19 June 2009

La Musée Rodin, Paris

House and Home

Jordan Ellis
Beside the grand golden dome of Les Invalides in Paris, sits a relatively more subtle house. It is hidden by an old wall inset with a modern stone and glass entrance and the sign Musée Rodin. While this house/museum and grounds are surrounded by a high, hiding curtain, the art inside is the opposite. The separation of art to viewer (voice to listener) is as transparent as the spaces are to the art within: here is not the submissiveness of the modernist white box, nor the fight for attention provided by many new gem galleries — intuitively I feel a historical similarity, a cohesion in the relationship between space and object. But is there really such a relationship? From where I stand with my digital camera and space-age mind I am looking for more than just an old thing and an older thing.

The older thing (house-museum) is the Hôtel Biron, built in 1728-30, and not home to artist Auguste Rodin for its first two centuries. It lived lifetimes in possession of many people before taking its current role. In its penultimate (to date) existence, it was hotel to several prominent artists, such as Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau, with Rodin moving in, in 1908, in admiration. Quickly, Rodin began to place his sculptures in the garden; he drew and painted on the walls; there was always some physical relationship between his art and his space. But it is just another old house, no? What interests me is the question: would his work have been realised differently if he had lived in another space, another place?

I am reminded of Salvador Dalì’s house in Catalunya, truly of his mind. It is not so much that he was influenced by his surroundings, but rather that he formed his world as an illustration of his imagination. So, in this surrealistic building there is no segregation between object/space because they were constructed coincidentally. Rodin, on the other hand, had little control over his surroundings, which may be why, in 1911, he began to consign his life’s work to the French state upon condition that a museum be devoted to him at the site of the Biron. Could the museum be as confident in its artistic holdings if it was at another site, like so many other artist museums that are continents-removed from the place of artistic creation; is this relationship little more than historical efficiency and regional politic?

Outside the house is the garden, a small-scale formal layout of pathways, parterres and fountains. Along the path, and at nodal points, are cast sculptures of human characters forever locked in personal or relative tension. If art and its ‘poetics can be articulated only in a broad collaboration and over time’, then while the object remains quantifiably the same, how we see it is forever changing. Perhaps this regular French garden works in favour of Rodin, then. Its iconic and historic conventionality converges with Rodin’s figures, so that over time the viewer increasingly sees a kind of correctness about the placement.

Inside the house lies what we might call the soft arts; paintings, marble and clay objects formed in contrast to the cast-bronze garden figures. The precarious craft of these objects is reflected in the delicate fabrication of detail on walls and ceilings; nonetheless, the solid construction of the building protects the brittle art works. Any building could [hopefully] do this. What is special about this building that makes the art belong here? If the artist’s intention cannot be immediately read, then we must look at his story: ‘there can be no narrative without a narrator and a listener’ writes Roland Barthes, and it is not the canonic form, but rather the regulated transformations that truly matter. It is not what the artist wanted us to see a century after his death, but the transformation of meaning with each new visitor. By neither hiding in the shadow, nor dominating the object, the museum lends itself to an adaptable narrative. Rodin did not necessarily make art specifically for his surroundings, but that does not guarantee dichotomy or offense between one and the other.

I will not intuit Rodin’s intentions, inspirations and the degree to which this hotel influenced his work. As Mies wrote, ‘the visible is only the final step of a historical form, its fulfillment […] then it breaks off and a new world arises’.

What I hear now is not what necessarily what was spoken a century ago. While I am thankful that enough care was taken to keep the house looking as it did when Rodin claimed it as the proper venue for his work, I expect it should not remain this way forever. Whether this building could house any other art collection, and whether this art collection would be the same elsewhere, I will say only that Auguste Rodin thought it appropriate that his artistic expression have a home in the Biron, and while the building may not look like a Rodin sculpture, I certainly appreciate the dialogue between object/space, in/out, and all other sides.

Ellis, Jordan. 'House and Home' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Jordan Ellis and On Site review

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