Rodin’s Kiss

When I heard that I would learn how to “point” a figure or “carve from points”, I turned up my nose. Though I wasn´t sure exactly what the method consisted in, I knew it was mainly mechanical. The very idea of reproducing seemed immoral or at least anti-artistic. I did not want to copy a plaster figure, even if it was my own. I wanted to create right there directly in stone like Michelangelo—or as I was sure Michelangelo had done.

What was pointing then?
The shophands marked a point on their plaster model.
With compasses (callipers) or another device they called a “máquina” they plotted that same point on a block of marble, marked it, and then removed all the stone above it down to the right depth. They marked off many points—scores of them—and eliminated all the stone above and between them.

Without examining any of the copied, i.e. reproduced, figures, I would have supposed that they had to be of low quality. I could see that the men who made them not only had no aesthetic sense but even lacked interest in what they were doing.

So I was shocked at the high quality of the stone figures which had been reproduced by this pointing method. They were really indistinguishable from the originals. Every curve, every fine curl and bulge had been perceived and reproduced to perfection. Wasn´t it criminal! And this by workmen who hated their job! Did I want to be a party to this? Wasn´t it like forgery?

I thought I had learned some sordid secret. To see just how widely the evil was practiced I hurried to galleries and museums to find signs in the sculpture of this mindless pointing—proof of copying. What signs?

Workmen mark their measuring points on the surface of the marble block with a pencil. Then, to fix that point on the stone surface—to make sure it doesn’t rub off while they work—they spin a little drill over the pencil-mark and so make a shallow, perfectly round, hole. Ordinarily, the chisel and subsequent polishing remove this point altogether. But sometimes, whether because the little hole went too deep or because the sculptor when finishing the statue decided to make certain changes in the stone as against the plaster model, that little hole stays around and can be seen in the finished work.

On my visits to galleries I found the points everywhere, on almost all the sculpture on display. Sometimes the little holes were half buried in the unpolished base of the statue but often too they were plainly visible on the finished, polished, area of a figure—on an arm, a leg, the very face. Wasn’t the sculptor ashamed of them? They meant that his statue was a copy, not an original—that he had not carved the figure “passionately” according to his inspiration but had merely, coldly—cold-bloodedly—copied it from a plaster or polyester model. Or worse: he had not even done the carving himself.

Rodin’s Kiss (Click twice on thumbnail to enlarge)
I made a trip to Paris, to the house of Rodin, the greatest sculptor of the nineteenth century, to have a look. I went straight to The Kiss, one of his most famous sculptural groups, and didn’t need but a few seconds to find points everywhere. The lower part of the woman’s leg was full of unremoved points—little holes like buckshot holes in wood—even on the very flesh of the marble. So Rodin had had workmen point his famous statue—copy it from a plaster model. Later I learned that Rodin had had at least two marble copies made. Only God knows how much chiselwork there is by the artist himself in the Kiss I saw.

My immediate reaction to this was disgust.
But then on consideration I realized I was being unfair. Figures have always been reproduced, and sculptors have always had helpers. Yet there are degrees of everything. How much of the work was done by helpers? Did the sculptor model a clay figure and then let others carve it for him in stone?

What IS so objectionable about the idea of a copy? For one, the viewer is generally not aware that the work is one. He believes—and the artist knows he believes—that the marble work is the original and that it has been carved by the artist himself. The question is the deceit.
Another implication is that if the sculptor has used a copying device, his work is not such a difficult achievement. So the viewer might consider that both the artist and his statue are worthy of less respect.


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8 Responses to Rodin’s Kiss

  1. kimiam says:

    We had a show of Rodin sculpture in this area years ago and it was quite the controversy because there was not a single piece in the collection that Rodin had laid hands on himself.

    But my friend asked me if I had the option of simply designing sculpture and handing it over to a stone carver for production, would I consider that alright? Yes, I would. Just as I have no problem with having a foundry cast bronzes isntead of trying to do it myself.

    Now the problem for me arises if they take liberties with my lines. uh…that’s where I draw the line?

  2. erikatakacs says:

    I presume a small scale sculpture model was done by Rodin himself. Is that right? If it is, I have no problem with workers sculpting the big pieces. I know some talented people worked in his atelier. Camille Claudel, for one, who sculpted beautifully most hands of his sculptures.
    There are no benefactors today who will support a sculptor just to produce 2 original sculptures a year. Sculpture in general seems to be on decline, consistently taking second place to painting. A sculptor has to be 3 times better than the best painter to get any attention at all.
    An interesting article, swallows, again, I didn’t know about those holes. Should I check them on the huge Henry Moore sculpture in downtown Toronto? :) Next time I go there, I just might. :)

  3. 100swallows says:

    kimiam and erika: Everyone I knew at the time thought the same as you do. Our workshop was filled with hundreds of plaster casts for copying. Some of them were copied over and over again, of course with no numbering since it was easy to show that each copy was a little different and so a unique piece. You could make a reverse copy too, and, for instance, turn a horse’s head the other way or remove some frill. Of course the piece would look completely different in another marble.
    I never got used to this idea.

    Even now, with computer copying, you need a sculptor to finish a work; so it is unlike a bronze copy (which has the “touch” of the workmen on it too, by the way, though not so much). I could always see in many details that the marble piece was by Fernando, the copyist I worked with. The artists themselves probably saw it too and just resigned themselves. It didn’t bother then too much either, I must say: they were in a hurry to get it to an exhibition or a client and get paid (about five times more than Fernando).

    Fernando is dead. In those days labor was cheap and he could pay his poor workmen peanuts, so the whole business worked (though just barely even then). Generations of artists who called themselves sculptors grew up that didn’t know how to carve stone. They were only modellers who turned their complex plaster copies over to a copyist like Fernando, paid him little, then exhibited his marble works in galleries as their own, charging big money. I always hated to read in their exhibition catalogues about their brilliant carving technique and that they were master carvers, etc.; or worse, to go to one of their exhibitions and hear a visitor congratulate them enthusiastically on their ability to carve stone—“like Michelangelo”!

  4. erikatakacs says:

    You’re right and you’re not, swallows. Sounds to me Fernando was a master copyist or artisan. With lots of technical skill. But does that make him an artist? And the modeller, he’s got the artistic talent, but he’s not a master artisan. Does that make him less of an artist? I think we have to ask, is the artisan capable of producing a work of art on it’s own? And is the modeller capable of learning the technique necessary to execute the piece him/herself? What do you think? Who would score better?

    The solution to recognize Fernando’s talent and contribution, it would be something like they do with motion pictures, IMO. The director, and the leading actor/s, the artist get most of the recognition, but so does the whole crew to some extent. So Fernando’s name should be on the sculpture too, and he or whoever carved the stone should stand next to the modeller at the opening. If I was the modeller, that’s what I would do.

  5. 100swallows says:

    erika: The sculptors–call them that–would never have allowed Fernando to put his name on one of their pieces. They wanted the copy racket to remain a secret. And Fernando, who was a humble workman, one who thought art and artists were far above him, would never in his life have asked them for that honor. I suggested it to him and I could see the subject made him nervous. He was afraid I might propose it to one of his sculptors and shock him, anger him. It would have too.

  6. kimiam says:

    swallows, that is their corruption. Here juried art shows specify that the work entered is to be the work of a single artist. Anyone who enters work carved by someone else has committed fraud. The artists who accepted compliments on their carving were deceitful.

    …but to sell work to a museum or collector that you have had copied or reproduced and fully disclosed this information to is acceptable. To participate in a non juried show is fine as long as you disclose. yes, everyone who has a hand in it changes the work in some way. Even the same artist can cast his own work and it will appear different. Here when a work is cast in bronze, the foundry is named. I think marble carved copies are mostly an Italian thing. Yes? But if I had that option available, and someone wanted a piece of mine in marble, I would do it.

    Erica, it always bugs me that quotes from movies are credited to the actor instead of the writer. :P~

    btw, swallows, I’ll be studying stone carving in the spring. Yay!

  7. This is a great ‘point’ and well made. I have such feelings too and will do a post about it one day. I do my own waxes and all the finishing, (casing,and patination) from what my founder calls fettle finsished. (not sure I got the spelling right there). I have always wondered just how many sculptors mastered the carving of marble. I have tried it and it is very difficult, not like other stone I have played with!

  8. 100swallows says:

    Yes, Robert, with the soft stones you can carve with files and by pushing the chisels with your hand. That won’t do for hard marble. It is softest when it comes out of the quarry. Once it sits around in the weather, as the David block did for years, it gets much harder to work. Granite is carved using a bush-hammer, which crushes and pulverizes the surface rather than carves it. How the Egyptians worked diorite with their soft tools is a mystery. Few sculptors get the long experience necessary to carve well.

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