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Beauty and the Beast
By Rebecca Shepard

Rodin: In His Own Words, Selections from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation
The Hyde Collection, through April 11

Objects of Devotion: The Art of Medieval and Renaissance Europe
The Hyde Collection, through Feb. 29

Cool regard and outsized passion: works by Sozzo and Rodin at the Hyde Collection.

This pope doesn’t understand anything about art. I wanted to have a good look at his ear, but he had positioned himself in what he regarded as the most flattering pose and made it impossible for me to see anything of his sacred ear.

Rodin: In His Own Words, the Hyde Collection’s current exhibit, presents a generous selection of Auguste Rodin’s bronze sculptures on loan from the Cantor Foundation, as well as engaging excerpts from the artist’s own writings. Despite the wealth of sculpture on view, it is the inclusion of Rodin’s words (like the above quotation) that really enlivens the exhibit. You come away with a vivid sense of who Rodin was and how his work influenced the era in which he lived.

In 1915, Rodin was commissioned to do a portrait of Pope Benedict XV, surely an honor. While he had promised to sit for the artist, the Pope never managed more than an hour from his schedule to do so, and after many delays, an emissary asked Rodin to finish the portrait from photographs. Rodin walked out in disgust. He believed in working from life, a relatively new thing at the time, and he was unwilling to bow to convention—or to the Pope.

Rodin sculpted the human form, and the first thing that struck me as I entered the gallery was the dynamic poses of these figures. To our modern sensibilities, the room has the emotional pitch of a soap opera. Clenched hands, the grimacing face of an avenging angel, postures bent or arched in moments of grief or ecstasy. Even Rodin’s portrait of painter Jules Bastien-Lepage portrays him larger than life and standing like a hero in mid-stride, holding his palette at the ready. But this passion feels true to Rodin’s character, and may also reflect a philosophical stance of his time; he shares with compatriots Honore de Balzac and Claude Lorrain (whose portraits he sculpted) an admiration for the common man, a sense of heroic populism, and this comes across in his work.

Rodin’s sculptures are formally active as well. Their surfaces often show the imprints of the artist’s fingers as he worked the clay, giving them a fluid, mutable quality. And, while his anatomical accuracy is impressive (to the point where some critics wrongly accused him of using life casts) he often gave precedence to formal exploration as an end in itself. He recombined parts of earlier sculptures to create new pieces. He sculpted figures in unusual positions—a man in a free-fall, bent over backward. He left figures incomplete—legs and a torso with no arms or head—finding expressive value in the fragment and eschewing conventional ideas about sculptural integrity. He valued the creative process as much as the finished product—an emerging but still radical concept at the time.

A photograph in the Cantor Foundation exhibit brochure reveals the extent to which Rodin and his work became a cultural and social phenomenon. This 1917 image from Rodin’s funeral shows his famous sculpture The Thinker positioned in front of his tomb; the giant muscular figure sits in introspection surrounded by a veritable sea of dark-coated mourners pressing inward, as if trying to glean an iota of the artist’s vitality.

If you are ready for a rest from Rodin’s oversized passion and personality, wander into the Hyde’s Hoopes Gallery to see Objects of Devotion. This small-but- significant exhibit assembled from the Hyde’s permanent collection presents painting, sculpture, and devotional textiles from medieval and Renaissance Europe. Most pieces are fragments taken out of their original eccliastical setting, but they feel quite whole and at home here. Botticelli’s Annunciation (1492), originally a predella of an altarpiece, is a small, dreamy painting. Here the angel Gabriel in diaphanous robes kneels before Mary to bring her the big news, and she looks down with a startled gesture, as if checking for evidence. They are in an enclosed courtyard surrounded by columns, a garden with manicured hedges and a pale sky behind them. The whole scene is one of symmetrical order. The faded condition of the egg tempera paint makes it seem as if the image is disappearing before you, leaving only an imprint of its lovely equilibrium.

A few of the other gems on view include an exquisite miniature portrait of Christ attributed to the school of Hans Memling (1480), in which the savior appears quite human and homely: straight, thin hair framing a moon-shaped face, and puffy bags beneath his large eyes. His gaze is direct but slightly unfocused, as if he sees beyond what lies immediately before him. In a livelier mode, Niccolo di ser Sozzo’s altarpiece detail (1350) presents a slender angel in a red dress standing with her arms folded across her chest and a knowing look on her face, as if sizing up someone whom she dearly loves but who persists in bad behavior.

While the majority of works in Object of Devotion are paintings, there are also carved wood and terra cotta sculptures of the Madonna, a Book of Hours from Rouen, small copper liturgical containers, and fragments of ceremonial garments. Despite the variety, the exhibit is cohesive. All of this art had a job outside itself and, as such, it seems to share a refreshing lack of self-consciousness. You could say it was public relations for the church. All I can say is, would that public relations looked like this today. The Hoopes Gallery has a quiet, reflective feeling, and it is a joy to spend time here.

Objects of Devotion emphasizes the fact that the Hydes, the most prominent industrialist family of the Adirondack region, were in no way provincial. They traveled extensively and were serious about art, using both their own taste and the advice of hired curators to amass a very respectable collection.

And with the renovation of Hyde House, now reaching its completion, not only will the Hydes’ collection be seen in context, but the 1912 Italian Renaissance style villa will exist for its own merit. Since 1960, the house has been enlisted, sometimes without regard to its integrity, to function as museum. The thorough renovation encompasses everything from exterior stucco replacement to meticulous restoration or reproduction of period drapery, rugs, wall colors, and furniture. At its reopening this spring, Hyde House will be a living recreation of an early 20th-century home, and will form another bright star in the growing constellation of art and culture venues in the Capital Region.

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