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The Rodin centenary at the Legion of Honor

Auguste Rodin, Victor Hugo, 1883. Bronze with Marble Base, 15-7/8 x 10-7/16 x 9-3/8 in. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, 1942.37 photo: FAMSF

I first visited san Francisco at the age of 18 as a college student in Michigan pursuing an art degree. I yearned to visit the typical tourist destinations, but one location was at the top of my list.  My first stop in the city was at the Legion of Honor to visit their famed Rodin sculpture collection.

This year marks the centenary of Auguste Rodin’s death in 1917, and the Legion of Honor is presenting a new installation of its exceptional collection of this French artist who paved the way for modernist sculpture. Born in 1840 in Paris, Rodin abandoned traditional, stylized, mythological themes and instead pursued realism of the human form, sometimes combined with tumultuous abstractions that embraced the fragment as motif.  Approximately 50 objects in bronze, marble, and plaster — all part of the museum’s permanent collection — will be reexamined in the context of the artist’s life and artistic development.

Alma and Adolph Spreckels, founders of the Legion of Honor, began to assemble in 1915 one of the most impressive Rodin collections in the world.  “Although significant collections of Rodin sculptures exist in museums across America and internationally, the collection held at the Legion of Honor is exceptional because of how and when the works were acquired,” said Martin Chapman, curator in charge of European Decorative arts and Sculpture for the Museum. “The Spreckelses purchased works directly from Rodin’s studio, many of which are the original plaster models, or are works that were cast or carved with the direct supervision of Rodin himself — a distinction not found in many American Rodin collections.”

The exhibition will include pieces relating to Rodin’s most ambitious commissions, The Burghers of Calais, The Gates of Hell, and his most famous sculpture and iconic emblem of the Legion of Honor, The Thinker.

The museum will publish a catalogue, The Sculpture of Auguste Rodin at the Legion of Honor, which will feature highlights of the collections to accompany the rotations in 2017.  It will include an introductory essay by Martin Chapman and brief texts on the major themes of Rodin’s work as revealed in the museums’ holdings alongside new photography specially commissioned for the project.

Rodin, a colossal figure in the history of modern sculpture, was a great choice for my first museum stop in San Francisco, although the van with the stick shift that I drove there was not. Art lovers from near and far will find surprising new revelations in the museum’s installations that explore dimensions of Rodin’s work that often remain underappreciated:  apocalyptic visions in Dante’s Inferno, the mortality portrayed in his historical figures, and the sensuality of Christ and the Magdalene. The exhibition will bring a contemporary perspective to Rodin’s art and legacy.

Rodin Centenary: Tue.–Sun. 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m., Jan. 28–Dec. 31; $22; Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue; 415-750-3600, famsf.org

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at mindtheimage.com

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