The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s collections and programs are so extensive that the opening of one refurbished gallery shouldn’t be a notable event. But when the gallery is devoted to 25 bronzes by Auguste Rodin, plus a portrait of the French master, the display has considerable impact.
The museum’s new Rodin gallery, which opened on Tuesday on the second floor of the Ahmanson Building, is loaded with reminders of Rodin’s great romantic themes--creation and destruction, portrayed by human figures that throb with exhilarating heights and terrifying depths of emotion. His passionate lovers, anguished souls, cultural heroes and mythic forces are represented in such concentration that they are likely to entice the most casual viewers to compare and study bronzes that have been assembled here for the first time.
Formerly scattered throughout galleries of 19th-Century art, the sculptures look like a grand new acquisition, but they have been donated over the past 20 years by Los Angeles collectors B. Gerard and Iris Cantor. Now massed together in a room of their own, the bronzes are no longer isolated artworks but parts of an organic body of work.
“There’s an emotional charge of seeing them all together,” said curator Mary Levkoff, who coordinated the display. Public interest in Rodin may have been heightened by the recent film, “Camille Claudel,” about the young sculptor who was Rodin’s mistress and assistant, Levkoff said. If so, aficionados of the film may find symbolic significance in the installation, which has stationed three imposing male figures across the front of the gallery, rather like a screen in front of anguished females. The men--"St. John the Baptist Preaching,” “Jean d’Aire” and a portrait of Rodin by Paul Troubetzkoy--stand tall while the contorted women behind them appear to shriek in emotional pain or beg for mercy.
Fanning off to the sides and back of the gallery are figures designed for “The Gates of Hell,” a large bronze door commissioned for the entrance of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris; figures from “The Burghers of Calais,” a monument honoring six patriots who offered to sacrifice themselves to the British during the Hundred Years War; portrayals of French author Honore de Balzac, and portrait heads and busts.
The sculptures--ranging from about 1 foot to 4 feet in height--include partial and full figures that encompass a variety of emotion and refinement. The massive, roughly modeled “Large Head of Iris,” for example, contrasts sharply with the delicacy of a small head called “The Cry,” which may bear traces of Claudel’s touch, according to Levkoff.
Three sculptures--"Bust of the Young Balzac,” “Balzac in Frockcoat” and “Nude Study of Honore de Balzac"--offer three views of the French writer who was the subject of some of Rodin’s most mature work. A larger “Monument to Balzac,” outside in the museum’s sculpture garden, provides yet another view of a figure who looms large in French literature and in Rodin’s oeuvre.
“It is unusual to come into a gallery and see a whole range of work by one of the great masters and then to go outside and see his public sculpture,” said museum director Earl A. Powell. Like the 26 pieces in the Rodin gallery, 13 sculptures by Rodin and his contemporaries installed two years ago in a garden at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Ogden Drive are gifts of the Cantors. B. Gerard Cantor is chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald & Co. Inc., an investment banking firm in Century City. The couple have amassed the world’s largest private collection of Rodin’s work and they are largely responsible for the museum’s 19th-Century sculpture collection.
“The Cantors have been consistently generous in the area of sculpture,” Powell said. They also have gifted several other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Brooklyn Museum and the Stanford University Museum of Art.
Located to encourage a chronological viewing of art, the Rodin display leads into galleries of 19th-Century and Impressionist art.
The Rodin gallery is part of an ongoing reinstallation project on the second floor of the Ahmanson Building, Powell said. Galleries for European medals and ancient glass will open soon, and a new home for the European glass that formerly occupied the Rodin space is also under construction.
Although the Rodin gallery is the first to open, it isn’t quite finished. In about two weeks, an empty window along the front wall will be filled with a display of lost-wax casting, illustrating the method used for making Rodin’s bronzes.