Monument to Balzac, 1891-1898,RodinMuseum,Paris,France
First things first: this is not what Balzac looked like. A writer’s group in Paris commissioned this work from Rodin. When he delivered it they were horrified by what he had created. By this point in his career Rodin had grown weary of explaining his work to people and simply returned their commission money and put the statue in his garden. He never completed another public commission. The statue was not cast in bronze until 1939, some twenty-two years after his death.
Rodin got it from all sides. His first major work, The Age of Bronze, was challenged for its realism. He was suspected of having made a cast from life, a real no-no in sculpting circles, and it took him years of effort to prove he did not. This happens a lot to the truly great artists: because no one else can achieve as they do, people think they are cheating.
Here’s another piece (below) called the Burghers of Calais. This one even the critics couldn’t pick at. Brilliant. Magnificent. They couldn’t wait to put it up on a tall pedestal so people could gaze up and admire it. “No, no,” said Rodin. “It is supposed to be at ground level so people can approach it, can move through it.”
“Go away, boy, you bother me,” they said and put it on a nice high one. “That Rodin is such a nut. Nice sculptor, but he doesn’t really understand show business, you know? Your trouble, Gus, is you got no pizzazz.”
Balzac was considered the voice of France, a man who could, in a few well chosen storylines, lay before the world the truth of a nation, its flaws and foibles, its honor and glory. Rodin tried to show that Balzac pays a cost for this gift. It is a burden from which he can never turn away. He must be this national figure, but in himself he tries to hide for he knows that like Dorian’s portrait he feels the pain of his people, he wears their scars, he suffers their disease. He does not complain. But he must wrap himself tightly in his cloak to reassure himself that he is still a private man somewhere inside. His portrayal of France is a romantic one, but there is an ugly side as well, and Balzac has chosen to bear it himself. It is this willingness to sacrifice that Rodin most respects.
The Burghers of Calais, 1884-1889 approx.VictoriaTowerGardens,London,U.K.
Rodin’s client for this sculpture was the town of Calais. In the Hundred Years War the city was surrounded by the English Army. King Edward III of England decided to wipe out everyone in the town, but then offered to relent if six of the city’s most respected citizens came to him prepared to die in their place. They must come bare-headed and bare-footed with ropes around their necks, ready to swing. And they did it. They just did it. Calais expected a sculpture of people looking courageous and patrician, snarling and laughing in the face of death. What they got instead were real men, worried, weeping, wavering but doing it, nevertheless. Edward III let his queen talk him out of killing them, and I’m sure everybody afterward went to Sonic for a chili dog, but these men did not know beforehand that they would be spared.
Even though these burghers were sacrificing for everyone, we understand that first they were interested in saving their own loved ones, their wives and children. On the other hand, they may well have been able to flee with their families. And to be fair, not everybody feels they owe their loved ones their life anyway. Schools are filled with children abandoned by a parent. People are often ignoble. And that’s the point. That’s why the burghers of Calais get a statue. Because they are extraordinary. And that’s why Rodin wants it down where you can experience it, where you can see for yourself that they are just like you. Because everyone is extraordinary once they make the decision to do the selfless thing.
Whether it is spending your whole life as the voice of a people or offering your life for your neighbor or even something as small as passing up that six-pack so your child can have an ice cream, it is important to the soul to know that we can do something for someone else for no better reason than that it is the right thing to do. Part of what Rodin shows us in these two works is that when life is extra good to us, when life gives us the greater blessing of talent or craft or money, we need to try harder to prove worthy of it.
And ask yourself if it happened in your community, could you find six people to meet this sacrifice? Let me give you your answer: yes, you could. Easily. That’s just how wonderful people are. The only difference between the people of today and those heroes of Calais is that I doubt any of our volunteers would come from politicians of any stripe.
Except for the ones who would offer to help find some rope.