Connected \\ May 17, 2016
Thinking about ‘The Thinker’
This awful Thinker: seen from his left, he looks like a bird of prey contented with the vengeance he has meted out to the vile of the earth; a composition of physical and mental dominance, and effect of personality seemingly without rival in all sculpture of the world.
–Truman H. Bartlett, The American Architect and Building News, Vol. XXV, May 11, 1889
Beloved and reviled, iconic yet obscure, Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker is quite arguably the most recognizable if not the single most iconic work of Modern sculpture. I’ve been thinking about this while watching the work be uncrated and placed in our gallery and then receiving so much fanfare during the opening of our latest exhibition Rodin: Transforming Sculpture.
The Thinker, like the Mona Lisa or American Gothic, is a work that has transcended the elitism of the art historical canon to enter into the popular imagination. A cursory check of Amazon.com will find Rodin’s seated muscle-bound Adonis endlessly reproduced at varying scales in the form of bookends, magnets, garden statuary, and, rather surprisingly, as a toilet decal. Why has The Thinker emerged over the past century as a major visual and cultural touchstone? Like with most other now “classic” works of art, our understanding of The Thinker is shrouded in misinformation and legend, some of which I hope to be able to clear up below:
While most of us know The Thinker as a towering, massive, isolated work of art, what many don’t know is that The Thinker was originally part of a much larger sculptural group known as The Gates of Hell, a work commissioned by the French government in 1880 to serve as the entryway to a never released Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. Originally titled The Poet in reference to Dante, whose Divine Comedy served as a source of profound inspiration for Rodin, a much smaller Thinker (about 27 inches in height) presides over the tumultuous hellscape below, his brow furrowed in contemplation.