The Comité Auguste Rodin under the direction of Jérôme Le Blay will include this work in their forthcoming Rodin Catalogue critique de l'oeuvre sculpté under the number 2015-4664B.
Animated by a gentle swing provoked by the weight of her own body, Aphrodite cannot properly be called a standing nude, rather the figure seems to be suspended, her feet only touching the earth lightly. A surprising pose for the goddess of love, the sculpture is an example of the unconventional charge with which Auguste Rodin was able to invest the classical tradition of sculpture. Over two meters tall, the present piece constitutes the first bronze of the subject to have been cast in the present size. The mould, rediscovered by the Musée Rodin in 2014, had been used by Rodin, a century earlier, to create a large plaster cast of the subject. In 1913, the actress and director of the Renaissance theatre Cora Laparcerie had approached the sculptor hoping to persuade him to contribute a sculpture to the staging of Aphrodite, a play adapted from a homonymous novel by Pierre Louÿs. She addressed Rodin with pathos: ‘Maestro, I don’t think that the works of art born out of your genius should stand only in museums and squares… You should come down among the people and offer them your purest creations. I ask you to execute the statue of Aphrodite for youths and men, maidens and women, for all those who have memories of love. I shall present it to the gaze of the crowds in my theatre so that each night they will be compelled to commune with beauty’ (Pierre Louÿs, quoted in A. Le Normand-Romain, The Bronzes of Rodin, Paris, 2007, vol. 1, p. 135). Rodin, who personally knew Louÿs, accepted Leparcerie’s commission. As he had done many times before in his career, instead of sculpting a new work, he roamed his studio, looking for a suitable previous model that, under a different title, could acquire a novel, unexpected meaning. His eyes settled on a small nude, which was promptly enlarged twice by Henri Lebossé and finally cast in plaster, in the same size as the present bronze.
On the opening night of Aphrodite, the theatre curtains revealed Rodin’s sculpture, adorned with flowers, its stark white silhouette contrasting with the backdrop of a black marble temple. Within this new context, the unusual pose of the figure appeared suddenly transformed: animated by a sense of lightness, it seemed to be dancing. Conceived more than a decade earlier, however, the figure had originated in a very different context and had probably been intended to carry a completely different meaning and to express opposite emotions. George Grappe, former curator of the Musée Rodin in Paris, believes that the original model for Aphrodite had been conceived by Rodin during his work on the Porte de l’Enfer, the monumental decorative door the artist was asked to produce in 1880 for a planned, new Museum of Decorative Arts. Although ultimately it was never delivered – the museum was never built – the Porte de l’Enfer continued to absorb Rodin until 1900, when a plaster cast of the completed door was first shown to the public on the occasion of the great retrospective at the Place de l’Alma pavilion. For the project, which had by then been abandoned, the artist had conceived an ambitious composition of intertwined, intense figures, covering the surface of the gate in a tumultuous movement of damned souls. Within this altogether different context, the figure that now stands to represent Aphrodite would have inspired rather different associations: seemingly hanging, perhaps in penance for her sins, she may have inspired feelings of piety, terror and a sense of tragic despair. In order to achieve the mesmerising complexity of the Porte de l’Enfer, Rodin had worked on multiple figures, endlessly combining and adjusting their poses. It is thus not surprising to discover that some of them, although poignant, were not ultimately added to the Porte de l’Enfer. The bold re-interpretation of a figure destined for hell in Aphrodite also complies with Rodin’s artistic process: many of the figures that were eventually included in the monumental door were also re-elaborated and exhibited by Rodin on their own, with new titles and in different subsequent arrangements. Born as a damned soul and later redeemed as the goddess of love and chastity, Aphrodite constitutes a fascinating, ultimate testimony to the art of one of the greatest sculptors of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.