In Auguste Rodin’s famous work, The Three Shades, three young men stand in a semi-circle, their heads bowed and fingers pointing towards a central point on the ground. The men are naked, posed classically, with arms extended and legs bent slightly forward. Despite the grace of their posture, the men appear brusque and their figures somewhat raw, which is exactly how Rodin — a sculptor often called the Michelangelo of the nineteenth century — intended them to look.
Rodin is known not only for his technical expertise, but for his intimate and open approach to neoclassical portraiture. Rodin originally sculpted The Three Shades to adorn the top of his architectural masterwork, Gates of Hell. From their perch on the Gates, the three men point to the chilling, if familiar, inscription, “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.” The Three Shades were later cast as their own piece, dissociated from their original purpose. They remain haunting, nonetheless.
Beginning this October, a cast of The Three Shades will be on display in the Dixon Gallery and Gardens’ exterior courtyard. It will be shown as a part of a comprehensive show of Auguste Rodin’s work drawn from the collection of longtime Dixon patrons Iris and B. Gerald Cantor, an exhibition being held in memory of former Dixon director James Buchanan. The exhibition, called “Rodin: The Human Experience,” will echo and add to an original 1988 Dixon exhibition of Rodin’s works that shaped the then-young museum’s future.
Kevin Sharp, the Dixon’s current director, explains: “When we had the opportunity to revisit that moment in our history this fall with a Rodin show, we of course jumped at the chance.” The October 2014 exhibition will be the inaugural show of a three-year-long tour of the Cantors’ formidable collection, an undertaking that exhibition organizers hope will inspire interest in Rodin’s life and works, and create opportunities for learning about the renowned sculptor.
Born in Paris in 1840, Auguste Rodin had a long and successful career that spanned well over half a century, from the 1860s until his death in 1916. Unlike many of the artistic geniuses of that period, his work received ample attention during his lifetime. Rodin died knowing there would be a museum built in Paris in his honor (the Musée Rodin opened in 1919).
As a young man, Rodin trained as an architectural sculptor before moving onto a celebrated career of commissions and portraits. Some of his best-know works are portraits of his literary peers — among them, Honore de Balzac and Victor Hugo. He ran his studio expediently, hiring assistants to help cast his sculptures in plaster, bronze, clay and marble, and at various sizes. The sculptor was hardly shy about exhibiting and selling his work, but this ethic did not affect the quality of his production. “My principle,” Rodin once said, “is to imitate not only form but life.”
A year before Rodin’s death, in 1916, the man who was to become Rodin’s most prominent American collector was born in the Bronx. B. Gerald Cantor (or Bernie, as he was to all his friends) grew up in a glorious New York where you could ride the train for a nickel to see Jascha Heifetz perform at Carnegie Hall, and where the most exciting event was the 1939 World’s Fair. Cantor served in the army during World War II and afterwards entered the world of finance, where he found great success. His firm, Cantor Fitzgerald, pioneered screen brokerage — an early, computerized form of trading government bonds. In 1977, he married his wife Iris and together they founded the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation. (Alas, Cantor Fitzgerald today is best remembered as the firm that in 2001 occupied the top stories of One World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks; Mr. Cantor himself, perhaps fortuitously, had passed in 1996.)
Bernie Cantor’s lifelong obsession with the works of Rodin began one afternoon in 1945. Cantor was spending his lunch break at the Met when he happened upon a well-known Rodin sculpture, The Hand of God. He was viscerally affected by the piece and determined that he would one day own a Rodin. Cantor succeeded in this goal within the next year (purchasing his first small bronze cast of The Hand of God for $100) and went on to become one of the premier collectors of Rodins in the world. Cantor called Rodin’s work his “magnificent obsession.” He pursued this obsession not only through collecting, but through the tutelage of a Stanford professor named Albert Elsen, whose scholarship on Rodin still defines the field.
Judith Soebel, the current director of the Cantor Foundation, observes that “Bernie’s idea was that wonderful works of art should never be in a museum’s basement; they should always be seen and appreciated. [Iris and Bernie Cantor] took this large wonderful collection that they had and donated many things to museums all over the country. They also started putting together traveling exhibitions of Rodins.” For the last 30 years Rodin exhibitions have been traveling all over the world, but mostly in this country and in Canada. As of 2014, more than ten million people have seen these Cantor exhibitions.
In 1988, one of the first of these exhibitions came to Memphis and to the Dixon, thanks to the efforts of then-director John Buchanan. At that time, the Dixon Gallery and Gardens was still a young museum, barely a decade old. Buchanan had recently moved from a position at a small museum in Illinois, where he had befriended a major investor in Cantor Fitzgerald. Through this connection, Buchanan secured the 1988 Rodin show for the Dixon. Buchanan was convinced that a Rodin exhibition could further the fortunes of the museum significantly, but also that it would be a huge undertaking.
Buchanan was director at the Dixon from 1986 until 1994, when he left to run the Portland Art Museum for eleven years, before becoming director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 2006. He died of pancreatic cancer at 58, in 2012, but his widow, Lucy Buchanan, remembers that the Rodin show in Memphis was one of the high points of her husband’s career, adding, “I would say [it was] one of the biggest exhibitions that the Dixon had really done … the whole museum was turned over to the sculpture. The Cantors really went all out for the exhibition by loaning some extraordinary pieces. The Dixon doubled its membership. Attendance was large.”
Bernie and Iris Cantor were able to visit Memphis for the exhibition (on the condition, Lucy Buchanan recalls, that they would be able to tour Graceland), after which they began a long relationship with the museum, eventually donating several of their most important works to the Dixon collection.
Today’s Dixon director, Kevin Sharp, observes that the 1988 exhibition “was a very, very big moment in our history.” When asked what will be different about “Rodin: The Human Experience” and the 1988 event, Sharp replies that “the whole checklist is different.” Since the late 1980s, the Cantor Foundation has donated much of its collection to museums around the country, so the show’s Memphis reprisal has been a logistically complicated matter of bringing together far-flung works to one place. Once the work arrived at the museum, the Dixon’s curators and a team of bronze experts have worked alongside foundation director Judith Soebel, who has served as the exhibition’s Object Curator, to evaluate the work. After the exhibition completes its run in Memphis, it will travel to Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Virginia and Michigan.
Says Soebel, “Bernie’s obsession with Rodin and with reviving interest in him has now come full circle. This particular show coming back to the Dixon is a testament to the fact that people continue to want to see Rodin today.”