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.
Poses in these life drawings originate in random movement, in patterns of instinct and spontaneity. Yet such works do not simply bespeak a frivolous escape from concern for human meaning. They constitute instead a declaration of belief, highly consistent with the time of their creation, that the basic significance of life is latent in its ephemeral, seemingly random, and unguarded manifestations. As early as the later 1870s, when he rejected Michelangelo’s poses in favor of studying without prejudice his models’ natural movements, Rodin implicitly affirmed that one does not equal the past by imitating it, and that the secrets of great creations must be rediscovered at their source rather than in venerated representations. Freud’s contemporaneous understanding of the significance of the apparently arbitrary, and his belief that the inherited representations of myth and religion are only reflections of basic human experiences recoverable from our own unconscious lives, are also relevant here. Indeed, Rodin erotic drawings deal with the natural energy of movements determined in subjective centers beyond the reach of social discipline, historical memory, or constraining doubt.
The nudity of the figures, purified to extreme simplicity, is an invented correlative of the freedom of uncensored instinctual life, not just in the models but also in the artist. The reduction of means and the renunciation of analysis in favor of dynamic summary, permit the unconstrained flow of the artist’s hand and the participation of his own instinctive gesture in response to the model’s. Rodin’s erotic drawings portray a feminine, labile world of unrestrained feeling and liberated, omnidirectional movement; the poses show forms of self-caress that manifest narcissism and the unchecked flow of erotic energy. The imaginative world here is that of the pagan, pseudo-Edenic in its celebration of unashamed sexuality. The realm of the mind, of the museum, of inherited culture is replaced by the false garden of the artist’s studio, the privileged space in which the cloaks of society can be removed and fundamental truths enacted. The artifice of this naturalness is constantly written between its lines, nudity and gesture now deriving from the context of performance, the artist’s presence, and the figures’ unconcealed roles as models.
In these drawings the movement of the body and the manner of its presentation refer together, in league, to a belief structure regarding the appropriate concerns and purposes of art and the role of the artist’s mind in creating it. In their celebration of unconscious immediate experience, these Rodin drawings, seemingly casual and licentiously playful, only assume their full valence when taken in the multiplicity of their production, with the principles of their conception understood. Indeed, taken individually, many a late erotic drawing by Rodin may seem the titillating self-indulgence of a voyeur. When the drawings are seen in great number, though, the frequency of such investigations acts to change their meaning, and it becomes clear that these are only more pointed instances of the consuming erotic curiosity that is a mainspring of the entire mode. The nude women in the later drawings wheel, dance, and stretch in a dizzying kaleidoscope of poses, with a seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness of movement; but again and again, this freedom of motion pivots around, and refers to, the fixed axial center of their sex.
In a sequence of drawings, this centering phenomenon can be surprising. In several hundred, it becomes impressive. In several hundred more, and several hundred more beyond that, it can become by turns astonishing, tedious, numbing. Finally, passing from sheet to sheet through these later watercolors and drawings, in day after day of research, over hundreds of drawings after hundreds of drawings after hundreds of drawings drumming with unrelenting insistence on this same note of sexualized vision, I find all my skepticisms defeated, inadequate, and I am moved. These are not documents of idle self-indulgence, but of heated, driving fascination: they show, in the spirit of the aging artist, an ecstatic obsession with the mystery of creation taken at its primal source.
Iris, Messenger of the Gods, also known as The Eternal Tunnel, was designed to crown the monument to Victor Hugo—another great creator, another great lover of women. This dancing figure with legs wide-spread is more a body in ecstasy than a divine messenger; it could well be displayed in a supine position. The work is transgressive not only in its attitude and what it reveals of a woman’s sex,1 but also in its size and what it suggests. The sex act is inherently irrepresentable, and the female orgasm, which Rodin also tracks in his ‘erotic drawings’, even more so. The gaping openness of the female sex, that ‘craving vacancy’,2 that ‘hole’ inter feces et urinam, is also the site of a pleasure that, ever since Tiresias, we imagine irrepresentable in its intensity. With the disenchantment of the world, the art of the nineteenth century took ‘the path of the presentation of Absence’.3 No more than desire or jouissance4 can this ‘metaphysical vacancy be placed on a pedestal and presented’.5 In its own way, however, that is exactly what this Eternal Tunnel attempts to do. Its searing intensity is what founds the sculpture’s modernity. Indeed, ‘for the first time, we see firm flesh resolve itself into a symbol of perpetual flux. Rodin’s anatomy is not the fixed law of each human body but the fugitive configuration of a moment. And the strength of the Rodinesque forms resides in the irresistible energy of liquefaction, in the molten pour of matter as every shape relinquishes its claim to permanence’.6 The absence of the face and of one of the arms concentrates the expression in the body and foregoes the anecdote to go straight to the essential.
This spread-eagle posture ‘exposes the woman to the violence of sexual play’, to use an expression of Georges Bataille. The posture in its bestiality, its toad-like stance, entails a defilement of the gaze and a fantasized penetration: Iris skewered on an iron rod. The devouring woman of whom only a mouth remains—the one between her legs—appears ‘supernatural’ and, from a Baudelairian perspective, even more disquieting and abominable. Over a twenty-year period, from 1890 to 1910, the vulva is omnipresent not only in Rodin’s drawings but also in his sculpture. This corresponds to the taste of his time, as seen in the popularity of shunga (Japanese erotic prints), and to the erotomaniacal obsessions expressed in books like My Secret Life, where the narrator pays prostitutes for nothing more than the pleasure of gazing at their vulva. Arthur Symons,1 in the special issue of the literary review La Plume devoted to Rodin in 1900, wrote: ‘The principle of Rodin’s oeuvre is sex, a self-conscious sex that employs the energy of desperation in a bid to attain the impossible’. Speaking of La Porte de l’Enfer, ‘that flight and impetuous fall’, Symons evokes ‘all that painful and tortured flesh consumed by desire’. And in his Confessions, Aleister Crowley, the English occultist, wrote: ‘Rodin had no intellect in the true sense of the word; his was a virility so superabundant that it constantly overflowed into the creation of vibrating visiions’.2
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…
Should it rain, upon a Sunday afternoon, you’d cross the rue de Varenne to visit a gallery or two in the musée Rodin. You admired Rodin’s genius, but his sculptures never really moved you: It was the drawings, the erotic drawings, that touched you. Picasso’s were crude and illustrative in comparison to the evocative power of Rodin’s. In the pressure of his pencil you felt the touch of the sculptor’s hand; in the freedom of his line you felt the fascination of his desire.
̶ Diego, Isabelle, I’d like you to meet Marietta and Sprague.
There’s wisdom in her eyes, the blue sparkles with intelligence; from her sensual mouth the words come, trippingly on the tongue: She’s a psychoanalyst, she’s written a book on love.
̶ I could use your services, I say, but I fear if I did, my hand would no longer fit the glove.
̶ What glove?
̶ The one I wear to tell my story in shadows on the wall.
She gives me an enigmatic smile. In her stretch-leather pants and fetish boots, she is Eros with a death wish.
̶ It seems I’ve made my bed, Isabelle, and I’ve simply got to lie in it.
In the ice blue of her eyes, something melts: Would she lie with me in my bed, or want me on her divan? You jump in with a question for Diego:
̶ Would you agree that Picasso’s ceramics are the best things he did since Guernica?
Diego, a potter by day and a drummer by night, answers:
̶ I would. He lost the spark after that. Except for the erotic drawings!
̶ I find Rodin’s more moving.
̶ So do I, says Isabelle.
Again, the enigmatic smile. And then Adelaide returns to move us on.