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I wanted to quickly write about a great piece of art from the 19th century (or really two great pieces). When HonorĂ© de Balzac died, the city fathers (or the Second Empire…or someone) commissioned a great bronze statue of the (in)famous realist. Balzac was renowned for his larger-than-life personality and for his exuberant personal life. The commissioners of the sculpture found an equally over-the-top realist sculptor to make the statue, Auguste Rodin. Rodin tracked down every daguerreotype and drawing of Balzac. He interviewed Balzac’s mistresses and intimates and went to Balzac’s tailor for exact measurements. He took casts from Balzac’s death mask and did everything but exhume his corpse (presuming he didn’t do that in secret). Then Rodin made a brash sculpture of the great novelist standing nude, with his legs apart and his arms crossed, brooding upon the human comedy.
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The patrons who commissioned the sculpture were predictably aghast (although I like to think Balzac would have been amused–and flatterd by his muscular torso). They demanded that Rodin redo the whole thing–this time properly clothed. Rodin went into a huge huff and he threw a great cowled cloak over the statue (which only showed a tiny portion of Balzac’s brooding countenance). That was that: it was thereafter impossible to get him to work further upon the project. Nobody was satisfied…but the publicity from the controversy made all parties more famous and rebounds down to this day.
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Astonishingly, and somewhat improbably, we are having a great national debate in the United States over nineteenth (and early twentieth) century sculptures (I will write more about that shortly). Eventually, inevitably, the turgid bronzes of rebels, slavers, and secessionists will be taken down or moved (like “The Triumph of Civic Virtue”). However right now they are in limbo. The most controversial of all, the statue of Lee in Charlottesville has had a great tarp cast over it (which improves it no end, to my mind). Seeing gawkers pointing at the plastic cocoon upon a plinth brought a smile to my face and reminded me of Balzac’s statue and all of the trouble that public art causes.

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