and the Beast
In His Own Words, Selections from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor
Hyde Collection, through April 11
of Devotion: The Art of Medieval and Renaissance Europe
Hyde Collection, through Feb. 29
regard and outsized passion: works by Sozzo and Rodin
at the Hyde Collection.
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.
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.
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.