You can tell a lot about a figural sculptor from his treatment of hands. Or, to be more accurate, you can tell one or two things about a figural sculptor from his treatment of hands. Or, well, okay, to be perfectly honest, you may or may not be able to tell anything about a figural sculptor from his treatment of hands — I have no idea — but I wanted to start out this photo-essay with an artsy sounding assertion that made me sound more knowledgable than I am.
That’s a detail up there, of a bronze by Auguste Rodin that stands motionless (though it walks at night) on the grounds of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. It seemed to me that an artist working in clay — especially on a monumental scale — would be thinking about his paws more than the usual guy, if only because they were chronically dry and itchy. So I risked armed response from the lurking guards by tip-toeing up close and getting a shot of Jean de Fiennes‘s ambiguous gesture.
The next photo, on the left somewhere, shows one Pierre de Wissant, aghast, raising his bronze hand as if to say, “WTF?” Actually, the face on this one caught my interest more than the hand, but let’s stick with the theme, shall we?
Down below, I give you a pair of fierce, grippy hands belonging to one member of a group of Burghers of Calais, 1884-95. Now there is a pair of sculptor’s hands, don’t you think? Blue-collar hands. I don’t know how much manual labor those Calais Burghers had to do, but I suspect these sinewy mitts have more to do with Auguste than Jean, Pierre or any of their fellow public servants. I’ll bet they all had French tips.
As long as we’re hanging around on the lawn anyhow, let’s get within guard-alarming distance of the graceful hand of Rodin’s Saint John the Baptist, 1878-80.
Nice hand, eh? But I think Rodin has it a little backwards: this should be the Burgher’s hand, and the Burgher’s hand should be here instead. John Baptist lived an ascetic life in the desert subsisting on bugs and honey. I picture something a little more weatherworn and rugged on the end of his wrists, though maybe all the baptizing had a softening effect. The gesture is surely meant to be an orator’s flourish in keeping with John’s role as a voice in the wilderness.
One more Rodin hand. This one belonging to… oh, rats. My notes are all in disarray. I think it belongs to Pierre de Wissant, but it might go with one his many Burgher Buddies. They’re milling all over the lawn at the Norton Simon; it’s hard to keep them straight. And which Pierre was it? There are two studies — one draped and one nude– and yet another Pierre amid the group portrait.
Sorry, I just can’t remember which one the hand goes with, but I suppose a draped hand would be wearing a mitten, yes? We’ll just call it the Bare Pierre and let the ever-vigilant error-finders of the Web pounce if we’re wrong.
Now, just to round things off, let’s lean mere inches from one of the three ladies comprising Aristide Maillol’s bronze Three Nymphes, 1930-37. I include it mostly because I have it, but also because it provides a nice contrast to Rodin’s rugged technique. Maillol’s sculptures are smooth as eggs and as geometrical, too. They come dangerously close to being ice-cold and Deco-ish, but some residual animating grace saves them. After all, even the 20th century didn’t manage to be completely anti-human. That will be the job of the 21st, beginning tomorrow.