We’ve all seen Rodin’s figure of The Thinker in the most unfortunate circumstances: brooding in front of an open fridge, humiliated in a bright red Santa hat, poorly cartooned on a dingy office mug under an empty thought bubble, or, more common on dorm posters, crassly installed on a dreary commode. Less embarrassing but no less bizarre: blog sites tell us scientists have created a 3-D microscopic model of The Thinker that is 20 millionths of a meter high, about twice the size of a red blood cell.
Modeled in 1880, greatly enlarged and installed outside Paris’s Panthéon in 1904, The Thinker was already used in an advertisement by 1908. The visual cliché has been around so long that, unless we see the sculpture in person, it’s hard for us to fully appreciate the one work Rodin deemed so vital he asked that it be put over his grave in Meudon, France. In April visitors to the NCMA will have the unique opportunity to see both the original and the enlarged versions of this most familiar of sculptures.
Before visiting, it might help to clear away some of the commercial cobwebs by considering what Rodin originally called the sculpture: not The Thinker but The Poet, according to Curator of European Art David Steel.
In his new book Rodin: The Cantor Foundation Gift to the North Carolina Museum of Art, Steel says The Poet was likely the first sculpture Rodin created for his famous The Gates of Hell. It sits high atop these bronze doors initially inspired by scenes in Dante’s Inferno. Steel tells us Rodin first imagined the poet to be Dante himself, “thinking of the plan of his poem.”
As an editor it touched me that this famous thinker was initially a writer, a poet facing the blank page. Rodin’s poet thinks so hard about his work of art that his toes grip the rock he sits on. Hardly cerebral, the poet is visceral, grounded, and heavy: the monumental cast installed in front of the NCMA’s new West Building, a loan from the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford, weighs nearly 1,500 pounds.
I was curious what a true poet would have to say about Rodin’s original title for the sculpture, so I cold called a fine translator of Dante’s Inferno, former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky, who remarked on the deceptive ease of creating a poem, or any work of art. Pinsky likes Rodin’s original title “as a corrective to 19th-century and older notions of Orpheus or Dionysus or wild-eyed Highlands bards with their beards sideways in the Scottish wind.”
“It’s interesting,” Pinsky said, “to think about [Rodin’s] image of [The Poet]: hunched, not dancing or lyre-strumming, muscular, not epicene, and working hard. An image of composition and inner work, not of performance.”
Rodin labored on The Gates of Hell for more than 20 years. Gradually the work strayed from the Inferno, and Rodin included stories from the Bible and Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil. Slowly the Poet became the Thinker. “Guided by my first inspiration,” Rodin wrote, “I conceived another thinker, a naked man, seated upon a rock, his feet drawn under him, his fist against his teeth, he dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer dreamer, he is creator.”
In April you can learn more about The Thinker and other figures on The Gates of Hell by visiting the NCMA’s new Rodin court and garden. After seeing these magnificent sculptures in person, pick up a copy of Steel’s book in the new Museum Store or online. Rodin: The Cantor Foundation Gift to the North Carolina Museum of Art also includes a DVD documentary on the collection, created by Emmy Award–winning producer-director Art Howard and coproducer Julie Dixon.