Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Burghers of Calais

This past Friday, I went up for a quick visit to the Frist Museum to see a Rodin show. Truly, it sent me into a whole train of thoughts about my own work. I guess masterpieces will do this. There was an entire room dedicated to the progress of the piece above, "The Burghers of Calais". Though the actual piece was not present, Rodin made dozens of studies of each of the figures. Some of you may not know the story of this historical piece. I found this explanation on Wikipedia, and I think it serves as a good overview:

The story goes that England's Edward III, after a victory in the Battle of Crécy, laid siege to Calais and Philip VI of France ordered the city to hold out at all costs. Philip failed to lift the siege and starvation eventually forced the city to parley for surrender. Edward offered to spare the people of the city if any six of its top leaders would surrender themselves to him, presumably to be executed. Edward demanded that they walk out almost naked and wearing nooses around their necks and be carrying the keys to the city and castle. One of the wealthiest of the town leaders, Eustache de Saint Pierre, volunteered first and five other burghers soon followed suit and they stripped down to their breeches. Saint Pierre led this envoy of emaciated volunteers to the city gates and it is this moment and this poignant mix of defeat, heroic self-sacrifice and the facing of imminent death that Rodin captures in these figures, which are scaled somewhat larger than life.

The monument was proposed by the mayor of Calais for the town's square in 1880. This was an unusual move, because normally only monuments to Victory were constructed, but France had suffered devastating losses in its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and it longed to recognize the sacrifice that its young men had made. Rodin's design was controversial, as it did not present the burghers in a heroic manner, rather they appeared sullen and worn. The monument was innovative in that it presented the burghers at the same level as the viewers, rather than on a traditional pedestal, although until 1924 the city council of Calais, against Rodin's wishes, displayed the statue on an elevated base.

Some installations have the figures tightly grouped with contiguous bases, while others have the figures separated. Some installations are elevated on pedestals, others are placed at ground level, and at least one is slightly sunken, so that the tops of the bases of the figures are level with the ground.


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Amazing. Each of the figures in this group, to me, represents some part of the stages one goes through in accepting difficulty (in this case, death). One of the figures is angry, one is resistant, another seems to have a loss of all hope, and finally there is another that has an air of acceptance and even pride. The fact that Rodin was so adamant about having the figures be level with the viewer really means a lot to how these figures are to be perceived.
There are several people in my life, and in the lives of my friends, who are on the brink of severe hardships. This sculpture rang very loud for me, as I have seen some of those people go through these emotions. Seeing these friends of mine, and seeing this sculpture as a dedication to strength and selflessness gave me some new realizations of why artists are so lucky, and have a huge responsibility. One day I hope to paint something that comes close to preserving what some of the strong people in my life have taught me.

1 comment:

shopsmart said...

Hi, I stumbled across your profile and thought I would comment on your post. The image and story reminded me of something else I had seen from history when the Gauls were under siege by Caesar. As they ran out of food, the women and children were sent out but Caesar showed them no mercy and let them starve or surrender like the men. In the end, the leader Vercingetorix surrendered himself to Caesar. He was quoted by saying something like "I stand before you a strong man, defeated by an even stronger man." A link to an image of the surrender can be found here http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/97/VercingetorixSurrenders.jpg My name's Andy by the way. =)