Rodin, like Picasso and Matisse after him, knew why and how he became, very late, ‘a happy, indestructible animal’.
Rodin is standing or kneeling or lying beside them. He steps aside, he encourages them, he steps forward. What a musician! What a director! They show him what they show no-one else: their true nature, their wild abandon. He leans over. He entwines them. He asks them to masturbate—and no faking it! To make love with each other. To do it upfront, fearing neither disarticulation nor convulsion. He takes note of their spasms. Never before has that been seen. It will take no less than a pillar of Notre-Dame to counterbalance that! Or else brickloads of German philosophy. He exalts them, turns them over, drowns them; he gives them electroshocks. Nereids, nymphs, naiads? Yes, yes, but first they are working-class girls or mundane bourgeoises, hurrying to his studio and suddenly inhabited by that. It’s Dionysus in Paris, in the seventh arrondissement, under the nose of the Establishment’s police. They come in many guises: hypocritical young girls transformed into practiced whores, mothers lying one atop another, women of the world exhibiting their earthiness, dancers earning their salary, laundresses changed into goddesses. They go to Rodin as to a whorehouse. If these drawings could speak! Listen: they’re speaking: moans, cries, whispers, obscenities, murmurs…
Who is he, then, this Rodin, who obliges women to desire themselves, to strip off their clothes and touch themselves as they twist and turn before him? To come in his presence as he draws them? To offer themselves up as desire consumes them? To reveal, to be unable to conceal, the fire whose flames never die? He is, of course, a sculptor of genius, a prodigy of modelling–a handy man–but is that all? Why do women, like wild sleepwalkers, converge upon this point? What point? There’s no question here of making Rodin, even if it were the case, a man of good fortune, a sexual maniac, drawing toward him, almost mechanically, his maenads. In painting, especially with Picasso, we know how far the situation of the painter and his model can go: The canvas is penetrated, the landscape or studio turned upside down, the painter and his nude model embrace in an embodied brushstroke. With Rodin, nothing of the sort: He is not there—no man is or will be there. He is exempted from playing a visible role in the physiological script. It is from themselves that these women seem to draw their irrepressible confession.
A forgotten language speaks in Rodin: ‘Surrender, Juliette, surrender without fear to the impetuosity of your tastes, to the cunning variability of your caprices, to the fiery spirit of your desires; arouse yourself on their deviance, intoxicate yourself on your pleasures; take them for your sole law, have no other guide; may your voluptuous imagination vary our dissoluteness; it is only by multiplying them that we will achieve happiness. Don’t you see the star that shines upon us desiccating and invigorating by turns? Imitate it in your profligacy, as you paint it in your pretty eyes.’
And indeed, why not La Coquille (The Shell), drawing no. 5990, as a portrait of Sade’s Juliette ? The left leg is in the same position as in drawing no. 6187. One must imagine what happens from one to the other.
Rodin died in 1917. On the horizon of his erotic drawings are two world wars and unprecedented destruction. Rodin’s secret, hidden in his private works, stands the test of time. His secret is our secret.