Auguste Rodin, Gates of Hell, Metropolitan Museum of Art (1983)



 Artists in the late 19th Century sought either escape from or a re-directed involvement with their troubled world. This escape-involvement syndrome is a reflection of the encroaching dehumanization of our century, clearly felt and anticipated by the 19th, beset in its own way with problems of materialism and spiritual loss.


 From 1880-1900, French sculptor Auguste Rodin worked on "The Gates of Hell," now on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum through March 6, the statement of a major artist expressing his world view and assessing society and its tormenting effects on humanity. That he was originally inspired by Renaissance sculptor Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise," changing his theme to a vision of the nether regions, reveals that rather than try to escape the grim realities of his time, Rodin literally threw himself directly and completely into the flames.


 Before returning to Rodin, consider the opposite course chosen by Paul Gauguin. His overt physical act of flight from an increasingly sterile civilization to Tahiti (and his "Tahitian dream" paintings there) is the most graphic single act of attempted artistic and personal escape in the late 19th Century, though he pays dearly for it. His yearning for the simplicity and freedom of the primitive, where man's emotional, spiritual nature may be reborn, fulfilled, escaping from the restriction and repression of convention and the misdirected contemporary mind set the tone for the powerful attraction of the primitive in the 20th Century.


 Continuing the escape-involvement theme, Georges Seurat, in the creation of rigid, columnar figures in "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte," anticipating the 20th Century robots of Fernand Leger and Oskar Schlemmer, reflects both a desire for escape into Neo-Impressionist theory and classical form, and a yielding to the inevitability of onrushing dehumanization.


 All four Post-Impressionist painters (Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat) lived out their lives in varying degrees of social isolation and alienation. Van Gogh and Cezanne were artists of strong feeling and spiritual search, basing their art on direct visual and emotional responsiveness to nature and the world. Both were cast down into their own kind of hell, discarded by a materialistic, scientific society


 Monet's construction of a complex and beautiful flower garden and water-lily pond is the equivalent of Gauguin's search for paradise, literally an escape to a Garden of Eden. Even the beauty of Impressionist landscapes and the impossible human happiness of many of Renoir's people seems, in hindsight, an attempt at creating an Eden-like existence, a nostalgic glimpse backward to some mythic golden age in reaction to the distant thunder of the mechanical world we inhabit today.


 The morbidity of the Pre-Raphaelites in England, and Art Nouveau (including Edvard Munch) throughout Europe speaks of the unhealthiness of emotion distorted by its suppression during the Victorian Age and the nearly universal desire of artists of the period to return to the bases of human experience and/or some imagined, earlier, better time in human existence.


 Poet Charles Baudelaire's "Flowers of Evil," in itself a symbol and symptom of personal and societal decay, despite its level of poetic achievement, was a specific influence on "The Gates of Hell." The poet, racked by alcohol, drugs and sex reflects his, and Rodin's, time where loss of contact with truths greater than humanity results in being cast down into the maelstrom of hell that life becomes when gods die and all that man has to look to is himself and the infinite vanities, self-deceptions and bizarre misconstruals he is heir to.


 Rodin's "Gates of Hell," approximately 21 feet high, is a fitting apotheosis of this rudderless age...prelude to our own rudderless age. The figures are modeled in very low to highest relief, projecting perpendicularly outward nearly the entire length of their bodies. They seem trapped in the irremediable, immutable materiality of life. Created from the substance of the earth, their bodies and spirits are enslaved by the viscous muck.


 Over the lintel, "The Thinker" sits in his familiar, twisted pose, right elbow forced over to left knee in a Michelangelesque device ("Day" in the Medici Chapel) connoting a constricting tenseness of the human condition, an almost Hamlet-like inability to act. "The Thinker's" posture suggests the conflict between the instinct of "natural" man and the often interfering conscious mind of "civilized" man, suffering from the contemporary disease of shallow, pedantic, over-rationality unconnected with any profound center of existence. "The Thinker's" dumb, brooding, primitive head and chin rest on his hand, forever futilely pondering and struggling with the unanswerable questions of man's fate,

made more difficult by societal and personal loss of meaning and purpose.


 Obviously, "The Gates of Hell" is not a vision of redemption. No Christ or God waits at their summit in symbolic heaven to greet with loving arms the redeemed, or cast yet farther down to Hell the damned. It is not a Last Judgement in the usual sense. Here, all are condemned to Hell.


 But "The Thinker" is not the highest level, the final upreach of "The Gates." Death triumphant, in the form of "The Three Shades," surmounts the apex of "The Gates," their ultimate ghastly theme the worst death of all: the death of the spirit. The wisdom of the ancients has been lost. We entomb ourselves in convention and shabby fashion, thinking that we live, our potential sensibilities of faith and joy never awakened. Like Baudelaire, we seek to fill an insatiable emptiness with physical pleasures. The more we have, the emptier we feel, trying to fill a spiritual void with material things.


 Life-sized figures of "Adam and Eve" flank "The Gates." "Eve," hunched and compressed in despair, clasping her bosom, tries to ward off the wrath of God. "Adam," a subtle variant on the figures of "The Three Shades," head thrown over and nearly parallel to the left shoulder, again Michelangelesque in origin, is expressively animated by the twisted constriction of his body, as in "The Thinker."


 In an aesthetic sense, Rodin's "Adam" can seem almost too over-larded with muscle. Perhaps this emphasis on strength serves to reveal man's ultimate helplessness in the face of inevitable defeat. But compared to Michelangelo's muscular giants whose forms bulge with purpose, each anatomical element held in check and related to every other and to the figure as a whole despite their gigantic proportions, Rodin's muscles, in the instance of this one figure, seem to bulge and ridge on their own account, each tendon and muscle group striving to assert itself over the others.


 In a way, this ridged over-emphasis and separation of forms can be seen as expressive of the disharmony of the age, the equivalent of Cubist fragmentation, revealing the disintegration of life.


 "The Gates of Hell" stands as an isolated fragment, an attempt at a major sculptural-architectural statement in an age when the latter art was evolving toward an aesthetic Puritanism with little use for such Baroque extravagance. It becomes obvious, though, that it is the appropriate symbol of our own age, the offspring of Rodin's and much farther down the road to perdition.


 Contemporary art, in the depths of decay, reflects the confusion and corruption of values, political helplessness and economic decline in our country and the world at large. There is a lack of effective moral leadership in positions of power whatever the sphere of activity. The greatest art and the weakest, from Rodin to Warhol, speak of the psychological and spiritual disaster that is modern man.


 When Gauguin sought to escape the debilitating and destructive effects of modern life on the soul, the reality of Tahiti did not quite measure up to his hopes. French colonialism had already irreversibly altered the culture.


 Where do we try to escape to now? Is it possible or desirable, in a psychological sense, for a civilized man to try to be a primitive? Isn't the desire itself an inevitable symptom of living in an unbalanced, unnatural state? Forty-five years before Gauguin's journey, Herman Melville's archetypal hero in his 1846 novel, "Typee," based on his own experiences as a seaman, finds he cannot remain in "paradise" with his primitive South Sea people. Gauguin himself returned once from Tahiti to France, in the end dying in the Marquesas but wanting still to go back to his homeland. The last painting left on his easel at death, painted in his hut under mango trees in tropical heat, was of a Breton house in snow.


 The answer to the puzzle of how to live and create in our inhospitable time would seem to be a rediscovery of the values, principles and ethics necessary to living as profound a life and creating as profound an art as possible under existing conditions. It won't be easy.


 If a late 20th Century Gauguin should seek a similar escape to Tahiti or other area of real or imagined primitive sanctuary, would he find paradise, or that he had arrived just in time -- hopes, dreams and painting gear in hand -- for the grand opening of the latest fast-food outlet and used car lot?




Copyright by Don Gray


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