Fellow artist Duane Perolio requested:
If you haven’t done so already, the Rodin Garden. The man’s work is reason enough to pay it a visit, but the garden is also a tranquil place to kick back and enjoy a bottle of wine and some cheese (BYO).
Musée Rodin was first opened in 1919 in the Hôtel Biron (built 1728-30), Rodin’s residence from 1908 to his death in 1917. He donated his entire sculptural collection to the state on the condition that the house be turned into a public museum, even granting permission to cast up to 12 copies of any sculpture from the original plaster casts. Rodin was a talented and prolific sculpture to be sure, but I also suspect that the establishment of this museum was a canny maneuver to ensure his place in the art historical canon. My in-house art historian postulates that Rodin was fixated on the idea of the heroic artist, and worked hard in his lifetime to establish his own cultural capital through personal associations, artist-sanctioned reproduction, and the medium of photography.
Waiting for spring, I held off visiting the Rodin Garden, wanting to see the garden in its full flowery grassy glory. When my cousin and her husband were visiting Paris in June, Musée Rodin was on their must-see list, so I tagged along. Whenever I go on assignments, they never go quite as planned, and I always debate whether to return again to have a “better” experience. Sometimes I do, but it seems more candid and fitting to report on the place as it happened: we can only plan our tourism so much, and the imperfection is what ends up making it memorable and undeniably one’s own experience. So, apologies to Duane, I did not kick back and enjoy wine and cheese at Rodin Garden as suggested: it would not have been enjoyable sitting in a pile of mud.
The weather in Paris was particularly moody that week, at first sunny and lovely then rainy and gray. As it had been raining all morning, we didn’t bother with the picnic supplies, but still hoped to tour the garden. The weather cooperated for a brief time, so we headed to the garden first, before the fickle climate changed again. The major hits can be found interspersed throughout the garden, with The Thinker and The Gates of Hell occupying choice locations. The sculptures seemed more at home outside than inside, marked by the elements and toned with earthy browns and greens.
The surrounding garden is indeed tranquil. As it’s a private garden (there’s a 1€ entrance fee in addition to your museum ticket) it’s less crowded then other Paris parks, and the absence of graffiti and litter makes it feel more timeless. High walls create an oasis from the city, and geometrically precise landscaping showcases a plethora of rosebushes, including the specially bred “Rodin Rose.” This is a far cry from its appearance during Rodin’s time: poet Rainer Maria Rilke described it in 1908 as “an abandoned garden, where rabbits can be seen from time to time jumping through the trellises like in an old tapestry.”
The gray sky and still dripping trees weren’t a total downer: the rain and emptiness of the garden makes for a much more meditative and serene atmosphere. I’ve always adored that ephemeral visual contrast present only just after it rains, between the bright green leaves and the darkly wet bark and soil.
Aside from Rodin, there was a contemporary exhibition of Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, a welcome contrast to the multitude of bronzes. (Confession: I just can’t get into 19th century sculpture. Perhaps I am a philistine, but I can only look at so many before they become a blur of indistinct figural sculptures.) The major piece installed in the courtyard was a laser-cut steel filigree tower; rusty orange, symmetrical and cold, it was a striking antithesis to Rodin’s rough and twisted human figures.
In the museum, we saw many more Rodin sculptures. Shocking, I know. Despite my (very) recent panning of figural sculpture, I did enjoy seeing the contrast of materials in the smaller pieces, including plaster, marble, bronze and maquettes illustrating the casting process. My favorite pieces were those in marble, many of which were executed by Rodin’s students after his designs. Aided by the light filtered through the windows, these works had an otherworldly softness and glow.
I was taken aback by the condition of the building itself: rooms in various states of disrepair, cracked and crumbling plaster decorations and (most surprisingly) the windows were even thrown open with rain sprinkling onto the floor. Some provincial museums with little to no funding have this atmosphere, but it was unlike any other museum I’ve seen in Paris. It was to a charming effect though, as it felt more like a place an artist had actually worked and gave a romantic air to its former resident.
It seems that I bought into the image Rodin had cultivated for himself after all, one that the museum continues to foster posthumously. Though the museum was likable, I don’t think I’ll pay another visit to the collection, once is enough for me. But the next time I’m looking for an exceptionally tranquil picnic, I’ll gladly pay the 1€ entrance fee to the garden.