Charlie Christoffersen ‘22
Since the publication of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and the broadcasting of its televisual heir, “Ways of Seeing,” the following argument has become an obligatory part of the first-year art student’s tobacco-scented repertoire: when mass production becomes good enough to crank out convincing copies of an ur* work, people tend to commodify art as a way to keep the ur piece special. For the most part, those who want to justify paying or charging gallery entrance fees can no longer appeal to the original work’s superior quality, and thus, they begin treating the work’s cost as one of its virtues.
I say “for the most part” because one artistic medium is engaged in a Gaulish and sometimes goofy resistance against the growing equation of original works with their copies and is doing everything it can to preserve the distinction between the “authentic” and the “reproduced.” This battle is on display in a rather sneaky and often self-contradictory manner at Davidson’s new exhibit, “Auguste Rodin: Truth, Form, Life.”
It turns out that sculpture, especially bronze sculpture and especially Rodin’s bronze sculpture, has a tricky relationship with reproduction. On the one hand, the extensive process that allows bronze sculptures to be re-cast constitutes part of the medium’s appeal. Aside from being technically impressive and completely tubular to watch, re-casting is also what allows both the Musée Rodin and Davidson College to own “original” versions of the same sculptures. The Jean D’aire Nude, that Davidson has owned since 1993, for example, is still considered an “original” even though it was cast in 1972, fifty-five years after Rodin’s death.
Accordingly, Davidson’s exhibit opens with a spectacular video, produced by the Cantor Foundation, that documents an authorized re-casting of Rodin’s The Three Shades. As the sculpture is prepared for replication, the voice-over explains, “[the figures] will be cast individually in the process Rodin would have wished: the lost-wax process. It is the only way for twentieth-century craftsmen to remain faithful to Rodin’s original” (emphasis added). Here begin the gallery’s claims to facsimilar superiority. While “reproductions” are merely another artist’s attempts to mimic Rodin’s work, authorized re-castings (so it goes) are really, truly, originally Rodin.
Yet as the video proceeds, the Cantor Foundation’s efforts to be seen as authentic become somewhat self-defeating. Because the Foundation wants to signal its competence and distinguish itself from the joe-schmoes of the reproduction world, it asks us to admire the exceptional casters whom it employs. Thus at points, the documentary leads to some pretty confusing juxtapositions. For example, in one shot, the voice-over narrates, “the mould is removed. A perfect wax of Rodin’s plaster is revealed.” Yet this claim to facsimilitude is undermined in the very next shot, where we see a craftsman scraping off pieces of this “perfect wax.” The voice-over explains, “The craftsman compares the wax with the plaster. He corrects the most minute imperfections, for any blemishes in the wax would be cast into the finished bronze.”
We seem to be creeping toward the following question: like, uh, who gets to decide which sculptures are “authentic” or “original” or whatever? Unlike most of the times this question is asked, there’s actually an answer here. All questions regarding the authenticity of Rodin’s works are decided by the Musée Rodin, which considers itself the custodian of Rodin’s legacy, and it takes its job very seriously.
You may have gathered that the M.R. is no ordinary heritage foundation. In fact, it’s operated by the French government itself, to which Rodin gifted his entire collection of nearly 30,000 pieces before his death. Consequently, the M.R. can (and does) make use of the French legal system to maintain strict control over Rodin’s legacy and the sculpture market. No re-casting sold after Rodin’s death may call itself “original” unless it has been authorized by the M.R., and of course no re-casting can be made without access to the original plaster, and of course almost every original plaster is owned by the Musée Rodin.
Lest the market become too saturated with authentic Rodin sculptures, in 1995 the Musée had its friends in French Parliament pass Article R. 122-3 of the Code de la Propriété Intellectuelle, which stipulates that “editions of sculptures limited to twelve numbered casts, including artist’s copies, are considered to be original works of art….” This code means that even if a 13th recasting has been made using “the process Rodin would have wished: the last wax process,” it won’t be considered an “original” in the eyes of the M.R. nor the law.
To its credit, I think that Davidson is aware of how arbitrary most of this is, and the VAC goes about showing its awareness in a rather cheeky way. On one of the gallery’s walls, the curators have hung a photograph of Rodin’s female assistants, shown scraping what I’m sure the voice-over would call “the minutest imperfections” from a Rodin plaster. We’re reminded that any sculpture bearing Rodin’s fingerprints probably also bears the fingerprints (or at least the chisel marks) of several other people.
None of this is meant to disparage our new Rodin exhibit. On the contrary, once you realize that sculpture is inevitably the result of a series of approximations— with casts approximating plasters, plasters approximating clay models, and clay approximating live models— you can better appreciate just how extraordinary Davidson’s accomplishment is. Thanks to the pains taken by the Cantor Foundation, the M.R., and Davidson College to respect Rodin’s artistic integrity, the VAC currently houses the absolute best approximations of what Rodin himself sculpted, and whether you think that counts as original or not, it’s worth seeing.
I should also point out that while the Musée Rodin often invites ridicule with its revolutionary French, suspect partnerships, and rather arbitrary decisions about originality its procrusteanism probably works to everyone’s advantage. If you want your art to come with a gold sticker labeled “originale,” resist the equation of an ur work with its copies, and promote the physical visitation of museums and galleries without having to appeal to the artwork’s cost, the M.R.’s curled upper lip provides it all.
Meanwhile, if you just want a sculpture that looks original but technically isn’t, you can get it for cheap. Funnily enough, the gallery’s pamphlet winds up making an argument for just such an approach when it describes the origins of the Cantor Foundation itself. We learn that after becoming captivated by Rodin’s marble sculpture, The Hand of God, the young B. Gerald Cantor “bought his first Rodin, a bronze version of the marble he had fallen in love with at the Met. It cost him the equivalent of two months’ rent for his modest apartment.” Thus, despite its attention to detail, the gallery suggests (perhaps inadvertently) that a lifelong appreciation for sculpture can begin with unauthorized reproductions.