Skip to content

It’s one hell of a story

Detail of Auguste Rodin’s The gates of hell (1880-90, cast 1926-28), topped with a version of The thinker. Image © Musée Rodin

It may be one of the world’s greatest representations of erotic love but Auguste Rodin’s The kiss began life in hell.

In 1880 Rodin was commissioned by the French Ministry of Fine Arts to create a set of monumental doors for a museum of decorative arts planned for the site of the old Palais d’Orsay, which had been destroyed during the Paris Commune.

He embraced the commission with gusto, taking inspiration from the Inferno, the first part of Dante’s epic story of hell and damnation, The divine comedy, while paying homage to Ghiberti’s magnificent Renaissance masterpiece, the Florence Baptistery doors.

For years he struggled with the resolution of his major work. Initially, the Gates were to be topped by the figure that later became The thinker, flanked by one sculpture of maternal love (on the right) and one of sexual love (left).

You guessed it: that one on the left was the origin of The kiss. Its figures – drawn from the same tragic love story Dante had told – were Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini.

Engaged in a tragic tangle of adultery and death, Paolo and Francesca may first have seemed perfect as admonitory exemplars. Yet, as the figures in Rodin’s sculpture took form, they started to shout ‘joyful sexual abandon’ more loudly than they whispered ‘moral rectitude’. Before long, Rodin allowed them to get a room (of their own) and freed them, like The thinker and various other vignettes from the Gates, from his door to damnation.

The museum for which the doors were commissioned was never built (although the site would be eventually become the Musée d’Orsay after decades as a train station, the Gare d’Orsay). But Rodin continued to care deeply about the Gates, spending many years creating over 200 figures for it, working and re-working it. (You’d be hard-pressed recognising our heroes Paolo and Francesca among those figures as they were transformed over a decade or more into various groups, only one of which is The kiss we know so well.)

Clockwise from top left: Rodin’s undated clay maquette for The kiss; one of the final vignettes developed from the tale of Paolo and Francesca on The gates of hell (1880-90, cast 1926-28). Images © Musée Rodin. The kiss 1901-04 (Tate: purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and public contributions 1953) at the Art Gallery of NSW

The Gates to be found today in the courtyard of the Musée Rodin were finally cast in 1928 – a decade after Rodin’s death but with his permission and using all his drawings, models and plasters.

As the Musée Rodin points out, it is extraordinary that these doors – which are unfinished, can’t be opened and are ‘orphaned’ from their intended location – hold such an important place in the master’s oeuvre, having generated some of Rodin’s most significant sculptures.

For now The kiss – one of those sculptures that took on a life of its own – takes pride of place behind our doors as part of Nude: art from the Tate collection. And this reminder of its rather more reproachful past is just in time for our Naked Ideas discussion on mortality on Thursday 26 January.

You can check out the history of the Gates further online with the Musée Rodin’s current exhibition Hell according to Rodin or its detailed page on the vignettes.

Rodin’s The gates of hell (1880-90, cast 1926-28) in the courtyard of the Musée Rodin in Paris. Image © Musée Rodin

Previous post: Vale James Fairfax

Next post: Nude encounters

January 19 2017, 11am
by Jackie Dunn
Writer and exhibition researcher