Sometimes it seems that hands have a mind of their own. They remember where the keys are on a keyboard and which brushstroke in a Chinese character comes next, without too much conscious input from the brain. The instinctive way they work can also give a lot of art its style.
The hand is also the theme of the latest exhibition at Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art (NMWA), “Traces of Hands: Sculpture and Drawings by Rodin and Bourdelle,” which looks at the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and his distinguished student Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929).
In recent months, the NMWA seems to be in the shadows. Earlier this year, its big exhibition featuring a Vermeer was outshone by a better big exhibition featuring a Vermeer at the adjacent Metropolitan Museum of Art. The reopening of its refurbished rival raises questions of redundancy as both museums tend to cover the same ground.
Museums now appear to be spending less on exhibitions than they used to. For art journalists, this is most apparent in the decision to stop handing out catalogues to writers covering exhibitions, something which forced me to resort to my sketchbook on this occasion.
All this gives the impression that the lights are flickering at the NMWA, and even this latest exhibition is a sign of weakness. But luckily it is a sign of weakness that also reveals the museum’s hidden strength in depth.
Unlike the Tokyo Met, the NMWA has an impressive permanent collection to fall back on when exhibits from abroad are not forthcoming. Founded on works donated by Kojiro Matsukata (1865-1950), a rich shipping magnate, it includes 58 Rodins and 11 Bourdelles.
Usually, only a few of these sculptures are on display at a time, but putting them all on show together creates a powerful effect that seems at odds with the exhibition’s title. Yes, there are “traces of hands” in the sculptures, most of which were molded in clay before being cast in bronze. But defining these works in this way is misleading.
While certain types of painting derive in large part from the quirks of the artistic hand, this is much less true for the epic and heroic sculptures that dominate this exhibition: These sculptures are the result of strenuous physical and technical processes that engaged all the faculties, energy and spirit of the artists involved.
It is possible to see what looks like the occasional finger or thumb mark in some of the rougher surfaces, like those on the wave that wraps itself around the three sea maidens in Rodin’s “Nereides” (1887) or in the base supporting Bourdelle’s “Hercules the Archer” (1909), but most of the important surfaces are smoothed and finished. Rather than the errant hand, they reveal instead the measuring eye and visionary brain.
The reason that works such as “Hercules the Archer” and “I am Beautiful” (1885) impact on us is because of this sense of strenuous, whole-hearted effort in pursuit of capturing heightened emotion.
In the first of these works, Hercules uses every muscle in his body to draw back the bow, even planting his feet wide apart on the rocks as if to draw strength from the earth itself. I imagine that Bourdelle must have occasionally been physically stretched in a similar way during the making of this masterpiece.
Rodin’s “I am Beautiful” presents a muscular male figure showing his full strength by lifting a woman above his shoulders. At the same time, for some unaccountable reason, perhaps intense affection, he also folds her with his muscular arms into a dense ball.
Everything in these works has the exaggerated emotional intensity of Romanticism. While this is often talked of as an early 19th-century movement, it was a strand that ran throughout the entire century, finding its fullest expression in classical music, especially Wagner’s operas. It also influenced painting, but the swelling emotionalism we associate with the movement could not be fully expressed on the canvas until the expressionist and abstract expressionist movements of the 20th century.
Rodin’s breakthrough as an artist was the realization that, outside music and poetry, sculpture could best express the Romantic sensibility. Subjected to intense, overwrought emotions, canvas would be overpowered and give rise to absurd images, rather like the works of the eccentric English artist John “Mad” Martin. However, the heavy materiality of sculpture offered a counterbalancing factor.
As an idea — it is based on one of Baudelaire’s poems — “I Am Beautiful” has an absurd quality, but the fact that the artist has powerfully realized it in three dimensions and in bronze wins our respect, making it an admirable work. Conversely without this unbalanced Romantic energy the materiality of the bronze would strike us as dull, as it does in so many formal statues. Such a synthesis of opposites reveals much more than the workings of a mere hand.
“Traces of Hands: Sculpture and Drawings by Rodin and Bourdelle” at the National Museum of Western Art run still Jan. 27; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. ¥800. Closed Mon. (except Dec. 24), Dec. 25, Dec. 28-Jan. 1, Jan. 15. www.nmwa.go.jp.