Monterey Museum of Art’s new Rodin exhibit defies convention to enlightening effect.

Sculpted Souls: MMA’s Rodin exhibition will feature some the artists most famous works, such as “The Thinker”

Last week Ted Wells – the guest curator of MMA’s new exhibition Auguste Rodin: Light and Shadow – led some local children on a pre-opening tour of the show. Along the way he found himself on the rare receiving end of some Rodin lore. 

“This girl walked up to [‘The Thinker’] and said, ‘That’s the most famous sculpture in the world!’” Wells says. “Then she started to explain that she knew it from Night at the Museum 2. A lot of the kids had seen that movie, so they went on about how ‘The Thinker’ had started talking, and then they all assumed ‘The Thinker’ position.” 

The spontaneous group think was a moment of triumph for Wells, whose ambition for the show is to connect with visitors of all ages and all backgrounds. 

“It’s just wonderful to get people engaged,” he says.

Auguste Rodin is a man that shook up the art world like few ever have, reducing many prior conventions to rubble and creating in their place a body of work that set the stage for modern sculpture. “He was quite the rebel at the time,” Wells says, referring to late 19th century period when Rodin began making a name for himself. “He was very controversial, he got a lot of pushback from the art critics.” 

What set him apart, Wells says, was that “he hoped to… capture that spirit that was within someone, capture movement that wasn’t static.” Rodin also valued the essence of a subject, and favored it over the physical form: When he accepted commissions to do a bust, for example, “[he] would require sitters to come for months at a time and simply engage them in conversation, have meals with them and see them in action,” Wells says. “[He] was capturing who we really are, and that isn’t always who we see in the mirror.” 

Also known for his work with fragments, it was not uncommon for Rodin to sculpt only a torso, or a limb. “He felt a hand expressed more of our character than our face often did.”

The inspiration for Light and Shadow was born out of Wells’s new book Casting Shadows: Auguste Rodin. “The book is oriented toward young people, and the thought was, ‘Why not have a way to look at Rodin’s work that caters to [youth], but also helps people of all ages better understand what [his] work was about?’” The culmination of that vision is an exhibition featuring 20 of Rodin’s sculptures, including “Head of Balzac,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “The Creator,” as well as some of Rodin’s work on paper, and likenesses of him created by other artists. It is a show that is very much in the spirit of the artist himself: decidedly unconventional. 

“[It] allows visitors to interact with familiar sculptures… in a fresh and exciting way,” says E. Michael Whittington, MMA’s Executive Director.

Wells concurs. “It’s not one of those hushed, holy environments that often occur with famous art,” he says. “We wanted it to be a contemporary take on his work, not overanalyzing it, not looking at it from an academic standpoint.” 

On the ground, that translates to an opportunity to get unusually close to the art, to view it at exactly the same height at which Rodin worked on it – eye-level – as the stands are modeled after several photos of his studio. The symmetry doesn’t end there: “The [sculptures] are clustered the way that Rodin would cluster them,” Wells says, “so that you can experience it in a way that you would experience it if you walked into [his] studio.” 

There’s also the playful, interactive option for visitors to pick up a flashlight as they enter, so that they can get a better look at the sculptures’ patinas, textures and create shadows on the wall. “For Rodin,” Wells says, “shadow was more important than light.” 

Though the exhibit hasn’t even opened to the public, promising signs that Wells’ vision of creating something “approachable, fresh and new” are already accumulating. When he recently took a group of adults through the exhibition, a veteran art fan in her 80s approached him and said, “‘I have known Rodin’s work all my life. I’ve seen it everywhere in the world, and this is the first new perspective I’ve ever had on his work.” 

“That,” Wells says, “is exactly what we want to do with this show.” 

AUGUSTE RODIN: LIGHT AND SHADOW shows July 5-Oct 21. Monterey Museum of Art, 559 Pacific St., Monterey. 372-5477,

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