How Rodin’s Studio Paved the Way for Donald Judd, Jeff Koons, and the Art of the Future
The artist's approach to fabrication and the multiple was ahead of his time—and still not fully understood.
Jean-Jacques Neuer is a lawyer and solicitor based in Paris who has represented major artists’ estates, including the Picasso Administration and the estate of Constantin Brancusi. He is a former member of the board of the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques Guimet and a former member of the legal affairs department of the International Council of Museums. The below is an op-ed published on the occasion of Rodin’s centennial celebrations.
To mark the centennial of Rodin’s death, museums around the world—from the Grand Palais in Paris to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—are organizing exhibitions dedicated to the great sculptor. But visitors to these shows may be surprised to learn that Rodin sculpted few of the works on view directly himself. Indeed, the sculptor never produced a work in plaster, bronze, or marble with his own hands.
The Met’s exhibition of nearly 50 marbles, bronzes, plasters, and terracottas by Rodin (“Rodin at the Met,” September 16–January 15) offers an ideal moment to reconsider the complex notion of the “original work”—an obsolete but persistent idea that haunts our understanding of art history, the art market, and its legal framework.
Rodin—who created his works alone but produced them in partnership with others and was an early adopter of the multiple—took a forward-thinking approach to the “original” that would go on to inform many great artists in the 20th century.
Our conception of what constitutes an “original” has implications far beyond the exhibition hall. If we do not recognize that Rodin created works without physically forming them by hand, we cannot fully understand the artists who come after him.
As a lawyer responsible for maintaining artists’ legacies, I believe it is important that misconceptions about the concept of originality never prevent artistic genius from being duly recognized. This issue will only become more urgent as the production of art becomes more mechanical by the day. Now, artworks are produced not only by third parties but also by robots. Does that mean that creativity and authorship have disappeared? Certainly not—originality has more to do with spirituality than materiality.
In Rodin’s oeuvre, we see a harbinger of this new world. A careful analysis of his approach—and the ways in which it has been misinterpreted—will make us better equipped to understand the art of the future.
From a Clay Model to a Monumental Sculpture
To fully understand Rodin’s process, we must start at the beginning. In the studio, Rodin completely immersed himself in the production of small-scale sculpture—but left the production of plasters, bronzes, and marbles to others.
Take, for example, Rodin’s most famous work, The Thinker. The artist completed a clay model for the figure around 1880 as part of a larger commission for Dante’s Gates of Hell. Originally one of many elements in this composition, the diminutive clay Thinker was enlarged by a consortium of third-party molders and casters under the artist’s direction. The first bronze edition of The Thinker dates from 1906 and is now on show at the Musée Rodin.
In terms of dimension and material, The Thinker modeled in clay by Rodin’s hands has little in common with the masterpiece the world knows and reveres. (In fact, both the clay model and the mold would often be destroyed in the casting process.) Yet no one would contest that the bronze is an original work by Rodin, even if numerous other people were involved in bringing it to fruition, impacting its form along the way. Today, there are more than 20 copies of this famous Thinker (created both posthumously and during Rodin’s lifetime), executed for the most part by the Rudier Foundry.
The Intervention of Compass and Carver
The misconceptions only grow when discussing works in marble, a material that still takes pride of place in the popular imagination and prompts a vision of the sculptor with hammer and chisel, working away against an intransigent block of stone.
Consider The Kiss, another iconic work by the artist. At the exhibition “Rodin, l’Exposition du Centenaire,” held this summer at the Grand Palais, the sculpture was accompanied by a plaque that dates it to 1881–82, but also notes that it was carved by Jean Turcan between 1888 and 1898.
Like many of Rodin’s most famous works, this one was executed based on a small-scale sculpture modeled by Rodin in clay. This model was then enlarged, carved and finished by a carver (or “practicien” in French) thanks to a procedure of measurements made using compasses to retain the model’s proportions. Looking at the back of the female figure, one will notice small holes—marks left by the tips of the compass.
Does this part of the process diminish Rodin’s merit? Certainly not. It’s quite simply that his genius finds its expression in the initial conception and the modeling of clay on a small scale. Once Rodin chose the material and final size, he left the execution to a carver, a subordinate practitioner.
To complicate the picture further, take the example of Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Art historian François Blanchetière is correct in his assessment that the “Gates of Hell is, in every sense of the term, the central work of Auguste Rodin’s career.” And yet, as he points out, “Rodin never finished his Gates of Hell.” He stopped working on it after 1889.
Like Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, the work was never truly completed, and thus never formally acknowledged by the artist. Yet what work could be more emblematic of his style?
What these examples illustrate is the difficulty of defining the scope of any “original work.”
Rodin Casts a Long Shadow
Rodin is not the first artist to frustrate our conventional definitions of an original work. As the Musée Rodin notes in its online education material, “Starting in the Renaissance, sculptors only do the modeling; the work in plaster, bronze, or marble is produced by casters or carvers.” Later, in the 17th century, under Louis XIV, sculptors including Antoine Coysevox and François Girardon were already supervising large staffs and armies of many assistants of every variety.
Rodin’s approach influenced an entire generation of artists that followed. As Catherine Chevillot, who organized the Grand Palais exhibition, wrote in the catalogue: “At the beginning of the 20th century, all the young sculptors, including Brancusi, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and Picasso, do, in fact, go through a Rodinian phase.”
Rodin’s influence continues into the Modern era. As the sculptor Antony Gormley writes in the catalogue for Rodin’s Grand Palais exhibition, the sculptor’s greatness “lies in a paradox: on the one hand, he embodies the public narrative statuary prevalent in the late nineteenth century; on the other hand, where multiplication, industrial production, the serial repetition of ways of associating one object with another, and his capacity of taking a body apart to then recreate it are concerned, he prefigures Carl Andre and Donald Judd.”
From the Unique to the Multiple Original
Rodin also prefigured contemporary practice—and upended our notion of the original—with his use of the multiple.
The precedent for multiples dates to the 1850s, when artists like Antoine-Louis Barye or Emmanuel Frémiet began to sell a kind of patent for design objects. Foundries such as Barbedienne in Paris produced decorative elements of all sizes, which is how the same candelabra could end up on bridges and fountains from Clermont-Ferrand all the way to Buenos Aires. It is in France that this kind of democratizing art was invented.
Not long after multiples were popularized in the design field, Rodin began creating multiple casts of his works, starting with She Who Was the Helmet Maker’s Once-Beautiful Wife in 1889. Such casts are usually fabricated from a mold while the artist is alive but can be made posthumously as well.
The (sometimes mistaken) idea that a work made during the artist’s lifetime was produced under his supervision has historically justified a difference in value between lifetime and posthumous works. In fact, the artist did not always oversee production closely, and the artist’s estate must adhere to much stricter rules governing the quality of production than the artist himself did. As attitudes change, this market inequality may come to an end. Indeed, some artists, such as Giacometti, have recently seen an increase in prices for posthumous works. The artists’ beneficiaries may profit from this shift—but so does the public at large, which gains a fuller understanding of the value of the artist’s work.
12 Copies—the Limit of the Original Work?
When production occurs on various timelines, how can we distinguish between the original and its reproduction? In France, the law (particularly in terms of customs or tax regulations) provides some elements of an answer—although the relevant text is rather obscure, cryptic, or merely an article in a provision to the general tax code concerned with the application of reduced VAT rates. In this context, the term “original work of art” encompasses “the casts of sculptures in drawings limited to eight copies and under the control of the artist or his beneficiaries.”
Under French law, the maximum number of casts allowed for copies to qualify as “multiple originals” is 12. (It is commonly permitted to add to the eight copies another four artist proofs.)
The origins of this figure stretch back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the first limited editions entered the market courtesy of French designers. At the time, the sales price of a work in bronze was about three times the cost of its production. Eight copies were drawn for the dealer (numbered 1/8 to 8/8) and four additional for the artist, which served as payment in kind to the sculptor (these épreuves d’artiste are numbered differently, from E. A. I/IV to E.A. IV/IV).
From France, this number has made its way around the world and has entered, for example, American legislation to serve as the basis for defining multiple originals.
In a 2012 decision, the French Cour de Cassation, aware of the as yet undefined nature of these multiple copies, elaborated further on the definition of original works to note that they must be drawn from the plaster or terracotta model produced personally by the artist; in its execution, “these material supports of the work bear the mark of their author’s personality and are thereby distinct from a simple reproduction.”
Americans deal with such problems more pragmatically. Instead of anchoring descriptions on a qualifier as original, the essential thing for United States law is ensuring public awareness of an object’s characteristics, whether it is a multiple, produced during the artist’s lifetime or after their death, the name of the caster and the precise number of copies. For, in the end, what is important in law is that no one is deceived and everyone can form a subjective opinion based on objective facts.
Rodin’s novel approach to the original enables us to draw a direct line between the French artist and major contemporary artists today. Jeff Koons, for example, maintains and extends this tradition of a communal artisanal studio practice. In an article by Béatrice De Rochebouet published in Le Figaro in 2014, Koons’ studio is described as a place where “a veritable army of more than a hundred people contemplates materials, ranging from wood via stainless steel to ceramics, with an elite group of physicists and technicians.”
Just this year, Koons offered a monumental work, Bouquet of Tulips, as a gift to the city of Paris. Created from polychrome bronze and steel, the sculpture stands at more than 38 feet and weighs more than 72,000 pounds. It was produced in a German factory under the watchful eyes of an agent of the artist and, barring further delays, is expected to be installed later this year. It is noted as an original work and is accepted by the Paris authorities as such.
Koons is one of many contemporary artists who push Rodin’s approach to its logical conclusion, using machines and studio assistants to realize his vision. He is, in a certain way, the ultimate symbol of the distinction between creation and production.
The Romantic Approach to Art and Law
Nevertheless, despite the wide recognition for artists like Koons, many still hold onto erroneous conceptions that only works that come straight from an artist’s hands can be deemed original. We are willing to tolerate that multiples are produced, but, even then, we seek to be reassured by tracing the artist’s touch back through the complex molding process.
What complaints we hear when posthumous casts are produced, while artists such as Rodin never cast even the smallest bronze themselves! Do people seriously think that Giacometti or Brancusi created their bronzes in the heat of their own fireplaces? Are people aware that all of the Degas bronzes in the Musée d’Orsay were cast after the artist’s death? The case of Brancusi is all the more significant as the Rumanian sculptor was, in 1907, Rodin’s student and could not but have learned the rules of the great master’s artistic production.
What will people say when, in the near future, an artist sends an electronic file from New York to Hong Kong, where a 3-D printer produces a sculpture that the artist never laid hands, or even eyes, upon? As Rodin reminds us, what really counts is the mind, not the hand.
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