15 juin 2020

Auguste Rodin's "Burghers of Calais" welcome visitors in the Kunstmuseums inner courtyard. However, during the artist's lifetime, their depiction did not in any way enrapture those who commissioned the work.

In 1347, during the Hundred Years' War, six distinguished dignitaries of the French town of Calais put their lives in the hands of the English King Edward III, after the latter had forced the town to surrender. He promised to spare the lives of all citizens if six of them surrendered voluntarily. They were to come to the English camps in their vests and barefoot and hand him the keys to the city. They would then be hanged by a rope around their necks - according to the demand. Ready to sacrifice their own lives to save their fellow citizens, they were unexpectedly pardoned in the end.

After the city of Calais commissioned Auguste Rodin in 1884 to create a monument to these six heroes, it took over ten years to inaugurate it in 1895. Rodin's proposal caused quite a debate, as it did not correspond in many respects to the idea of a monument to heroes.

Rodin did not portray heroes ready to face death with vigour and bravery, but rather dejected people who are facing their fate with sorrow and anxiety. With great expressiveness he depicts the emotive state of mind everyone may have experienced on their walk to the English king. The artist avoids a hierarchical organization of the protagonists and thus a main view, as would have been usual for a monument of that time. We are instead looking at six individuals of equivalent value, who express their own grief and despair in different postures, gestures and facial expressions. Each character is neither turned towards nor touching his fellow sufferers, but is entirely focused on himself, constituting a distinct centre. Each one would also be able to act as an individual figure.

Indeed, Rodin created six individual characters, which he assembled into the present arrangement. He rotated and postponed them until they created the desired harmonious, organic entity within their constellation. A shared plinth connects all six characters, however, Rodin leaves the base plates of the individual figures visible in multiple areas in the final result. This makes the artistic process of their assembling visible, and is certainly exceptional. The intrinsic value that Rodin thus assigns to each figure becomes a symbol of the isolation in which each of these city dignitaries faced their destiny.

Finally, the placement of the sculpture was the subject of considerable controversy. In accordance with the human representation of the heroes, Rodin preferred a ground-level display. He literally removes the heroes from the high pedestal, which was also intended to eliminate the hierarchy between monument and beholder.

Rodin's proposal for this monument caused a scandal. For the commissioners would rather have seen their city fathers on a high pedestal in heroic revolt than in slumped poses at eye level. This sculpture is more likely to provide a psychogram than a hero worship. Rodin's «Burghers of Calais» are thus exemplary for the revolution in sculpture in the 19th century. In response to the criticism of his work, Rodin commented with composure: «It's quite simple, the day the public will recognise my sculptures and those of other young artists in my wake, the teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts will be turned upside down.»

Written by: Seraina Werthemann, art historian and art mediator