Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
Research project. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. February - September 2014. In collaboration with Radio Rodeo (Marc van Dijk, Alfred Koster, Tom Loois, Wineke van Muiswinkel) and Maurits de Bruijn (website). Photography: Wineke van Muiswinkel
Letter to Rodin, as published in Metropolis M, february 2014
Assuming there can be no language barriers after death, I write to you in the language in which I think ? and take the liberty to write as a friend.
For my exhibition at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, I would like to ask if I might borrow your Balzac, which stands in the front garden of the museum.
Please allow me to explain my request.
For about ten years now, your life and art have been a great source of inspiration for my own. I think your work is beautiful, but what makes it truly interesting is that, together with the story of your life, it has helped create the ?myth of Rodin?. For more than a hundred years, you have been an archetypal artist. I am juxtaposing this archetype against my own practice as an artist, which is very different in a very different age, but which still carries traces of that myth.
Such a myth is a collective phenomenon, but what fascinates me most is your personal contribution to the creation of the myth. To give that myth substance, you did not shy away from playing the hero. You moreover used the media available to you to allow that self-aggrandizement to become reality. You were at once a genius and a celebrity, the grandchild of Michelangelo and the grandfather of Warhol. In 1898, when the scandal of your Balzac erupted, it was news around the world. Yet that was still not enough. Your goal was immortality ? forever.
To this very day, you have succeeded, but in order to become immortal, you had to corrupt your talent. In the myth, you were a lonely man, while in reality, you ran an enterprise with assistants, secretaries and a barber who came to trim your beard each morning. You became the ultimate example of the academic establishment that you claimed to be fighting against.
You were innovative in your work, but conservative in your ideas. In the development of the man into the myth, you always preached fixed values for art. Restoration of the past: that is what it was about for you, while in the art that came after you, the only fixed value would be precisely the kind of innovation that you so detested. You thought the Cubists were swindlers, yet they were being supported by the same mechanisms as your Balzac. They were New! They were Now! From one fracture to the next, this is how Modernism developed. You stand at the beginning of that tradition of the new. And that is why you have not yet been forgotten.
It will soon be 100 years since your death, and we will be celebrating the fact that the myth of Rodin is still very much alive. Although Modernism is long since behind us, as an artist, I am still expected to be innovative. But each time I look at today?s big biennial exhibitions, an image of the salon exhibitions of your day always shifts across them, with their hundreds of anonymous plasters in a row. Innovation is the academicism of today, if not the mannerism of today. And how do we deal with that?
If innovation is no longer new, what is?
In the last century, the way we look at you and your art has changed radically, a number of times. First you were late romantic, then an early modernist. In the large-scale posthumous productions of your work ? the Balzac in Eindhoven is from 1965! ? lay the seeds of postmodernism. Now that the market is such a force in the art world, you are once again setting the example. Musée Rodin is a magnet for the public, yet it is also a fantastic institute of knowledge. Because every little snippet of your life and work have been preserved, just as you wanted it to be, you are a sociological gold mine for the history of art.
The flexibility with which the myth of Rodin bends with the times is astonishing. Existing assumptions are constantly being rearranged, in a way that you yourself could never have imagined. I like that self-adjusting quality, because it is an alternative for innovation. The new lies hidden in the old. It is for this that I wish to use your Balzac.
Honoré de Balzac was the first chronicler of modernity, and for that reason he is my favourite writer ? a true visionary. What makes your monument to him so powerful is that everything in the composition points to the eyes. The writer?s staring expression connects a point in the infinite distance with a point deep within itself/himself. Balzac reflects the outside world in his own inner world and the other way around.
I want to pull that mental horizon out of the fixed expression, by allowing the sculpture to slowly turn around. In that way, the writer can look around him, at our time. Maybe Balzac might hold a mirror up to us − an antique mirror, in which we can see ourselves afresh.
Rainer Maria Rilke once saluted you with, ?You and the eternity that surrounds you?. If, thanks to that eternity, you can still be approached, then I hope that my request reaches you. With no a reply to the contrary, I shall assume that I have your permission. The myth of Rodin is strong enough for that.
With fond greetings,
Arnoud Holleman, february 2014