Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) remains one of the most famous sculptors of all time. He is less well-known as a graphic artist. His drawings and watercolours are an important part of his work, and he also made 13 drypoints. Rodin was taught the technique of incising a drawing onto a copper plate with a drypoint needle by his friend Alphonse Legros, in London in 1881. Rodin and Legros had met in the drawing class of Horace Lecoq de Bosbaudran.
Rodin loved the immediacy of drypoint, the way he could use it to transfer his thoughts directly onto the copper. He didn’t work out a composition and then transfer it to the plate, he allowed the image to evolve on the plate. His drypoint portraits, for instance, generally show several views of the subject, more like a page from a sketchbook than a finished work.
My Rodin drypoint, La Ronde, is more finished than most. Oddly the image is confined to the top quarter of the plate, while his monograph is a long way below at the bottom right, with the rest of the plate left blank. I suspect Rodin originally imagined he would try out his idea several times in the space available, was surprised by the perfection of the first image, and decided to leave well alone.
Auguste Rodin, La Ronde (detail)
It is a work with an extraordinary atmosphere, at once unnaturally still and wildly moving. A ring of male dancers whirl energetically in the centre, while to either side groups of figures stand or sit, passive and motionless. These “watchers”, who do not actually appear to be paying much notice to the dancers, seem more like judges in the underworld than an audience at a performance. There is a hieratic, ritual quality to the scene.
Auguste Rodin, La Ronde (full plate)
To understand this dreamlike image, with its underlying sense of unease caused by the tension between the frantic dancers and the immobile watchers, it is important to remember that when it was created, in 1883, Auguste Rodin was plunging deeply into the great artistic commission that would occupy much of his time and thought from 1880 until his death in 1917 – La Porte de l’Enfer. These monumental bronze Gates of Hell were intended to be the entrance to a planned Museum of the Decorative Arts. In the end, the Museum was never built, and Rodin anyway missed his deadline by over 20 years. The sculpture now stands where it was created, in the Hôtel Biron, now known as the Musée Rodin, with several bronze casts at other locations.
La Porte de l’Enfer was a deeply felt response to Dante’s Inferno, which exercised a powerful grip on Rodin’s imagination. In my view, the dancers in La Ronde, caught in a ceaseless whirl, are lost souls, not merry revellers. The scene depicts one of the circles of Dante’s Hell.
La Ronde is a vision set in a disconcerting world of dreams, not reality. One of the things that strikes me about it is the way it anticipates the Surrealist aesthetic. In particular, the work of André Masson seems to me to owe a huge debt to this simple, small-scale work, scratched onto a copper plate by Auguste Rodin one day in 1883.