The Phantom Lady Strikes Again
The Phantom Lady looks again at Rodin’s Gates of Hell .
REVISITING RODIN'S 'GATES OF HELL'
Rodin’s Gates of Hell is one of those great works of Western art that one studies in art school and soon relegates to some long past art historical moment. Recently when I was stranded in the Rodin Sculpture Garden in Stanford University waiting for a friend to pick me up, I spent a long time in front of the Gates, leisurely ‘re-looking’ and thinking around it. Stanford University has the second largest collection of Rodin’s works after Paris, spread over several floors of the Canter Center Museum. The sculpture garden on the side houses his monumental bronze doors depicting a scene from The Inferno, the first section of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is popularly known as the Gates of Hell. The Directorate of Fine Arts in Paris which originally commissioned the sculpture in 1880 to be an ‘inviting’ entrance to a Decorative Arts Museum, apparently left the choice of the subject to Rodin. Whether the subject of Hell was suitable for a Decorative Arts Museum or not, Rodin, who was fascinated by Dante all his life, had begun making sketches of characters from the Inferno even before he got the commission and continued to work on it until his death in 1917. The Decorative Arts Museum was never built.
This was the first time I was seeing the Gates in the ‘flesh’ so to speak and I thought they were indeed extremely ‘fleshy’. Over a hundred and eighty agitated figures pop out of the matrix of the relief from the twenty foot high doors. The ground could be a landscape with rocks or even the surface of skin with wounds and lacerations. The work has an overall sense of great instability and movement with figures of men and women tumbling upside down, falling, in a tangle of bodies. But there are no traditional scenes of sinners being tortured here. Rodin has not used any of the bestial imagery from Dante’s Inferno, with its nine circles of hell and its fabulous beasts, its wasps and maggots, or its swamps, blood and fire. Instead, one feels a sense of helplessness in the bodies to resist the gravitational pull downwards, a lack of uprightness, an inability to stand erect. He builds up a ‘feeling’ of horror without horrific acts being narrated. Perhaps Rodin as the first great modern sculptor, a child of the rational thought and scientific temper of the modern age, saw Hell as the opposite of rational order, as absolute chaos. He places above the scenes of swirling disorder the iconic sculpture of The Thinker, representing Rodin himself, looking down at the suffering below him, deep in existential thought.
My mind wanders off into more art history, to the grand tradition of Christian painting and the fantastical paintings of Heaven and Hell by Hieronymous Bosch and Brueghel and the Northern painters, Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, and William Blake. Biblical themes have been central to Western art. I once argued hotly with a European curator when she accused Indian artists of doing religious themes, that our references to religion were not traditional or devotional, but critical social comments responding to the political crisis in the country. Many contemporary western artists like Damien Hirst used Biblical themes in a direct way for instance (the fish imagery, the golden calf?) but were not seen as religious artists. Hirst’s dead and rotting animals and armies of flies were direct descendants of the kind of imagery used in traditional European scenes of hell.
One birthday historian Ramchandra Guha gave me a book on Marguerite Milward, a British sculptor trained in Paris under Antoine Bourdelle, who comes to India on a project to do anthropological portraits (a kind of ‘peoples of India’ project) in the heyday of those expeditions. In a fascinating story, Milward first comes to India in 1926 and stays in Santiniketan as a guest of Rabindranath Tagore, who suggests that she come back to teach the students sculpture. When she comes back on his invitation in 1929, one of the students she teaches is Ramkinker Baij. Bourdelle, the influential French sculptor and teacher had assisted Rodin for many years. Ramkinker who is seen as India’s first modernist sculptor, adopts Rodin’s style of rough impressionist modelling via Bourdelle and Milward which comes to be seen as a ‘virile’ modern style. So we have an interesting situation here where Marguerite Milward, as a rare woman sculptor and teacher, introduces a ‘virile’ way of modelling sculpture to the Indian art scene! (My Malayali leftist friends in art school in the ‘80s taunted me for using rounded forms in my sculptures and called it ‘feudal’. The ideal was K P Krishnakumar, who was strongly influenced by Ramkinker when in Santiniketan and whose figures were heroic and angst-ridden, bent in tortured poses, struggling against hellish forces. Krishnakumar and his friends later formed the Indian Radical Sculptors and Painters Assocation, wanting to create again the idea a modernist avant-garde.)
Then as an artist I think how complicated the casting must have been. The ambition of Rodin’s twenty foot high Gates has no precedent though he took inspiration from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s 15th century bronze Gates of Paradise at the Baptistry of St. John in Florence. Rodin’s Gates however is no harmonious classical piece. He entirely does away with the Rennaissance perspectives and architectural details of Ghiberti’s Gates, or even of earlier illustrations of the Inferno, instead placing his figures in a kind of no man’s land, using the structure of the doors as an armature. The figures and forms forcefully jump out of the ground in extreme three-dimensionality, and several like the Thinker must have been cast separately and then welded on. The technical virtuosity of Gates makes it a landmark.
Just as the vamp is always more seductive than the heroine, artists love scenes of hell and turbulence. While Heaven has to be orderly and harmonious, Hell could be interpreted in many interesting ways. Hell provides more space for imagination and invention than goody goody scenes. Indian contemporary popular charts of scenes of Hell influenced by medieval Christian ideas and taking from the imagery of English popular prints, show sinners being tortured by devils according to their sins: stealing, adultery, lying, murder, the devils in the prints amazingly resembling those in Mughal painting, with a further ancestry in Persian miniatures.
Once, when I was working with the cinema hoarding painter Ealamalai in Bangalore, he told me he had designed an ashram for a Hindu Swamiji on the outskirts of the city. He said that to get to the swami in the ashram on top of the hill which was Heaven, you had to climb past a series of caves built in cement, with painted sculptures depicting graphic scenes of Hell where sinners are being punished cruelly for their various misdeeds. The scenes were taken straight from popular charts, very Christian in their ideas, but fully nativized in the popular Hindu imagination.
The Phantom Lady
1 May 2015