The Gates of Hell on which Auguste Rodin worked for two decades,is presently among twenty bronzes outside in the Sculpture Garden of the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Designed by Robert Mittelstadt, the concept seeks to evoke the spirit of Rodin’s Parisien garden, and it does balance the somewhat garish taste that sentimental Americans had for bronzing baby shoes, which was the closest many of them got to the notion of bronze sculpture as an art form. The Gates of Hell is an apt metaphor for the inferno, purgatory and ultimate redemption of the great European artists who caught the fever for bronze sculpture.
In the year of Rodin’s birth, 1840, one Matthew Cotes Wyatt began work on a huge bronze of the Duke of Wellington. It measured thirty feet in height and twenty-six from the nose to the tail of the Dukes’s mount, and each of the horse’s ears was two feet four inches long. It was cast in eight pieces, having required a hundred tons of plaster for the molds, and stood in London at Hyde Park Corner until it was banished by popular insistence to a distant suburb.
Sculpture, as a profession, had become a journeyman’s job, but as a creative act it appeal was a powerful as ever. And so it was that Gericault, whose drawing has a muscularity the presupposes sculpture, took to making small models. Daumier, a supreme draftsman who was unable to succeed as a painter, produced caricature sculpture which is among his greatest work. And Degas, who was the greatest amateur sculptor of all time, joined them in helping to set the stage for the revival of sculpture in bronze.
They were not themselves bronze sculptors; their work was made for the most part casually, and cast posthumously. They were men whose fingers were like those of the Dactyls, and who projected their drawings into solid form. They were modelers who built up their figures from clay or wax, and not carvers who cut their images out of stone.
Thus they were at the opposite extreme from the Greeks and from Michelangelo, who had said, ” By sculpture, I understand an art which operates by taking away superfluous material. ” Ultimately, this is the difference between the stone sculptor and the bronze worker throughout history, despite the Greeks. It separates Michelangelo from Leonardo da Vinci, who despised stone carvers and so. During the nineteenth-century it was the modeler who triumphed, in the genius of Rodin.
His bronzes were the work of his own hands, but his marbles were carved by Italian artisans under his supervision. This was in contrast to the last great forerunner, Bernini, who worked in marble and was copied in bronze. There is an important difference in handling which is characteristic of Rodin and which gives his work a surface unlike that of the bronze sculpture of the past. Benvenuto Cellini and every one of his predecessors began with a clay core, which was then covered with wax. This wax coating received the greatest attention from the sculptor before the cast was made, and determined the surface. But Rodin’s clay model was cast in plaster, a wax impression of it was taken from a negative mold by professionals, and the result was then cast, so that it is the clay model which is reproduced and not the sculptor’s own wax. The bronzes that owe so much to Rodin’s influence; those of Renoir, Matisse, and, in his early years, Picasso, are also reproductions of clay models.
Now clay is a sticky substance close to paint and sympathetic to painters, but it is a substance far removed from the metal.
Metal long ago became the province of the foundryman, who has no pretentions to sculpture, and though the sculptor today, if he is worthy of the name, knows his processes, he rarely casts his own work. Rodin, as a sculptor, in his comprehension of form and power of expression, was to the nineteenth century what Donatello was to the fifteenth, but as a metal worker he was nowhere; and since much of his work has been frequently and poorly repeated by subsequent generations of foundrymen, it is rare to see in a Rodin bronze the potential splendor of the material itself.
The twentieth century, which produced a vital and impressive revival of the art of sculpture in bronze, had als
oduced an uneasy dichotomy between pictorial, or modeled, and sculptural, or carved, tendencies. For example, it would be fair to say that Giacometti is a painter-sculptor as opposed to Brancusi whose bronzes reflect his stone carving.
Marino Marini’s bronzes are those of a wood carver and Maillol’s stone carvings are the work of a modeler.
Henry Moore, beginning as a stone carver, had perhaps more than any other sculptor mastered the differences in the mediums. This resulted from his invariable practice of working the wax itself, with enormous care, before it is cast. His wax when it is ”lost” left behind it the true impression of his hand; no journeyman or plaster molder comes between the sculptor and the object.
What remains unchanged is the process, the wax which made and lost the mythical wings of Icarus. Every culture that has produced bronze sculpture, from China to Africa, from Ninevah to New York, has employed the lost wax process, no matter how widely separate in place or time. Every age since the Copper Age has in some degree depended on it.
Bronze is a base metal so common that you handle it every time you touch the small change in your pocket, yet to touch it, is to touch the stuff of history, for it has shaped much of history. The eyes of two hundred generations have looked tirelessly upon bronze and it has patiently responded to tireless labor.
It has been burnished, gilded, inlaid, enameled, varnished and patinated, yet nothing can make it live like the touch of the human hand. But perhaps time is its greatest artificer, for though it has destroyed much bronze, it has also weathered it to a beauty of surface which only time can achieve.
Taking the unwearying metal,time turnns it to the silver-green of malachite and the dazzling blue of azurite and the warm earth color of native copper, which is where it began when first the earth uncovered it to man.
”Hmm. I just did a little digging. In 1993, The NY Times took a brief look at the baby shoe bronzing industry, which began as a toxic, mom&pop, cut&run business that was consolidated in the 1950′s into a single company, the Bron-Shoe Corporation in Columbus, Ohio.
Bron-Shoe was founded in the 1940′s by the industry pioneer Violet Shinbach. The company sells the same bronzing service under different names and prices, depending on the distribution channel: The American Bronzing Co. for direct mail; Bron-Shoe for Striderite and department stores; Senti-Metal for sit-down appointments and consultation; Royal Bronzing for catalogues. In 1993, they reported bronzing 400,000 shoes a year, which translated in to about $10 million revenue. The next biggest competitor mentioned in the article was doing barely 5,000 shoes.
Though the company tried, baby shoe bronzing flopped in Europe. It only continues to exist as a weird artifact of Vi Shinbach’s crazy depression-era inspiration and post-war gumption. Last year, Bron-Shoe reportedly bronzed just 200,000 shoes, down 50% in 14 years. Some day, maybe the entire Columbus copper electroplating industry, all 85 of them, may have to move into a different line of work.”