You Must Change Your Life

You Must Change Your Life by Rachel Corbett Read Free Book Online

Book: You Must Change Your Life by Rachel Corbett Read Free Book Online
Authors: Rachel Corbett
friend at an artist colony in northern Germany. It would give her some space for now, but, as Rilke’s verse had promised, she would not be able to swat him away so easily. For the rest of his life, he would cry out to Andreas-Salomé whenever he couldn’t write, or whenever he tumbled into recesses of himself so remote that he feared he might disappear forever. Each time, she would come, take him calmly by the hand and lead him back into the light.


    A FTER ABANDONING HIS STUDIES AT THE JARDIN DES PLANTES in the late 1850s, Rodin spent four years working as a trade sculptor and making his own art in the mornings and at night. He rented his first studio near the Gobelins tapestry factory, in an unheated, barely converted horse stable. It cost ten francs a month, which left him with nothing to hire models, who often earned as much in a few hours as he did in an entire day. Instead he was forced to make do with amateurs desperate enough to pose for his poverty rates.
    For a little extra drinking money, an elderly Greek handyman known as Bibi was happy to offer his services to Rodin. The man had a broken nose and such a “terribly hideous” face that Rodin could hardly bear the thought of modeling it at first. It “seemed so dreadful to me,” he said. But the man was cheap and already worked in the studios three times a week as a sweeper, so, beginning in the fall of 1863, Rodin faithfully began to sculpt one pit and furrow after another into a bust, treading across the clay as heavily as life had tread across Bibi.
    Over the next eighteen months, Rodin started to notice occasional glimpses of handsomeness in Bibi’s face. He had a nicely shaped head and, beneath the ravaged façade, there was a certain nobility to the bone structure. His was not entirely unlike the faces on view atthe Louvre, Rodin thought, so many of them also being Greek and timeworn.
    The bust Rodin completed in 1863 was a radical departure from the polished portraiture of the day. Baudelaire wasn’t being entirely hyperbolic when he provocatively titled an essay fifteen years earlier, “Why Sculpture Is Boring.” Until then, sculpture had been made almost exclusively as decoration—filigree on a cathedral, for example, or a war memorial in a park. Before the latter part of the century, even the best new sculpture was still being mounted on the sides of buildings, like Carpeaux’s drunken dancers on the façade of the Paris Opera. If a freestanding work made it into a museum, it was probably because its original habitat had been destroyed.
    Whether Rodin knew it or not, his Man with the Broken Nose was a brazen affront to this long, unquestioned tradition. The unknown man’s face would never have appeared on a monument or a building, except perhaps as a symbol of sin. But Rodin’s Bibi was truly ugly, not allegorically ugly. He was a self-contained being, not intended as a denunciation of something else, as Rilke would later notice: “There are a thousand voices of torment in this face, yet no accusation rises. It does not plead to the world; it carries its justice within itself, holds the reconcilement of all its contradictions.”
    The 1864 Paris Salon seemed like the right time for Rodin to introduce the bust to the public. The names of his contemporaries—Monet, Cézanne, Renoir—were starting to become well known, even if they were not yet fully accepted by the establishment salons. Two-thirds of the submissions to the previous year’s official salon were rejected, including Manet’s scandalous Déjeuner sur l’herbe . But they went on view in a separate show, derisively dubbed the Salon des Refusés, which ultimately proved far more popular than the main event, and made Manet a cult hero.
    But before Rodin had a chance to submit his bust to the jury that winter, the temperature in his studio dipped below freezing. The back of the terra-cotta head

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