Treviso, Museo Civico di Santa Caterina

Treviso, Museo di Santa Caterina

The Exhibtion

curated by Marco Goldin

In 1985, while I was adding the final touches to my degree thesis in the history of art criticism on Roberto Longhi, at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, I came across a small volume, the recently published Italian translation of a work written in 1902. The title was simply the name of the artist to whom the book of no more than a few dozen pages was devoted. I was immediately struck by the fact the author was not an art historian but a poet. This was encouraging, because I had begun to greatly value poets and novelists who wrote about art. I used to eagerly turn to their writings on art with a more passionate interest than to publications by historians and critics. It seemed to me that a poet’s writings could contain sharper insights expressed more freely, with more intense allusions and imagery. It was no accident that, at the time, for my degree thesis I was analyzing Roberto Longhi's novelist-like phrasing of sentences in his essays on Piero della Francesca, Ferrarese Renaissance painting, Caravaggio, and Giorgio Morandi.
I had picked up Rainer Maria Rilke’s little book on Rodin, written at the beginning of the twentieth century, at a bookseller’s stall in my hometown, Treviso. On opening it, I read the first, amazing sentence: "Rodin was solitary before he became famous." All that I needed was that opening remark to see what I had suddenly come to – to see the fateful magma I had unexpectedly fallen into. The great poet continued: "Instinctively one looks for the two hands from which this world has come forth. One thinks of the smallness of human hands, of how soon they weary and also how little time is granted to their activity. And one longs to behold these hands, which have lived the life of one hundred hands, of a nation of hands, that rose before daybreak to set out on the long pathway of this work. One asks about the owner of these hands. Who is this man?” Since then I have read those pages several times. They have often accompanied me when telling the story of an art work, but also of the lives of the many artists I have dealt with in over thirty years. Rilke’s pages capture a sense of reality that blends with dream and memory in a wonderful yet precarious equilibrium.

I had a dream at that time. I was in my twenties or just older, and so at an age when future visions and challenges are glimpsed by a young man in what can only still be called dreaming: although I had been curating my first, small exhibitions for just a year, I dreamed of eventually being able to do something featuring Rodin, be it an exhibition or the story of his life. But then I began to narrate painting, the job that I love so much, and I have almost never dealt with sculpture, though sometimes I did touch on Rodin by occasionally including one of his works in the exhibitions. But now, thirty-two years after first holding Rilke’s slim volume in my hands, that dream has come true. An exhibition on the great sculptor will open in Treviso, my hometown, where I originally chanced upon the opening line of that marvelous essay: "Rodin was solitary before he became famous."

Thanks to the indispensable collaboration with the Musée Rodin, Paris, this exhibition will show a total of 80 works, consisting of 50 of the most celebrated sculptures and 30 drawings. It promises to be a fascinating event from the point of view of the significant, historical and critical survey, also pursued in the accompanying catalogue. Moreover, the Treviso exhibition will mark the end of the centennial year of Auguste Rodin's death (1917). This is because the Parisian museum decided to include the Treviso show in the official program of exhibitions – there have been none in Italy so far – to celebrate this important anniversary in worldwide venues, such as the Grand Palais in Paris last spring and the Metropolitan Museum in New York at present. Treviso will thus be the only Italian venue in this international program.
The Musée Rodin will make available works by the greatest nineteenth-century sculptor, and one of the greatest artists of all time. All the most famous small to medium-format works will be on show and even several large sculptures, including some to be installed in the cloisters of Santa Caterina. The exhibition will thus be an opportunity to see works that have deeply influenced the history of sculpture since the second half of the nineteenth century: from The Thinker to The Kiss, The Gates of Hell, and The Burghers of Calais. These titles alone already reveal the exceptional nature of the event.

Celebrated in his lifetime as the greatest living sculptor, Rodin set out on a career in the mid-1860s when he became a master craftsman in workshops of art decorators in France and then in Belgium before eventually being employed as a designer in the Sèvres porcelain factory. The second half of the 1870s saw his first, significant creations (they will be on show in Treviso), such as St. John the Baptist and The Bronze Age, which caused such a scandal. But it was in the twenty years from 1880 on that he began to produce large sculptures, such as the portal that the French state commissioned that year for a decorative arts museum (never built). Inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy, this project, known overall as The Gates of Hell, was to occupy him on and off until his death. An everlasting masterpiece, it formed a rich repertoire of figures that he borrowed, assembled and modified for his future production. It was thus the basis of an extraordinary corpus of very varied self-contained sculptures. Two classic examples are The Thinker and The Kiss, the latter having been inspired by the story of Paola and Francesca, told by Dante in Canto V of Inferno. Rodin’s various great passions – he had a celebrated, tormented love affair with Camille Claudel – also included his unwavering fascination with Michelangelo's works, encountered on a trip to Italy in 1876.
In an almost unprecedented way, Rodin was capable of bringing to life the inert material of marble or plaster, which he then cast in bronze to produce magnificent forms, such as the Bust of Victor Hugo, the Monument to Balzac and, especially, the colossal Burghers of Calais. Having in the meantime acquired fame, prominent appointments, and international awards, Rodin continued to elaborate these and other works right up to the end of his life in studies and variations, drawing especially on the female universe as an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

The entire biographical and artistic story of the great sculptor will be explored in the Treviso exhibition, also through letters and documents, so as to situate him at the center of the art scene in France and Europe from the late nineteenth century to the first two decades of  the twentieth century. There will be a special focus on the influence of Italian culture on Rodin in the creation of his works: from Donatello to Michelangelo, and Bernini, and, of course, his crucial interest in Dante's Divine Comedy.