Rodin: Contemplations and Dreams
by James Coulter
During the Hundred Years War, the French port village of Calaiswas laid siege by the English army. The English king, Edward III, offered the town an ultimatum: if they offered six people to bring him the key to the city and sacrifice their lives, then he would allow food to be delivered to the city.
Six men agreed to offer themselves up to the king. However, at the behest of his pregnant wife, who considered their potential deaths an omen to her unborn baby, the kind spared the lives of these would-be martyrs.
These six gentlemen would become known as the Burghers of Calais, and their story was memorialized in an eponymous art piece by renowned 19th Century sculptor and artist, Auguste Rodin. Five of the six burghers are currently on display, along with many of Rodin’s other famous sculptures at the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland.
Alex Rich, Executive Director and Chief Curator, offered a lecture and tour of the art exhibit during the museum’s monthly Point of View Gallery Talk on Friday afternoon. The Burghers of Calais is his favorite of Rodin’s sculptures, as they exhibit his expert craftsmanship and pathos. He often highlighted these statues as a tour guide during his apprenticeship at a museum in New York.
When Rodin was initially commissioned to create the sculptures by the city of Calais in 1885, they wanted the six men portrayed as heroic martyrs; however, Rodin approached his commission with a different angle. He portrayed each men with a different emotion. Some were stoic and others more forlorn and weary. These diverse emotions better showcased the burden of martyrdom, Rich explained.
“I love [it] because the story is so powerful, as are the art pieces that make up the sculpture itself,” Rich said. “I love that we have five of the six burgers in the exhibition, and each ones shows its own set of emotions and shows off the sculptural skill of Rodin himself.”
The Burghers of Calais are currently showcased in “Rodin: Contemplations and Dreams”, a traveling exhibit on display at the museum from now until October. With more than 40 of Rodin’s sculptures, the exhibit is one of the largest and longest-running at the museum. The overall exhibit took six weeks to set up alone, Rich said.
“He [Rodin] breathed new emotional and psychic life into the human figure as never seen before in sculpture,” the museum website explains. “Forgoing idealization for astonishingly naturalistic representation, Rodin created sculptures that draw their power from physical and psychological truth, capturing human pathos, drama, tragedy, mindfulness, and hope through the sculpted form.”
While Rodin’s most famous statue, “The Thinker”, is not on display, the art piece it originally originated from is: “The Gates of Hell”, which had been originally commissioned to serve as the centerpiece of a Paris museum. The titular thinker would have appeared at the top of the door, looking down in judgement and contemplation upon all who passed through them.
“I want them [guests] to take away…the great mastery of Rodin himself, and the fact that the Polk Museum of Art is a really special place that can offer these styles of exhibitions and experiences to everyone who walks through the doors,” Rich said. “The opportunity to show Rodin in our galleries was something we could not pass up on, and it is wonderful to present these works not seen in this region before to our community and beyond. It is one of the greatest opportunities that Polk Museum has had in history.”
The Museum was founded in 1966. Its current facility, built in 1988, is expected to undergo major renovations. Construction is expected to begin this autumn. When completed, the 13,000 square foot expansion will provide an additional six galleries/multi-purpose spaces.
The Polk Museum of Art is located at 800 E Palmetto St., Lakeland, FL 33801. The museum is open Tues. – Sat. from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free to the public. For more information, visit their website at: http://polkmuseumofart.org