When Auguste Rodin first exhibited a plaster version of The Kiss in 1887, he named it Francesca da Rimini for the Italian noblewoman whose passionate love affair with her brother-in-law lights up Dante’s Inferno.
Visitors viewing the intertwined lovers were shocked by their stark nudity, made all the more compelling by the anonymous, unfettered ardor of the female. A critic suggested that given the absence of identifying detail, Rodin should simply call it The Kiss.
The piece lived on to become one of the French sculptor’s most famous works, and now the marble copy at Philadelphia's Rodin Museum (one of only four authorized copies in the world) is the focal point of an exhibition, also called "The Kiss," that reopens the Benjamin Franklin Parkway museum after a one-month closure.
The museum's central gallery has been completely reconfigured with embracing and struggling lovers in marble, plaster, and bronze. Some of these pieces have not been on view for some time, although the monumental Kiss has been a gallery mainstay for the last couple of years.
The whole now tells a hot-blooded story of lust and power and even tenderness. That Rodin was in love with passionate energy becomes abundantly clear. The exhibition also acknowledges Rodin’s death 100 years ago.
The exhibit will be on view until January 2019, and joins many projects and exhibitions around the world organized to mark the centenary of the sculptor’s death.
For Jennifer Thompson, curator of European painting and sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which administers the Rodin Museum, the sculpture of The Kiss “is an integral part of the story of this building.”
Indeed, the building exists because Jules E. Mastbaum, a Philadelphia movie-theater tycoon, fell in love with Rodin’s work, acquired nearly 150 works by the artist, and funded construction of the museum, which was designed by architect Paul Cret and landscape architect Jacques Gréber.
Mastbaum at first thought he would place the sculptures in the lobbies of the movie theaters he owned, but he changed his mind, built the museum, and gave it and its art to the city.
Thompson, who curated the reinstallation, said that during museum construction in the 1920s, the designers told Mastbaum that the main gallery needed a large marble piece for it to be thoroughly realized as architectural space.
What to do? Rodin died in 1917, giving everything to his Musée Rodin in Paris. Museum officials there, however, had the authority to authorize castings and additional works. Mastbaum asked if the museum would approve a copy of The Kiss. Rodin had already authorized three earlier copies of the work, and museum officials in Paris did not see a problem. They sent a plaster cast of the sculpture to Philadelphia to serve as a model.
Gréber, a designer of the museum and the Parkway landscape, suggested that his own father, the sculptor Henri Gréber, receive the commission. A fourth Kiss was born. It lived in the Rodin Museum until 1968, when it had to be moved to make room for outdoor sculptures that were being destroyed by acid rain and pollution.
The Kiss was transported to Memorial Hall and remained there until the Please Touch Museum moved in about a decade ago, Thompson said.
In the new installation, The Kiss, so shocking to viewers in the 19th century, appears well within the Rodin erotic mainstream. In fact, it seems rather staid sexually in a gallery that now features a minotaur ravishing a seemingly terrified woman who is not trying all that hard to escape; female lovers with upraised buttocks, brazenly offering themselves to the viewer; an older women ravishing a young girl; and brothers and sisters embracing.
Rodin maintained that he "never made a sculpture for the sake of the erotic element," that he was interested in the "art of forms." It would seem that a lot of the forms he was interested in were highly charged.
“This is a great opportunity to bring different dimensions of Rodin to display,” Thompson said.
“There are 16 pieces in the central gallery,” she said, providing almost a catalog of “desire, attraction, repulsion, and shame.” There are “mothers and children, female lovers, humans and animals.”
“Rodin is sharing with us a catalog of passion,” she added. “It’s a theme he comes back to again and again and again.”