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26 June, 2013
Surprise, Surprise!
Perhaps one of the most uneasy moments in human relations comes when an art patron stands face to face for the first time with the tangible results of his putting his utter faith and trust in an artist by granting him a commission to create a work of art. If ever there was a "moment of truth" this is it. Whether it is a portrait, a religious work, a sculpture, or even an architectural effort, it's a tense, trying moment for artist and patron alike. The artist watches the patron's face acutely. His client is just as acutely aware of his being placed under a microscope and tries his best to conceal any negative reaction, and as well, digs deep into his or her vocabulary and store of tact in trying to express any negative reactions as gently and constructively as possible. Fortunately, in most cases, the client is favourably impressed with the artist's work, often, in fact, overwhelmed with emotion (and perhaps relief) that the joint project appears highly satisfactory.

But there are surprises. Art history, in fact, is full of them. Edgar Kaufmann Sr. remarked on first seeing Frank Lloyd Wright's plans for Falling Water: "I asked for a house by the waterfall, I didn't know you were going to build it on TOP of the damn thing." President Lyndon B. Johnson, after leaving office, and in seeing his presidential portrait for the first time remarked: "It's the ugliest thing I ever saw." Pope Julius II's original commission for the Sistine Ceiling was nothing like what Michelangelo eventually delivered (and several years late at that). Often, as with Michelangelo, what the artist comes up with is something very much more than his client's original, limited vision. This was certainly the case with the sculptor, Auguste Rodin, in 1897 when he delivered is famous bronze monument to the writer Balzac. He depicted the gnarled writer shrouded in his bath robe, attempting to convey to the viewer the great harshness and intensity of the moment of artistic creativity. It must have been a feeling the sculptor knew well. The work was rejected outright even though it was a landmark masterpiece, inching the medium to the very brink of abstract, contemporary sculpture. It was 42 years before the monument was finally installed at the Paris intersection Rodin had intended.

A decade earlier, a similar reaction had dogged Rodin's equally famous bronze sculpture group, The Burghers of Calais. Commissioned in 1884 as a memorial to six historic men who had offered their lives to English King Edward III in exchange for his sparing their city from destruction, the city officials had intended something a bit more grandiose and heroic, elevated above the street on the traditional pedestal as a patriotic symbol for the citizens of their city to "look up to." What they got was a ragtag band of haggard, ugly old men in sackcloth with halters around their necks, heavy folds and masses, twisted gestures, taut limbs and faces torn with tragedy and resignation. It was heroic, perhaps, but certainly not in the sense the then-current Burghers of Calais had intended. And to add insult to injury, Rodin insisted the group be placed at street level where viewers could confront their tragic forebears face to face, one-on-one. Reluctantly, the city fathers accepted Rodin's dramatic departure from traditional monumental sculpture, but it wasn't until 1924 that his original vision was finally implemented. The result today, is that the group is not just moving, but emotionally wrenching, just as Rodin had intended.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
25 July 1999

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