I recently attended an exceptional tour on the Rodin collection at the Cantor Arts Center, the museum associated with Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Their Rodin collection, among the largest in the world, has over 200 pieces by the French sculpture who lived from 1840 to 1917. From The Thinker (1880-1) to The Gates of Hell (1880-1900) to The Kiss (c. 1881-2), the Cantor has all of Auguste Rodin’s most famous sculptures – and many more to boot!
This got me ruminating on the Kemper Art Museum’s very own The Shade (1880), a larger-than-life bronze sculpture gifted to the Museum in 1968. Having taken Professor Bill Wallace’s (highly recommended!) Intro to Western Art course at the beginning of my freshman year, I am familiar with the spiel on multiple originals versus copies (multiple originals are replicas produced from the same mold and copies are secondary pieces produced directly from a singular original). For those of you who are not familiar with the distinction, it is basically the idea that a copy of a work has less legitimacy than an original, even if the original is one of many. How can this be? The easiest example of this is Rodin’s intricate The Gates of Hell (1880-1900). After Rodin’s death in 1917, the French government mandated that only twelve casts of The Gates of Hell could be made posthumously. Seven have been made thus far (I have seen the ones in California, Paris, and Zurich) and Carlos Slim, a Mexican billionaire with an admiration for Rodin, might soon commission an eighth. All of these twelve will theoretically have the same value, whether they were made in 1960 or 2260. But is this appropriate, seeing as how the artist himself never technically touched the pieces? And why twelve casts? Why not only one, or one hundred?
Let’s return to The Shade outside the Kemper Art Museum. There is no denying that it is an impressive work of art, from its accurate depiction of human anatomy to the emotion evoked by his unnaturally flexible neck and head atop muscular shoulders to the traces of finger prints and burlap imprints left by the artist. Despite these (and many more!) aesthetic and technical accomplishments, I could not help but think about questions of authorship and authenticity. Assuming this is not the very first The Shade that was produced from Rodin’s mold, does it have any less legitimacy than the “original?” If two pieces of art are indistinguishable, but one was never touched by the artist, do they have the same value or authenticity?
Many scholarly articles have been written on this subject; these are merely a few reflections I had when thinking about the Kemper’s own Rodin bronze sculpture in comparison to the dozens at the Cantor Arts Center. The issue can also be expanded to include works by glassblower Dale Chihuly, who produces drawings and instructs his employees as they manufacture his glass creations, but, due to a blind eye and advancing age, never wields any of the glass-blowing equipment; or Sol LeWitt, whose conceptual art is assembled according to an instruction manual and therefore can exist at several museums at a given time. I do not have any answers to these queries, but perhaps the next time you admire the Kemper’s famous Rodin sculpture, think about his twins all over the world and how they go beyond mere aesthetic qualities to inspire discussions on authorship and authenticity of copies and of multiple originals.
By Elisabeth Housman (Friday, July 12, 2013)