The Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo had long exerted an influence on working sculptors, but for Rodin he acquired an almost god-like status. While most of his contemporaries had living "masters" to educate them and nurture their development, Rodin instead chose Michelangelo to be his absent master. In 1876, Rodin made his first voyage to Florence to study the Italian's work directly. The immediate impression was unexpected, as Rodin himself recalled: “When I myself went to Italy, my brain full of Greek models that I had passionately studied at the Louvre, I was greatly disconcerted by the Michelangelos. They were always refuting all the truths I thought I’d permanently learned!" (quoted in Raphael Masson & Veronique Mattiussi, Rodin, Paris, 2004, p. 151).
Michelangelo’s art inspired in Rodin a sense of freedom that contradicted the classical canons of the time (see fig. 1). Rodin himself had no intuitive affinity with the academic school of art: he had been rejected from the École des Beaux-Arts three times prior to his trip to Italy. His first encounter with the physical models of Michelangelo was therefore formative, not only liberating him from the preconceptions of his studies but inspiring him with a new kind of visual vocabulary: “The emotional quality of the modeling, the tormented poses, and the throbbing power that stemmed directly from Michelangelo’s non finito technique reassured Rodin, even as they revealed new paths to explore" (Raphael Masson & Veronique Mattiussi, ibid., p. 151).
On arrival in Florence at the start of his career, Rodin wrote to his companion, Rose Beuret: “You’ll hardly be surprised to learn that since the moment I arrived in Florence I’ve been doing a study of Michelangelo. And I think the great magician is revealing a few of his secrets to me… I’ve done sketches back at my place in the evening, not based on his works but based on all the scaffoldings and systems I construct in my imagination to try to understand him, and I think I’m managing to give them a little of that indescribable something that only he could give" (Raphael Masson & Veronique Mattiussi, op. cit., p. 151). Though inspired by Michelangelo, over the course of his long career Rodin created his own distinctive visual idiom that was to transform Modern sculpture.
This unorthodox education was to inform Rodin’s style indefinitely and by 1903, the year the present model was conceived, Rodin was in full control of his own personal idiom and looking back upon the models that he had created throughout his successful career. The smaller figure comes from his 1888 model La Fatigue, depicting a child yielding to exhaustion. The figure of Asclepius is derived from Rodin’s 1887 nude study for the figure of Baroque artist Claude Lorrain, a clothed version of which was gifted to The Metropolitan Museum of Art by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation. These two figures are brought together in the present work and transposed to an entirely new context: the child becomes a female victim yielding to a wound, while the figure of Claude Lorrain transforms into Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, tending to her. Appropriate for its subject matter, this group was reportedly displayed at the Exhibition of Physical Education and Sport, held at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris in 1913.
When he saw the work in 1903, art collector Robert de Montesquiou described this model as a scene in which "hope is no different from miracle" (quoted in Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, op. cit., p. 325). At the time, the group was titled Ex-voto, and the current title only appears in 1924 in an order book for the bronzes. The two figures in the group appear to meld into each other, yet, they, as Antoinette Le Normand-Romain notes: "seem almost unaware of each other." The physical torment of the wounded figure, coupled with the benevolence and perhaps even dignified resignation of Asclepius tending to her, creates a complex and deeply human set of emotions such that Normand-Romain describes the work as a "sort of secular Pietà" (Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, ibid., p. 151).
In this, the new assemblage also references Michelangelo’s Pietà which is known to have had a profound impact upon Rodin: he recalled viewing it and feeling struck "with deep emotion" (Auguste Rodin quoted in L’Art. Entretiens reunis par Paul Gsell, Paris, 1911, p. 114). It subsequently provided the inspiration for a number of Rodin’s works: the figure of Christ can be seen remodeled in Adam and La Défense, the latter which Antoinette Le Normand-Romain describes as "a direct transposition" (Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, op. cit., p. 302). The present model is exemplary of Rodin’s imaginative versatility in its numerous references not only to models within his own oeuvre but also the work of his elected mentor: he was an artist continually interrogating human form and the simple act of transposing one pre-existing figure to a new context enabled him to test the parameters of gestural expression. Esculape is striking for both its power and beauty, possessing a kind of lyrical force that is testimony and tribute to the virtuosity of its maker.
Esculape dit aussi Ex Voto was cast in an edition of two by the Alexis Rudier Foundry in Paris, one in 1924, and the present work in 1931. As a result of a foundry error, these two first examples both bear the same numbering, one "MR no. 1," now in the collection of the Musée Rodin, and the present work. There were also six unnumbered examples cast, including one by the Georges Rudier Foundry in 1973 and five by the Émile Godard Foundry between 1983 and 1987.
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