A Saturday morning visit to an exhibit of a collection of works by sculptor Auguste Rodin was a feast for the senses and a thing of beauty to behold. While The Thinker and The Kiss may be his most famous and iconic images, it was his realization of a monumental project entitled The Gates of Hell which truly caught my attention. While the exhibit did not contain the actual Gates of Hell which are 20 feet tall and weigh eight tons, a small plaster maquette, related works, and an award-winning documentary film about the making of The Gates were all equally riveting. Luckily, while living in Philadelphia as a young art student in the early 1980's, the Rodin Museum in that city did indeed have a bronze cast of The Gates from which I studied and sketched at length in those years.
The Gates of Hell is Rodin's vision of the entrance to Hell, inspired mostly by Dante's Divine Comedy, but also apparently by his own personal vision of the corporeal sufferings of humankind. The Thinker is set near the top of the Gates, ostensibly representing "The Creator" contemplating "his" creation and the manifestations of human pain. According to my reading and the film shown at the museum today, Rodin did not see Hell as a place of fire and brimstone, rather as a virtual space where humans engaged in the torments and vicissitudes of corporeal existence, suffering their longings and afflictions in a swirling field of desire, loss, and pain. If you ever have ability to see The Gates, it is a pause worth taking, as is the bulk of his work, all of which is breathtaking in its perfection. The intensity of pieces like The Gates is mitigated by the tender loveliness and delicate bliss of pieces like Cathedral. An interesting note: Rodin was often accused of making casts from live human bodies since his sculptures were so lifelike and perfect in their representation of the human form. A strange compliment which actually damaged his career in the early years but did little to keep him from being eventually hailed as the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo.