Augustine Rodin is considered one of the greatest artists of late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He is credited for daring to deviate from popular sculpturing of the time and venturing in to new idea with great effect. Rodin, a liberal by nature, was highly influenced by Michelangelo, whose works had achieved iconic statues. One of Rodin’s distinguished talents was his ability to work marvelously with clay (Alhadeff 363). He was never educated at the popular school of art at the time and critics thought he was a rebel. He also suffered several setbacks both professional and private which included the rejections of his works for exhibition by the judges. Some of his personal struggles include having to help his sick father, which was later aggravated by the death of his mother and sister.
At one point, in order to reconcile his inner self with his brother, who took the blame of the death of his sister, he joined the catholic order and almost abandoned his passion for art. However, he was advised by the church hierarchy to pursue his talents. He started by working for other artists in order to sustain himself. He also saved some money which he used to travel to Italy, where he cemented his inspirations. After a couple of years, he emerged from the world of oblivion to become one of the finest artists of the time. In 1870’s he was mastering his skills at an artist workshop to acquire his unique style. A decade later, it was no surprise he was granted the honor to create a door of the museum which was to be built in Paris at the time.
It was then that Rodin made one of his trademark works The Gates of Hell, the sculpture which he started working on in 1880 and proceeded with his work until his death thirty seven years later. The sculpture is six meters high with a width of four meters and a thickness of about one meter. It contains over 180 figures of different lengths. Some of the figures are depicted as being embedded by fire or simply the hell inferno. Rodin’s vision was depicting the hell as it was envisioned by Dante, a poet of the twelfth century. Being inspired by the way Dante had described a world of suffering and consequences of people’s sins, Rodin took that vision and came out with an idea of depicting the same without obeying convectional rules. He wanted to rebel against establishment at the same time portraying human as a limitless being in pursuit of internal gratification.
The idea was borrowed from the previous work of Ghiberti, which was done about four hundred years before near Florence. In this work, Ghiberti depicts gates of heaven as described in the Bible and ancient cathedrals which spread in Europe and beyond in a number of famous art cities such as Barcelona, Rome, and Istanbul, to name a few. However, The Gates of Hell, though it was never completed nor installed in the museum as it was intended, brings out several themes. The appearance of the final product and its message remained unclear for the spectators of the time; hence speculations about the Rodin’s intentions have been debated for almost a century. At the moment, scholars, admirers and critics at least agree it was a masterpiece and even at its incomplete state reflects connection of human beings and their nature. It succeeds in bringing out three pillars of the society namely social, economic and political, all engulfed together. It is Rodin’s ability to portray society due to which we can successfully single out several themes that have been openly depicted in the sculpture. Some of the themes have been discussed below.
One of the conspicuous themes is a political one, which has been illustrated by the figure of the ‘thinker’ and the walking man. The thinker is a figure of a masculine statue whose body is bended while his head is resting on his arm in a thinking mode. He is directly looking at the inferno and people who are being consumed by fire (Elsen 52). The walking man in deep thoughts is simply a political message because it goes against the political establishment at the time. In the Victorian times, the political class was depicted in sculptures but they were the nobles or simply the bourgeois class. The walking man therefore brings the changes where a common man is glorified at the expense of the nobles, which can be interpreted as political transformation.
The walking man also goes against the old notion that proletariats are not thoughtful. It demonstrates a common man with ability to analyze issues and make decisions, which goes against establishment of that time. Reasoning was thought to be the task of bourgeoisie, who were seen as endowed with those abilities. Rodin’s inspiration might have been borrowed from French revolution, which articulated equality of all men and equal opportunity rather than birthright as the main ingredient for success. The walking man also reflects defiance of establishment, where the poor are scorned and painted as uneducated and lacking ability to come out of poverty. They are always treated by the ruling class with suspicion and contempt but the walking man rises above those challenges to decision making and self actualization.
The Gates of Hell was sculpted in France and it carries the message of what was happening at the time in that region in terms of culture. For example, Rodin moulds a figure of Paola and Francesca and depicts them as a couple. The figure is referred to as the ‘kiss’ and demonstrates the good atmosphere that was being experienced in Europe at the time. The figure is also associated with romance which is one of the greatest attributes of France even in today’s world. The ‘kiss ‘is representative of how the society of France at that time viewed love and morality. There were things about love that were simply scorned upon by the society, especially married women being involved in romantic relationships. It was seen as a forbidden fruit by the French society at the time. The sculpture depicts Paolo trying to reach Francesca by stretching his hand with no avail.
Interpretation can be inability of the society to accept certain aspects of life, in this case, immorality due to the fact that the couple is having an affair which was highly unusual in the Victorian society. The role of a woman was that of perseverance where her feelings were supposed to be suppressed. In this case, Francesca cannot suppress her feelings, therefore she ends up being unfaithful as she reaches a point of no return which leads to her ultimate death. This is also manifested in the figure of an old naked lady which is painted as someone with nothing to show off now that she has reached her twilight years. It therefore tries to enhance morals and state at the same time that beauty is something that fades with time. The walking man to some extent demonstrates the rise of socialism which was rekindled by the works of Karl Marx. The philosopher painted industrialization which had taken Europe by storm as a mere exploitation of the poor by the rich. He was radical in his remedies and claimed that those who own the means of production were determined to maintain status quo. He therefore calls the workers or the common men to revolt and claims their stake in the society.
Economically, the sculpture depicts the suffering and the aguish that people were going through at that moment. This is illustrated by the figure of Ugolino Della eating the corps of his children who had died because of starvation. The figure shows emotional and economic desperation at the extreme end where a man turns into a savage in order to survive. The glorification of the common man also explains imbalance in economic development where those who are capable were still denied their full potential by the economic structure of the time. The walking man can reason and has the capacity but the meager pay and poor working conditions mean that he will never exploit his real gifts and continue to languish in the land of plenty. It also depicts the struggles of economic policies in Europe at the time. In the industrialization time, wealth was created with high intensity and output increased tremendously. However, poverty remained a headache. Some scholars such as Karl Marx started to question the ideals of capitalism and advocated for socialism which he believed will advocate the rights of the common man. The sculptor therefore captures this by painting a working man with necessary potential and will power to succeed.
One of the outstanding gifts of Rodin was imagination which to some extent was shaped by the fact that he did not learn his skill from established school of thought. In fact, during his early years in the industries his works received a lot of criticism simply because they were new and people were skeptical. However, he invented his own unique technology when it came to carving, which made him iconic. Rodin assumed the role of a visionary supervisor where assistants did the actual carving while he designed. This enabled to have ample time to concentrate on developing ideas and structures as the production continued. He also established a systematic way of developing a sculptor which started with drawing, clay molding, plastic cast and finally the actual carving (Turncock 121).
From the poem by Dante, Rodin was convinced that sculptures should have the ability to float or pose in the manner they felt right. In fact, this had tremendous impact on his working principle as he let things settle in their natural way without interfering. The cast enabled him to manipulate them in trying to come up with a perfect cast. One of his notable ideas was his obsession of observing his models from different angles and height in order to eliminate any error in shape or stability. He also wanted to observe thing in a natural way in order to make his sculptures have some connection with reality. He also borrowed ideas from classical works, which he combined to come up with new ideas. His desire for perfection can be attributed to be one of the reasons why he never finished The Gates of Hell. He built and brought it down several times and even some sculptures he made were never incorporated in his work. A classic example is the sculpture of Adam and Eve, the idea of which he abandoned because the figures he made could not manifest his ambitions. The ‘kiss’ he also felt brought some contrast because it showed some good moment yet the whole image was about suffering.
Religion is probably the most prominent theme that he successfully demonstrated in the sculpture. The inferno simply shows people being burnt for their sins. The figures of people are being consumed by fire which is a main feature associated with hell. This means that there is emphasis of the consequences of human actions (Grapp 61). The thinker is a figure placed above the inferno and some scholars speculate that this is Adam in deep thoughts who may be regretting for his actions. He is staring at the misery that the people are going through and he blames himself because of belief he is responsible for their suffering. In those times religion played a very important role in society. One of the most influential ideas was the teaching of the Old Testament that all people are sinners because they inherited the sins of Adam and Eve. The reflection of this idea in Rodin’s work can be proved by the fact that Rodin tried to make the sculpture of Adam part of the The Gates of Hell. Although he abandoned the idea we still can deduce his inspiration.
Some scholars argue that is Rodin himself in the ‘thinker’ contemplating about the people worldly actions and the price they have to pay. They believe he is demonstrating remorse for what was happening to them. Another conspicuous figure in The Gates of Hell is the three shades which initially pointed at some words in scriptures which warn people. They warn the mankind not to make the mistake of going to hell. It depicts doom for those people who will pass through the gates of hell. When science was not developed, people used religion to interpret nature. In other words, every occurrence which could not be understood, be it earthquake or thunder, was simply interpreted by religion. For example, if there was prolonged drought people thought it was the gods that were punishing them because of their shortcomings. In The Gates of Hell, people are being burned because of their sins.
The appearance of fire simply shows how religion played an important role in Victorian times. In fact, Rodin’s inspirations came from another depiction of Gates of Heaven and this shows his deep belief in life after death. The actions of the society were therefore to some extent controlled by religion where good ethics gave a ticket to heaven and vice versa simply to hell. Ethic demonstration of The Gates of Hell is where religion takes the centre stage to explain any shortcomings of the society. The figure of ‘kiss’ where Paolo is depicted as trying to reach Francesca but slips away brings out this notion. It shows how the culture was radical and deviance from the norm was not tolerated. The figure of an old naked woman which is portrayed with the lost dignity brings out the notion that though women were seen as sexual symbols, their promiscuity was not entertained. A promiscuous woman was not respected and that was why she was being mocked at the old age.
Gender inequality is highly demonstrated in the sculpture. Firstly, it is the women who are crucified as being adulterous yet the men get away with it. That is why the old naked woman is being tortured for her previous life yet the man gets the men are not painted in a bad way although an affair involves two people. The figure of the ‘thinker’ shows a man in thinking mode and his very masculine while women are depicted differently. This shows the difference in gender roles, where women feminine looks were always brought together with men masculinity. Women were simply considered as sexual tools and when they got old they were scorned upon and they were seen as if they had lost their human characteristics.
A female body was also very important and it was a representation of fertility, especially concerning young women. They were always depicted with curves and firm breasts to bring out the aspect of ability to have children which were one of the primary expectations by the societies of the Victorian times. On the other hand, men were always portrayed with physical power as a form of success. This can be attributed to the fact that technology was very minimal in the Victorian times and most people died before reaching maturity age. The health of a male was very crucial for survival and it was always a determinant when it came to mating. Strong men physically were always preferred hence masculinity was always manifested by early artist to bring that aspect of men into play. In the ‘kiss’ it is shown that men’s ego was highly connected to their ability to keep their women and the killing of Paolo and Francesca seems as an act of self redemption. The demonstration of Paolo trying to hold Francesca is an act of desperation and it shows the tender side of men together with their brutality since the couple acts end tragically.
In Rodin’s work there is a depiction of the demise of a generation which is associated with sin and suffering. The people are shown in hell suffering and the figure of ‘thinker’ is seen in a mourning state due to the destruction of people. In the figure of the three shades it seems that people do not hind the advice and they simply rebelled against the system and ended up in hell. The depiction of Paolo and Francesca having an affair shows a generation’s rebellion especially in favor of women. Francesca pursues her physical desires and starts an affair in order to fulfill her sexual fantasy. This goes against the traditional perspective, where men were the only one who could have multiple partners. In most societies, it was allowed for men to have extra marital affairs while women were confined to home. However, Francesca goes against the traditions and has an affair. Although it led to her death it demonstrate generational change in attitude. The generation is rotten with immorality and this is demonstrated in the figure of ‘kiss’. Paolo and Francesca are both married but they decide to have an affair which ends costing them their lives.
The figure of Ugolino Della depicts a father eating the corps of his children, who have died of starvation. Although it happens due to desperation, it simply shows an end of a generation because the off springs do not survive. At the Victorian age, religion always explained nature and this was a sign of punishment. We can therefore argue that The Gates of Hell depicts people at the height of immorality which in turns brings them suffering. From the point of view of that generation we can put it into context of Rodin himself and his life, which we cannot entirely dissociate with the sculpture. He was rejected by the mainstream art and he is known to have ventured in to new areas which were later appreciated and that shows there was a generation change in the intellectual world which can be coined by his work The Gates of Hell.
In conclusion, The Gates of Hell is a masterpiece in its own right. It vividly captures the European society of the Victorian times and how it approached various life issues. The religion played a central role in shaping society as a main regulator of people’s actions. Rodin takes that into account and his works are clearly connected to the society he lived in and his personal struggles. His lack of education in the main school of art gave him freedom to explore new grounds and helped him achieve incredible success.
He therefore intertwines art with day to day life and borrows from classical works of poets to reflect on the generation of his time brining out vital social issues including the savagery acts of human beings and extremes to which they are pushed by life circumstances.