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Rodin: Real art, but not real anatomy

Sculptor Auguste Rodin was one of the great observers of human anatomy, and he did so not to advance scientific knowledge but to better exploit the human body's innate expressiveness. Out of stone and clay, he prised riveting animation of the human body in form and spirit, inspiring generations of artists and admirers. His skill was such that some in his day accused him of using molds made directly from his models.

Today Stanford's Cantor Arts Center opens a 132-work show that displays Rodin's clear influence on artists like Georgia O'Keeffe, Gaston Lachaise, Edward Steichen, Gutzon Borglum, Malvina Hoffman, Charles Demuth and Man Ray. The show includes the work of 42 artists, loaned by museums, foundations and private collections.

If you visit, don't expect to see absolute anatomical accuracy. Rodin didn't hesitate to manipulate real proportions and musculoskeletal capabilities to achieve his artistic goals. And we know this definitively because a Stanford medical student and two Stanford physicians took the time to take a very scientific look at Rodin's work.

In 1986, Joanne Brumbaugh was a medical here and considering a career as a hand surgeon. Robert Chase, MD, was a well-established hand surgeon at Stanford with a passion for Rodin's work. He was in search of someone to prove that Rodin's work was original and not just lifted from live body casts. He had just the raw material, with the late art professor Albert Elsen, PhD, steadily building an unparalleled collection of Rodin's work through the philanthropist B. Gerald Cantor. Dozens of Rodin sculptures began to populate what is now the Cantor Arts Center.

Physicians, Chase told me this week, "perhaps appreciate certain art more because of our knowledge of the human anatomy. It's astounding to us to see in some artwork evidence in the model used by the artist of specific disorders and diseases. We can also see when there are mistakes."

Brumbaugh went to work, and there were moments, she said, in an interview with me last week, when her awe of the situation hit her. "There I was," she said, "with my tape measure from eighth grade home economics class, measuring the length of bronze legs."

One important discovery: Rodin had lengthened the trailing left leg of one of his most famous sculptures, "The Walking Man," until it was significantly longer than the right. According to her study, Rodin had emphasized the man's calf muscles "to such a great extent that the man would have to be standing on his toes to get this much contraction in his muscles." She also posited that, if the man were human, he would fall over.

Several years later, orthopaedic surgeon Amy Ladd, MD, arrived at Stanford to become chief of the Children's Hand Clinic at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. She was fresh from a month in Paris with two world-renowned hand surgeons, one of whom was an expert on Rodin. "I had the grand opportunity of several visits with him at the Rodin museum," Ladd told me. Chase became her mentor at Stanford, and soon arranged for her and the late Stanford anatomy professor Eric Glasgow, MD, a private walking tour of Rodin work with Elsen.

Elsen, it seemed, already knew that Rodin would sometimes twist a sculptural cast of the body or body part into anatomically impossible position to serve his artistic purpose. But Ladd noticed something else, again in "The Walking Man," again in its left leg. With her observation in mind, Elsen later wrote, in his complete catalog of Rodin's work: "From the kneecap down the leg is driving off the foot, but from the kneecap up the weight is being transferred to the right leg and the left buttock area is soft." It was a way of making movement visible in a static object, anatomy be damned, and it came strictly from Rodin - not any model.

Brumbaugh decided to become a radiologist; Chase, now emeritus, created a very popular School of Medicine course on Renaissance art and anatomy, including a list of documented instances of artists of the era who did dissections to better portray the body. And Ladd, who also now practices at Stanford Hospital & Clinics, still teaches a class in the anatomy of movement.

Photo courtesy of Cantor Arts Center

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