This is, without question, Rodin’s best known work. Originally conceived in the early 1880s as part of his portal ‘The Gates Of Hell’ which depict the horrors that the poet Dante Alighieri described in his ‘Inferno’. Indeed, the original name for the work was ‘The Poet’ but was later changed to the thinker. This sculpture, made in 1903 is made of plaster and is around five feet high. It was an immense undertaking, a challenge that Rodin was equal to.
The Thinker himself is shown in hell, but also looking down on the lower levels of hell, which covers the doors and the architraves. Above him are three figures, and these stand on the architrave – this being symbolic of the fact that they are not part of hell. These figures represent the thinking, feeling and willing that the human is capable of, when wrested from the grasp of our subconscious.
It is interesting to note that these figures stand erect – but as is so typical of Rodin, their heads are bowed and their gesture one of remorse. The depiction of Jean d’Aire, discussed in my last post in this series, is a rare example of Rodin depicting someone who is genuinely proud and upstanding. Most of Rodin’s work show people who are in the contortions that arise from despair. Even his ‘Walking Man’ encompasses this – which will be discussed in what will be the last in this loosely formed series of posts that explore what drove Rodin to depict the world in the way he did.
The original figure of The Thinker was intended to be a bronze, and stood around two feet tall (60cm). This will give you an idea of the monumental scale of Rodin’s vision. Rodin did not depict Dante in heaven, though; choosing hell instead. Heaven to Rodin must have seemed rather dull, as indeed, it will to any reader used to the enticements of our material world. Believe me, reading Dante’s Paradisio, it does get a little dull and repetitive at times! But that’s what heaven is all about: the place really is a little dull – it is we that must bring some excitement to the place. Those who cannot will find heaven to be a place of utter tedium and misery, and will gnash their teeth and clap their hands…
Oh, that’s Dante’s description of hell, isn’t it?
But isn’t that what heaven is all about? To find those who are able to deal with it and allow us to hone our response during our time on earth where we can make mistakes without landing ourselves in eternal damnation?
Here we have Rodin’s idea of what Dante felt when in hell. In common parlance, he is ‘nerped’. That is to say, he is seated but in a way that is as close to a foetal form as is possible to achieve without rolling on the floor in a state of pure agony.
Again, I draw your attention to the bowed heads of the trio standing above Dante, the seated thinker. This is how Rodin saw the world: a place of sorrow and mourning – where, if you read your Dante, you will know that it is a place of delight. It does demand that you come to terms with the nature of these delights, for they are not material delights. Well, okay, so they are. That’s the paradox, isn’t it? How can we tell what is eternal in our material world, and what not?
The trouble with the eternal is that it has that element of, well, boredom to it. Those who need things to change around them to keep their mind engaged and entertained will not be doing it for themselves, will they? Like the commuters glued to their smartphones, to find the thirty second wait for the doors to open to be an eternity of waiting where they can do nothing and nothing is happening to entertain their mind…
Are you with me here?
Those who need entertaining will not be entertaining themselves. Those who can entertain themselves will be doing so using their own creative, imaginative abilities. And Rodin certainly took part in this, or he’d not be the world renown sculptor. Would he?
The trouble is that in creating, you create out of your own soul – and as Paul Klee said, “The more horrifying the world, the more abstract becomes the art. A happy world, on the other hand, brings forth an art of the here and now.” Rodin, for all his depiction of the here and now, stands more towards the abstract. Further reasoning along these lines is for the other posts to describe. Suffice it to say that for all Rodin’s greatness in art, he could not find solace in it. Like Vincent van Gogh, his art did not satisfy.
I’ll put it the other way around: if it could, Rodin wouldn’t have chosen the subjects he did, nor would he have depicted them in the manner he chose to.
In my last post, I made note of Jean d’Aire’s feet. I did so because of what I saw in the feet of The Thinker. The feet of Jean d’Aire are natural and doing what feet should: being stood on. Now feet, as you know, are not gifted thinkers; however, without feet, it would be difficult for us to think because we’d be constantly falling over and having to pick ourselves up. Feet are as important to thinking as thinking is itself: but they are only able to do this when we aren’t aware of our need to stand on them.
We don’t think “I need to place my foot” – no! We just walk to the kitchen to put the kettle on. Which is the secret of the will: we aren’t aware of it. We’re only aware of it when it goes wrong. Hence the falling over bit: if we did fall over, as we occasionally do, we become aware of our need to stand. Standing, however, is so commonplace that we forget we’re doing it.
So why didn’t Rodin depict someone standing erect? Well, of course, he did in Jean d’Aire; only this was a rarity. Rodin’s usual stance is one of unhappiness. There can be no other word for it: a happy person, even when seated, leans back, opening themselves to what is around them and is relaxed. Here, the human has closed all that in, and worse, is concentrating on his feet.
I say this because we only clench our toes when we are aware of them, when we clench them. When we’re not aware of them, the toes do what toes do. That is to say, they help us stand up and do so without our needing to tell them how to do it. That is the secret of our limbs: they know what to do, and all we need to to let them be natural is to leave them alone.
But life’s not so simple, is it? We do want to run around, dig the garden – or nerp ourselves in front of our smartphone…
Look at the tensed muscles in the right leg of The Thinker; does that suggest repose?
No. Nor does it suggest happiness. That arises out of fear. Unhappiness is what we imagine if we cannot span the gap between our own inner world and the reality that surrounds us.
What of the hands? Of all our limbs, these are the most expressive – yet they can only express themselves if we want to. There is no requirement for us to do so, but the more expressive a person is, the happier they are. It’s how humans are.
So here we have The Thinker with his right hand listlessly dangled over his right knee and the other supporting his despondent chin. We are not animals who need four feet if they are to stand: humans need but two. That leaves us our hands to do things – like create sculpture. But we cannot do this unless we are standing, or sitting. We can only create when we’ve forgotten our feet and have thought it worthwhile to engage our hands in doing something. If we have not thought of anything, there is nothing to consider worth doing – and if felt worthless, remains undone.
Is The Thinker Thinking?
Well, we have the answer already, don’t we. How can The Thinker be thinking when he’s concentrating on his toes and the spasms in his legs? We can only think when we’re unaware of our limbs – well, we can perceive them. I can feel my feet on the wooden floorboards, but this does not hinder my ability to concentrate of what Rodin was doing. That is why Rodin depicted his ability to think, feel and do – the three figures standing on the architrave – are so mournful. The problem for Rodin is that this is all he knew, and in it being all he knew, could know no other. For him to think was to clench his toes at the realization of what the world was becoming.
If humanity is to have a future, it will be in a relaxed acceptance of what we have brought about. That is reality, and it makes the world more unhappy, more fearful because of what we have done because we were fearful.
Because clenching our toes in despair helps nobody. It is our choice, and a choice that must be made in the face of a reality that today is far more terrible than Rodin could ever imagine.