The 1910 Rebels’ “Hell” in Paris (Travels in revolutionary Mitteleuropa, from the Rhine to the Danube/8)

Near the end of my brief journey across Central European rivers and revolts, Rodin’s The Gates of Hell (1880-1917) appears to me as a memorial to the perennial, tragic failure of the revolution and the damnation of the rebels.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) worked on this 7mX4m monumental portal for 37 years, and left it unfinished, as it had become his life-project.  He exhibited only one version of it in 1900 at the Great Exhibition.  At various stages of its development the sculpture included some 200 figures.  The copy that I saw at the Kunsthaus Zürich is one of eight bronze casts that were made after the artist’s death, and includes 186 figures.

Rodin’s composition contains no direct political references though its literary, mythological, historical and other sources are open to political interpretation, above all the infamous leader of Pisa, Count Ugolino, a traitor to his party and city, who was deposed, arrested, and starved to death in 1288, following a popular uprising against his rule.  Yet, in light of all the failed revolts that I have been encountering in my journey, I realize that numerous figures at these Gates are punished for rebelling against norms, rules, principles, and customs.  In a personal way, they are revolutionaries too.  They are the rebels of pleasure, passion, and power, the sinners of need and desire who are now suffering loss, agony, pain, and despair.  Transgression has been their sacrilegious declaration of personal autonomy.  Offering not a morality tale but an existential allegory, the gates of the hell of individual revolution are a tapestry of transgressive, guilty passions.

Rodin’s rebels have been seen as caught between freedom and necessity, enduring the “fateful grandeur of Greek drama” (Judith Cladel: Rodin, 1917, p. 20).  While Dante condemned them to eternal torment, Rodin remained endlessly fascinated with their defiance, and kept adding new figures to his work.  In La Divina Commedia(1308-20), destiny is dispensed and regulated by Fortune.  In contrast to the erratic favors of the pagan fickle goddess, central to Inferno 7, Rodin’s primary source of inspiration, is “the question of free will in relation to man’s changing circumstances as administered by the goddess Fortune” (Aida Audeh:  “Rodin’s Gates of Helland Dante’s Inferno 7, Studies in Medievalism22, 2013, p. 116).  God’s will works through Fortune who distributes earthly goods according to divine providence.   Her actions “represent perfect order – symbolized by the perfect circle of her wheel and its rotation.  It is, in fact, the Avaricious and Prodigal who are ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’ to Fortune and to God’s larger order.  Their contrapasso [Dante’s original word for punishment corresponding to their sin], in which they turn in incomplete half-circles for eternity, embodies the imperfection and limitation of their understanding” (121).  Sinners reject providence and its plans for humans, and claim for themselves what they think they truly deserve.  The naturalistic revolution of the fortune’s perfect wheel, which described a circular movement, has become to them the revolution of history, a radical break with cyclical time and necessity.

Two symbolic fallen figures on the Gates personify the doomed rebel.  The first is an angel:  “Beneath [illicit lovers] Paolo and Francesca, forming a linear complement to them, lies the prostrate form of an angel.  A broken wing is draped over its eyes, and a wheel is held in its down-stretched hand.  The angel may symbolize these subject to Fortune, mentioned by Dante in the Seventh canto. … By including angels like this in Hell, Rodin may have sought to show the supreme irony that this is a world of total disillusion and complete fall from grace.  Throughout the portal are other angels, plummeting downward or otherwise not at rest” (Albert E. Elsen:  Rodin’s Gates of Hell, 1960, p. 93).

Rodin’s angels remind me of my visit to the Bruegel exhibition in Vienna a few days earlier, and of his Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562), mentioned in an earlier post, which he painted when “the old narrative of the fall of the rebel angels was given a particularly contemporary twit on the eve of the Dutch revolt. … Rebellion against the king was equivalent to rebellion against God himself” (Meganck:  Bruegel: Fall of the Rebel Angels, 2014, 158).  Bruegel’s monstrous falling angels probably warned that those who rebel against the king-given political order will suffer the same punishment with the followers of Lucifer who rebelled against the God-given cosmic order.

The other symbolic fallen figure is the son of Dedalus:  “The subject of the Gates has as its focal point the theme of Icarus.  This theme was frequently expressed in Baudelaire’s poetry and Rodin’s drawings and sculpture.  The fruitless voyage in the poet’s verses and the climbing, striving figures in the Gates are all variations of this theme” (Elsen 134).  Man’s “eternal torment lies in the knowledge that his passions – his strivings – will never end.  Unlike the damned in Dante’s Hell, those in the Gates are not resigned to their fate.  Like Icarus, one of the figures in the portal seeks to escape the world that holds him prisoner, to join his spirit with the infinite.  We sense that this figure, who clings to the tympanum at the left, has struggled up through the crowds below to reach his ‘horizon.’ After attaining it, and seeing what lies beyond, he sinks back once more” (135).

Above the Gates, the melancholic Thinker (part Michelangelo’s prophet Jeremiah, part Carpeaux’s count Ugolino) surveys the tragic scene of doom and despair, pondering the fate of human rebellion against divine fortuna.  “We recall that Rodin has placed the Thinker, simultaneously Dante and Everyman, in the place of Christ in medieval Last Judgment tympanum sculpture.  Where Christ acts as fierce judge, the Thinker, as a mortal and fallible individual having achieved in the modern world a position of unprecedented autonomy and power, seems neither to judge nor to act. Rather, he sits hunched over, melancholy, turning inward upon himself as he gazes blankly past the wreckage of hell below him, oblivious to those behind him who are soon to fall into the abyss. While Dante rests the possibility of salvation on man’s capacity for choice, the Thinker on the Gates of Hellseems to remain uncommitted, choosing no path, in tension between the straight way and the dark wood as Fortune turns her wheel, blissfully unaware of his plight” (136-37).  Working on this monumental piece in the years between 1871 and 1917, the republican Rodin is gazing at the earthly inferno of rebellious autonomy as it is engulfing not only the figures but the work itself.

Gradually, the perfectly planned composition, which Rodin was estimating to complete in three years, rebelled against its own original structure:  the damned kept multiplying, the order bursting, the arrangement fluctuating, the movement derailing, the narrative shrinking, the figures and scenes acquiring independence and becoming separate works, the sculpture invading architecture, the synthesis fragmenting, and the entire work soon became open-ended and was left unfinished as it mutated stylistically, thematically, and philosophically from Symbolism to Expressionism.  “Rodin’s violent play on human actions and sufferings seen in The Gates of Hellwas a preamble to the expressionistic distortions of the human figure, and disturbing visual and thematic representations in the twentieth century” (Liana De Girolami Cheney:  Rodin’s Gates of Hell, Italian Culture11: 1, 1993, p. 116).  This moved very close to Egon Schiele’s private hell.  Like the Expressionists, “Rodin presents us with the nonsocial human in his private existence rather than with the social being. … The Expressionists’ feelings about man’s hopelessness, estrangement, and sense of loss in the vast universe are already present in the Gates” (Elsen 141).

November 28, 2018

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