Without a lot of fanfare, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has reopened the Rodin Museum, the small Paul Crét-designed jewel box across 22nd Street from the Barnes Foundation on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
While there is much that will be familiar to visitors — The Burghers of Calais still lurks in the east garden, and Henri Gréber’s copy of The Kiss still dominates the main gallery — a new, long-term installation focusing on Rodin’s sculptural hands has been unveiled.
The museum was closed for the last month for the reinstallation, the first time the 150-piece collection has been reconfigured in three years.
Jennifer Thompson, the Art Museum’s curator of European art and curator of the Rodin Museum, said the new exhibit focuses on Rodin’s expressive sculpting of hands, a subject the artist returned to almost compulsively throughout his career in a restless search for expressive effect, sometimes using the same hands in different ways with different sculptures.
“By drawing attention in the center space of the museum to his independent sculptures of hands, the hope is that it will spark visitors to look elsewhere in the museum and the garden at hands and to see how Rodin uses the hands so powerfully,” said Thompson, who curated the exhibition.
There is The Hand of God. And there is The Hand of the Devil.
There are life casts of Rodin’s hand, and the sculptural hand of Rose Beuret, his lifelong companion whom he married in 1917, months before they both died. There is a cast of the Rodin’s right hand holding a torso fragment, placed there by the artist’s assistant, Paul Cruet.
All comes from the collection of Philadelphia-based movie theater mogul Jules Mastbaum, who gave it to the city and commissioned French architects Paul Cret and Jacques Gréber to design the museum building and gardens. The museum opened in 1929 and houses the largest collection of works by Rodin outside of Paris.
Thompson, on a recent stroll through the exhibit, stopped before two separate sculptures of hands, each clenched to the point of distortion, one titled The Clenched Hand, the other simply called The Left Hand.
“Rodin brings this sense of exaggeration to his hands,” Thompson said, standing in front of the two oversized bronze hands with their fingers tightly curled. Scholars have speculated that the model for The Clenched Hand was someone suffering from Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, or CMT, a nerve disorder that can cause severe muscle contractions.
The model for The Left Hand is thought to be someone who suffered from severe arthritis.
“This builds on our understanding of Rodin,” said Thompson. “He did not seek out models who were just examples of beauty or youth. He wanted a wide array, a variety, and he wanted his work to reflect the variety of human experiences. And so I think this suggests that he is seeking out or finding models who have various sorts of experiences and physical ailments.”
Exhibiting The Left Hand and The Clenched Hand also offers an opportunity to direct visitors to The Burghers of Calais, visible through the gallery’s large eastern window. Scholars believe that Rodin may have originally fashioned the tensely distorted hands for use on that monumental sculpture.
“So it’s thought that those two hands, the arthritic one and the one with CMT, that he might have originally modeled those for the Burghers of Calais because they were made at the moment that he was really working on this commission,” said Thompson. “The thought, and it’s just a suggestion, is that he took them off and in the end didn’t put them on the Burghers because he felt they were too expressive and it became too overwhelming.
Alternatively, Rodin took two hands from the Burghers, changed their placement and scale, and transformed them into an entirely different piece, The Hand of God, also on view.
In that piece, instead of the hands being part of a tableau of despair — the burghers being marched off to certain death at the hands of the invading English king — they are part of a tableau of uplift and creation of male and female figures. Thompson points out that Rodin’s Hand of God is reaching up from the clay of the earth, not down from the heavens (as God’s hand is often depicted by artists).
“It’s a modeling hand,” said Thompson, “which has this nice play on thinking about the sculptor as a creator.”
When he conceived the Burghers in the 1880s, Rodin was also known to be modeling many, many hands and feet and storing them for possible use. Sometimes he would take them out and show them, Thompson said, “particularly on Sunday afternoons.”
A bit later in his career, the stored hands, feet, and heads were kept in drawers in his studio, “thousands and thousands of these pieces,” said Thompson.
“He called it his abattoir and he would just use these,” she said. “I think early in his career, this modeling of hands … was just about trying to capture a sense of different emotions as expressed through hands.”
The multitude of hands and feet were akin, in Rodin’s eyes, to sculptural sketches. They were his effort to capture something transitory or simply interesting and emotional. But over time, Rodin returned to them. He used them, finding “new juxtapositions” that would yield “a very strong sense of emotion,” Thompson said.
This is precisely how he treated the Gates of Hell, she pointed out.
“He models each of those 200 figures separately, and then he’ll pull them off the Gates to make new configurations,” she said. With the various heads and hands and feet, stored in baskets during his last two decades, he would gather them together and deploy them in different pieces called “assemblages.”
“I guess it was natural,” said Thompson, reflecting on the assemblages. “Over the course of his career, he returned to these pieces and in new juxtapositions finds a very strong sense of emotion. But they resist any clear explanation. They’re meant to evoke a feeling, an emotion, and there’s no narrative that we need necessarily.”
The Rodin Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Monday. Admission is pay what you wish.