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Rodin Museum marks 75th anniversary

| Sunday, Sept. 12, 2004

PHILADELPHIA -- When a young Auguste Rodin sent his first sculptures across the Atlantic for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, critics and cognoscenti apparently didn't think much of it.

The French sculptor's work won no awards and garnered no press during its time in Philadelphia, though he and the city that staged his disappointing debut made up for the Centennial slight.

For Rodin (1844-1917), fame and accolades came later in life with such monumental and iconoclastic sculptures as "The Thinker." For Philadelphia, thanks to a movie palace mogul with an eye for art, a gem of a museum was dedicated to Rodin that turns 75 this year.

The Rodin Museum is home to 128 of Rodin's works in bronze, marble, terra cotta, plaster and wax. Every stage of his career and all his major works are represented inside the Beaux Arts museum and gardens created by Paul Cret and Jacques Greber. Some 60,000 people visit annually.

The Rodin Museum is "the greatest public collection of Rodin's work outside Paris," says Ann d'Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the longtime caretaker and administrator of the Rodin Museum. In the United States, only the Stanford University Museum of Art has more of Rodin's works, although fewer are on display.

The Rodin Museum opened to the public on Nov. 26, 1929 -- one month after the "Black Friday" stock market crash that ushered in the Depression.

The museum exists, so the story goes, because globe-trotting movie theater magnate and Philadelphia philanthropist Jules E. Mastbaum fell spellbound after spotting a small Rodin bronze of a hand in a Paris gallery window. It's unclear whether the tale is true, curator John Zarobell acknowledged, although Mastbaum's adoration for Rodin is clear.

"Mastbaum collected 128 works in just three years, from small plasters to monumental bronzes," Zarobell says. "He was so enamored with Rodin's work, and he had the resources."

For the 75th anniversary, Zarobell has regrouped about 20 pieces to illustrate how Rodin worked and developed his ideas, including "Aurora and Tithonus," a large marble on loan from the Musee Rodin in Paris. The fountain, reflecting pool and gardens surrounding the museum also are undergoing renovations to return them to the original 1929 designs.

Another highlight is a 37-page sketchbook from Rodin's time as a student, around 1860. Too delicate to be handled, the rarely seen pencil and charcoal drawings have been digitized and can be viewed online and at a computer kiosk in the museum.

Rodin's work broke new ground in sculpture with subtle distortions and contortions of the human figure to convey different states of being, from sensual and lush to hard-edged and sinister, Zarobell says. His work inspired successors from Constantin Brancusi to Henry Moore.

But he was not without his critics. Some charged Rodin with casting his lifelike sculptures from real-life models instead of casts, leading the sculptor to show detractors that he hadn't "cheated" by standing a shorter model next to the much larger sculpture modeled from his likeness.

Rodin also was enamored with subjects that didn't exhibit the classical beauty favored by earlier sculptors. The museum's "The Man With the Broken Nose" -- a rough-featured neighborhood handyman of Rodin's -- was rejected by the Paris Salon, and his 1898 monument to French writer Honore de Balzac was decried as "a monstrosity."

"The scandals polarized people but created a base of supporters, and that helped him get noticed," Zarobell says. It helped that some of those supporters were well-known in their own right, including writer Emile Zola and painter Claude Monet.

Mastbaum died in 1926, before construction had begun on the museum, which features "The Thinker" at one entrance -- a partial reproduction of Rodin's Chateau d'Issy outside Paris -- and the nightmarish "The Gates of Hell" at another. The treasures inside include the massive "The Burghers of Calais," and busts of Rodin's lifelong companion, Rose Beuret, his student and mistress Camille Claudel, Victor Hugo, Gustav Mahler and others.

The exhibit, "Echoes," runs through May 2005.

Details: www.rodinmuseum.org .

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