First Encounters in Art History: Happy Birthday, Rodin!

November 12, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Auguste Rodin would be 174 years old today. If he was alive I would have liked likes to have met him and said, “Thank you for the introduction to art history.”

Rodin's 'The Burghers of Calais' at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.Rodin's 'The Burghers of Calais' at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.A snapshot I took of Rodin's 'The Burghers of Calais'

In eighth grade I was part of the time-honored tradition in my New Hampshire school district of being shipped off to our nation’s capital for one week to torture our teachers learn first-hand some things about history and about how to be a proper tourist.

After the requisite months of trying to push unneeded candy bars and magazine subscriptions on my neighbors while competing against the other kids in our densely packed apartment complex to “raise money” for the trip, we set off in some tour buses in May. (Note that I do not think any class was ever denied the trip because they did not sell enough Superbowl grinders)

Leading up to the trip we were asked to pick a monument or place, do some research on said thing, and write a paper in anticipation of seeing the genuine article. I have no idea what led me to Rodin’s sculpture The Burghers of Calais. Perhaps I saw it in a book of Washington, D.C. art, but I was immediately transfixed. It was so monumental, and heart-wrenching, and tragic! To my little, middle-schooler soul it was sadness incarnate.

Nowadays I can’t even remember how I felt when I saw the statue in person at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. I probably had a vague grasp of the sculpture’s meaning, having done my homework. I knew it depicted leaders of of the city of Calais being led to their imprisonment and execution (eventually stayed by the King and Queen of England), having sacrificed themselves in the surrender of the city. Pretty grim for an eighth-grader, I know.

Jean-Robert Ipousteguy’s Man Passing Through the Door in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.Jean-Robert Ipousteguy’s Man Passing Through the Door in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.Me with Jean-Robert Ipousteguy’s Man Passing Through the Door in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Instead, I remember happier pieces of art from that trip and all the museums! The model of the US Capitol Building made entirely of glass! Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet! Even Jean-Robert Ipousteguy’s Man Passing Through the Door, in the same garden at the Hirshhorn, made more of an impression on me than Rodin did at the time. However, when I saw a whole show of Rodin sculptures at the North Carolina Museum of Art a few years back, I knew how much that initial encounter had influenced me.

I realize now that those first museums I visited were the seeds of what I would be interested in later, not just as a hobby but as a career, too. I love the story-telling of art and the idea that it is there for all of us to explore. For me, museums are a giant store of inspiration - all those artists with great ideas to emulate! Looking back, it almost makes selling those candy bars worth it, but I sure won’t be funding any trips that way again.


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