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Auguste Days

Famed sculptor Rodin left his imprint on generations of artists, as shown in new Stanford exhibit
TWISTER: Hugo Robus' 1925 bronze is one of many examples of Rodin-esque art at the new Cantor show. Courtesy Forum Gallery

A RECENT VISIT to the venerable Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University proved to be inspiring in several ways. The new exhibition, "Rodin and America: Influence and Adaptation 1876-1936," explores the French sculptor Auguste Rodin's influence on a generation of American artists at the onset of the 20th century.

A variety of media is presented—sculpture, watercolors and more—by a wealth of famous folks, including Malvina Hoffman, Edward Steichen and Georgia O'Keeffe. Experiencing the show and perusing the catalog of essays definitely influenced my own pursuits in crackpot scholarship.

For example, in the exhibit catalog, art historian Jennifer Marshall writes about the etymology of the word influence, stating that, "[in] its earliest usage, during the 14th century, the word influence generally referred to astrological phenomena, the workings of the stars. Emanating from on high, an imagined ethereal fluid trickled downward to earth and then into the temperaments and behaviors of people."

It has the same etymology as influenza, and she quotes Harold Bloom, who defined influence as "a metaphor, one that implicates a matrix of relationships—imagistic, temporal, spiritual, psychological."

To wit, in the Cantor Center exhibit, one sees a miniature of Rodin's scandalous monument to French author Honore; de Balzac. The story is legendary. Commissioned in 1891 by the Socie;te; des Gens de Lettres, Rodin labored for years to produce a sculpture of Balzac highly unconventional for its time, a monument that captured Balzac's creative spirit, his soul, his inner conflicts and his tumultuousness. The work portrayed Balzac in a robe, bohemian yet domesticated, standing with one foot forward and his girth prominent.

Decrying the statue as grotesque, the backlash was near-violent. The Socie;te; rejected the work, which was simply too ideologically provocative for them to understand. As a result, Rodin kept the sculpture for himself, and it did not see the light of day until decades after his death.

Under the influence of such a hilarious tale, I unearthed a few tidbits intertwined with the whole affair. The tune goes a little like this: As Rodin began to miss deadlines for completing the Balzac monument, another sculptor, Anatole Marquet de Vasselot, fervently tried to weasel in on the action.

A Balzac fanatic, Vasselot was a contributor to the esoteric Salons de la Rose+Croix, a series of Rosicrucian-themed art shows in Paris. The Rosicrucians backed Vasselot to take Rodin's place and receive the commission. It was the mystics vs. Rodin.

Organized by the flamboyant novelist and mystic Jose;phin Pe;ladan, the Salons de la Rose+Croix occurred during the fin de sicle (end of the century) era of French symbolism, when occult interest was reaching a new apex. Composers, dancers, visual artists and various members of Parisian high society were becoming enamored with the aesthetics of mysteries and symbols. Vasselot even sculpted his own rendition of Balzac, cast as a winged sphinx, riddled with Rosicrucian symbolism. But to the dismay of the Rosicrucians, Vasselot didn't succeed in supplanting Rodin for the project. That was the end of it.

And then there's Aleister Crowley, the multidisciplinary English poet, philosopher and occultist troublemaker. Crowley actually defended Rodin against the critical backlash and subsequently befriended the sculptor a few years later.

Since the very mention of Crowley's name tends to upset the anthill, scholars seem to avoid him, but in 1907 he published a collaboration with Rodin. Titled Rodin in Rime, the book includes seven erotic watercolors that Rodin presented to Crowley, plus a few dozen of Crowley's poems dedicated to Rodin. Published in an extremely limited edition, the book today commands quite a price in antiquarian circles, but the text is available for free download at numerous websites.

So it was Auguste Rodin and Aleister Crowley vs. the Rosicrucians. What a story. To recap, the Salons de la Rose+Croix were esoteric art shows organized by Jose;phin Pe;ladan. Oddly enough, his mystical lineage can be traced to the same group of Rosicrucians who later initiated the American Harvey Spencer Lewis—the same chap who brought the Rosicrucian Order AMORC to the United States and, eventually, to our own San Jose, Calif. Whew.

Now I want to be an art historian.

I have the folks at the Cantor Center to thank. They have influenced me, and I have adapted.

Rodin and America: Influence and Adaptation 1876-1936

Runs through Jan. 1

Cantor Arts Center, Stanford