(Original French title: Les Bourgeois de Calais)
The relatively short-lived period of Impressionism in art was as defined by what it wasn't -- clear lines, plausible composition, realistic depictions of figures and the space they occupied -- as by what it was: impressions of visual perception told through explorations of changing light and color and even through the rough-hewn textures created in paint using varying brush strokes. A radical departure from the longstanding -- though always evolving -- rigors of academic Realism, the fresh ideas of Impressionism on canvas quickly inspired similar reinterpretations of artistic norms in music, literature and sculpture.
Enter François-Auguste-René Rodin.
Classically trained and well-established in creating representational art, Rodin saw Impressionism's dreamy figure studies and craggy, dimensional textures as a vocabulary he could use to render bold ideas, subjective emotions, and plays of shape and light in sculpture. His raw, turbulent works brought new, profound depth to the revolutionary cacophonies that had so far been constricted to the flat canvases of Impressionistic paintings, and his most riveting use of this complex, muscular multi-dimensional language is in his mighty Burghers of Calais. The sculpture depicts six men walking to their martyrdom to liberate the French town of Calais during the Hundred Years' War. The men are overcome with terror and anguish and resignation and peace all at once, and Rodin sculpted the figures with such a masterful mix of romantic realism and primitive rawness that you can see and understand their every emotion from your every angle. The piece is enormous in size and exaggerated in scale and arguably unfinished in its rendering, all of which invite you to approach it with your own perspectives, examine it with your own curiosities and appreciate it with your own conclusions.
French law decrees that no more than twelve original casts may be made of any work by Rodin, which means The Burghers of Calais tells its weighty story in museums and university campuses all over Europe and the United States, including a single figure from the piece who stands resolutely at the entrance to the University of Iowa's Boyd Law Building.
I make a point to see my reproduction of the work every summer on my annual pilgrimage to visit friends in Washington, D.C. It stands with other Rodin masterpieces in a relatively austere corner of the sunken sculpture garden behind the Smithsonian's relentlessly round Hirshhorn Museum. I usually stop there on my way to the airport at the end of each visit. I walk around the sculpture a few times to take note of specific details Rodin included -- like articulated toes to help propel the walking figures through space -- and specific details he didn't include -- like eyeballs to help the figures see where they're going. Then I sit in my same spot on a little concrete ledge to take in the piece in its weighty enormousness, to contemplate the explosive change Rodin and the Impressionists brought to the way we see and understand and interpret art, and to take comfort in the fact that my Burghers will most likely stand caught in their time and this place, waiting for me year after year every time I come to visit them for as long as I live.