L’Homme qui marche

The genesis l’Homme qui marche (Walking Man) dates back to 1877, when Rodin embarked on John the Baptist. He made that sculpture larger than life and portrayed the figure walking, but with both feet flat on the ground. When John the Baptist was first exhibited in 1880, disapproval was levelled at it from various quarters. One camp considered the work too realistic, as Rodin had failed to give the biblical figure his traditional attributes; a cross and camel-hair robe. Nor was the ‘low mental and physical type’, on whom Rodin had modelled the figure, befitting to the tradition in which John had been portrayed since the seventeenth century. The other camp did not find the work realistic enough, as photographs of people walking proved that they actually lifted one heel as they went along. Rodin, a keen collector of photos, remarked in that context at a later date that a photo only recorded a fraction of a movement. Unlike the photographer, the artist was actually able to reproduce the movement in one object. Thus, in Rodin’s opinion, he had captured the movement more perfectly than a photograph could.

L‘Homme qui marche, a much later assemblage of studies for John the Baptist, also stands with both feet flat on a bronze surface which suggests the ground. The head and arms are missing and so any reference to the biblical figure has gone, but the element of movement is all the more impactive. The legs are spread wider and one is struck not only by the pronounced muscles but also by the sketchy torso. In some places, on the back, for instance, it looks as if Rodin had deliberately damaged the torso. In the nineteenth century such sculptural liberties occasioned the criticism that Rodin’s works were unfinished, but in the twentieth century they were appreciated for their forcefulness and artistic expression. Rodin had freed sculpture from both classical standards and naturalism. Instead, he emphasized expression, by means of modelling and surface treatment, and thus profoundly influenced generations to come. That influence on 20th-century art stems more from the fragmented, ‘unfinished’ sculptures than from Rodin’s complete figures and groups, like The Thinker, The Kiss and Burghers of Calais. Sculptural fragments – studies of poses and limbs (hands, legs, heads) – acquired increasing autonomous and expressive value for him. His inspiration came from sculptures (often damaged) from classical antiquity and from Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures and sketches of parts of the body.

Rodin had a cast made in bronze from the roughly modelled sketch for the John the Baptist torso prior to or in 1888, but only decided in 1900 to add to this a more detailed study for the legs (also made for the latter sculpture) which resulted in L’Homme qui marche. It must have pleased him, because in 1907 he had a large version produced, cast in bronze for the first time in 1911. Rodin had probably conceived the idea of a walking figure back in 1877. As he was to recall later, an apparently rather boorish inexperienced Italian model had served for John the Baptist. ‘The peasant undressed, mounted the revolving table as if he’d never posed before: standing up straight, head raised, chest out, two legs spread like a pair of compasses. The movement was so unusual that I shouted: ‘That’s a man walking!’’. From 1911 to 1969 Musée Rodin, which houses works from the famous sculptor’s estate, sold casts of L’Homme qui marche – including the one which now stands in Rotterdam.

L’Homme qui marche would seem to be lacking in symbolic connotations – which were often present in other fragmentary figures by Rodin, such as The Hand of God and The Muse (Inner Voice) – and consequently it was long considered to be somewhat out of character with his oeuvre. As acceptance of modern sculpture grew, so did the sculptor’s fame. Moreover, it became clear that the image of a figure in motion had inspired other artists, including Henri Matisse, the Futurist Umberto Boccioni, as well as Alberto Giacometti. In the nineteen-sixties, the influential English sculptor Henry Moore owned a cast of the small version of L’Homme qui marche and made no secret of his admiration for it. The work gradually became an icon of modern sculpture.
In the Netherlands L’Homme qui marche was on display at the 1955 Sonsbeek exhibition and at the sculpture exhibition in Rotterdam’s Museum park, organized to mark the Floriade in 1960. Shortly after, it was acquired by the Urban Embellishment Committee for Rotterdam – their first acquisition and the basis for the art-historical overview of modern sculpture they desired. However, the statue’s location was much debated from the start. As someone observed: ‘If this sculpture is placed in the wrong setting, it will, for many, merely be a naked man with no head or arms.’ Apparently the reference was to an appropriate art-historical setting. The sculpture stood in the garden of Museum Boymans-van Beuningen for five years. Then, ‘the title of the statue was interpreted all too literally and L’Homme qui marche began his disastrous peregrination round the city’, according to the then secretary of the Urban Embellishment Committee, Ben Weehuizen. During all those years the bronze stood, with neither plinth nor protection of any kind, on various locations in the busy city centre and had a lot to put up with from local shoppers. In 1988, as part of the Sculpture in the City exhibition, the work acquired a more suitable location at Westersingel, though there too it regularly moved around, because of road works or because it was on loan to exhibitions. The current place on the Sculpture Terrace, where the work serves as a prelude to a series of later examples of semi-abstract human figures in 20th-century sculpture, has brought its wanderings to a fortunate close. The purpose-built pedestal is based on a site sketch of the sculpture which Rodin drew on a photo of the patio of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome.

Jelle Bouwhuis

Elsen, A.E., Origins of Modern Sculpture: Pioneers and Premises, Oxford 1974. / Elsen, A.E. and H. Moore, ‘Rodin’s “Walking Man” as Seen by Henry Moore’, Studio, 174 (July 1967), pp. 26-31.

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015