At the end of his life, the sculptor Auguste Rodin ceded his valuable art collection and plaster molds to the French state, part of a deal he negotiated to save the palatial 18th-century mansion that housed his studio and create his own museum on the Left Bank. Now he and his vintage molds have again come to the museum’s rescue. The sales of newly cast Rodin bronzes are helping to finance a $17.7 million restoration of the Rodin Museum, where cracks in the walls have appeared over the decades and where the oak parquet floors have warped with the weight of sculptures including the marble lovers entwined in “The Kiss.” (The New York Times, 10.31.15).
In this seemingly straightforward story about an artist’s concern both for his own legacy and for enriching the cultural patrimony of France, there is much more than meets the eye. The French government, by owning Rodin’s plaster molds and rights to recast his bronzes, is in effect producing more originals. New bronze casts of The Kiss or The Thinker cannot be considered copies because they are no different than the first bronze produced by Rodin himself. Since the molds are original and the bronze used for subsequent castings is of the same physical, molecular composition as the first; and since there is no craftsmanship, artistry, or unique technique required for pouring the bronze into molds to produce a sculpture, every new Kiss or Thinker is qualitatively no different than the first. Each sculpture should be appreciated and valued as though it were the first.
Anticipating the likely devaluation of the sculptures through multiple castings, the French government decreed that only 12 would be allowed for each sculpture. Twelve Thinkers, twelve Kisses, twelve St. John the Baptists, etc.
At the end of the year, the museum is to deliver a new casting of his monumental bronze of “The Gates of Hell” to the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim for display at the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City.
There will be, then twelve originals of each of Rodin’s sculptures.
Or will there be? According to experts familiar with the art market, those sculptures whose casting was supervised by Rodin are the most valuable. This implies that there is indeed artistry in the pouring of the metal, the removal of the sculpture from its mold, and its final finishing. Yet some critics disagree. There is no substantive qualitative difference between the first sculpture cast by Rodin himself and the 12 subsequently produced. Due credit must be paid to Rodin for all of them; and they are all originals.
Yet those who place the value of the supervised sculptures higher than the non-supervised ones are thinking in marketing terms and not artistic ones. It is the presence of Rodin that adds value and not anything that he did during the casting process. Since there are no other characteristics that distinguish the first from the twelfth casting, then the artist’s interaction, albeit inconsequential when considered against subsequent productions, gives the first a unique character. Those who purchase/view the ‘original’ can sense the presence of the artist. The bronze they touch was touched by its creator. They are closer to the creative if not spiritual insight of the artist.
The points, therefore, are two. The first is philosophical. Is the twelfth sculpture cast from Rodin’s original mold identical in form, texture, line, and emotive power the same as the first? If the above assumptions are correct – that the mold is original; the bronze of the same essential composition as in the first casting; and that ‘supervision’ adds little or nothing to the innate beauty of the piece – then all twelve sculptures are original.
The second is mercenary without much debate. Is the value-added ascribed to the first sculpture supervised by Rodin legitimate? There is no doubt that it is. Ascribed value has always been part and parcel of consumer product advertising. Cars, whiskey, cigarettes, clothes, and cologne have all been promoted on the basis of attributes other than those inherent to the product. Cars are not inherently sexy, and a particular brand of whiskey does not make you sophisticated. If the market values ‘presence’, then demanding more for a ‘supervised’ sculpture that is identical to one that was not, is predictable, acceptable, and quite ethical.
James Audubon is well-known for his paintings of birds, and reproductions of individual prints in Birds of America are sold everywhere. What is often overlooked is that what we see is actually the work of Robert Havell, Jr. – the engraver who took the engravings of Audubon, printed them, and painted them after the original painting of Audubon. In other words, it was Havell who made final decisions on color, hue, and intensity; who oversaw the application of paint on the engraving and the final printing.
Who was the ‘real’ artist? Was it Audubon because he had the inspiration, the vision, and the technique to do the original painting? Or Havell who had a comparable artistry and who created an original art form – the engraved print? Or at the very least shouldn’t Havell be given equal billing with Audubon.
Most critics favor the first option. The true genius lies with Audubon. It was he who did the observation of birds in the wild; and he who in is own unique and revolutionary way, painted them in postures and attitudes that captured the essence of the birds like no other artist. Havell was only a technician, they say; a man with a shop and some well-trained artisans.
Yet other critics do not dismiss Havell quite so easily. Engraving is both a craft and an art. Havell had to use his artistic judgment and technical skills to produce the prints that most viewers see.
Credit to Havell is only annotated – small letters at the bottom of something – rather than given prominence. Without Havell, Audubon’s works would be seen by relatively few. Audubon all along intended for his works to be reproduced as engraved prints; and in fact the few folios of Havell’s original, first-run prints, are a testament to Audubon’s vision. Audubon knew that the prints were both art in themselves and faithful reproductions of his original paintings; and thus the folio had double value and artistic interest.
The New York Times, thanks to high-tech digital printing, has offered reproductions of Audubon/Havell prints for sale. These reproductions are so good that except for the paper they are printed on, are indistinguishable from the originals. The question is again raised – what makes an original? If these New York Times reproductions are identical to the original prints of Havell in all but paper, are they not ‘original’? In other words, the value ascribed to them is lower than that of an original print has more to do with process than inherent quality. Therefore, is our insistence of ‘real’ originals – works that look, taste, and smell of the artist – more commercial vanity than anything else?
We live in an age, however, which slowly but surely is devaluing reality. Copies can be made of original anything; and they are so good but all but the most practiced and trained eye can tell the difference; and maybe not even then. If we are drinking a fake Chateau Margaux 1900 which tastes exactly like the real thing – complexity, depth, texture, and the ineffable character of great wines – does it matter? If we travel in a virtual world made real thanks to a complete symbiotic interface between computer and human brain, does ‘real’ reality have any attraction or allure?
Fake 1900 Chateau Margaux, www.wine-searcher.com
Either art lovers stick to their guns and demand authenticity or ‘supervision’; or consumers discard old-fashioned notions of artistic ‘singularity’ and accept a perfectly-made copy as ‘real’. There is no doubt that the latter scenario will be the rule.