The Gates of Hell

July 7, 2008 — So I went to the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, PA, and then didn’t go into the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, PA. It’s not often that I get to write a sentence where the prepositions are the most important part.

It wasn’t because of the cost. Admission to the museum is cheap and technically only “suggested.” Nor was the place uninviting. It’s a pretty enough spot that I wanted to ask it out. The museum also had well-marked doors and I was sober, so finding the entrance wasn’t the problem, either. No, the whole reason I didn’t enter the Rodin Museum is because they put everything I came there to see outside. So I dropped by, marveled at what I came to see, skipped going in (three words that can be read in a much more comic fashion), and then just used the time gained to see other things in the city. Like this. And this.

Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum was established in 1929 because a local rich collector died, which is, of course, why most museums exist. In this case, Mr. Thurston Howell III’s obsession tended to the works of Auguste Rodin, a French sculptor from the turn of the 19th century (late 1800s and early 1900s...I never know if that phrase means turning into that century or away from).

As to Rodin, you might not be into sculpture, per se, but you’ve definitely seen Rodin’s most famous work, The Thinker. It’s one of those works, much like Munch’s The Scream and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, that for some reason we huddled masses of non-artistic laymen just get, and as a result it’s slipped into the pop culture shared drive. Heck, if I’m remembering my past correctly, I think I was introduced to the sculpture by a Warner Brothers cartoon.

Anyway, the paragraph segue here is that the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia has a bronze cast of Rodin’s The Thinker, and that specific piece was my entire motivation for checking out the Rodin Museum in the first place. So I saw it. It’s a little hard to miss, honestly. Like I mentioned, it’s right in front of the museum, but it also helps that the seven-foot-tall sculpture is set up on a seven-foot tall pedestal at a busy intersection.

I made my obeisance, articulated a few hullabaloos of awe at it, checked to see if it was anatomically correct, and then moved on. And if this sounds like a perfunctory treatment of one of the world’s most iconic sculptures, you’re right. I mean, The Thinker is an astounding work worth way more than the piddly respect I could show it by dedicating an entire article to it (although the practical aspects of writing in detail about a single sitting naked man would have to be worked out), but you’ll be glad that I glossed over it when I get to the titular bit of this article.

While planning my trip to the Rodin Museum to see The Thinker, I discovered The Gates of Hell. If I had every candle-blown birthday wish in my life back, I’d wish for that statement to be a literal one, but nevertheless, the actual hairless truth is still pretty daggone cool.

Anyway, besides being dubbed with one of the most dramatic phrases in the English language, Rodin’s The Gates of Hell is a piece that completely overshadows The Thinker both literally and figuratively. This massive 21- by 13-foot bronze sculpture is, to be necessarily redundant, gigantic and is aswarm with writhing, naked bodies that will make you go home and look at the pitifully painted boring wood of your own front portal in disdain.

Originally commissioned to be the entrance to an art museum in Paris that was never built, The Gates of Hell ended up being more or less a life’s work for Rodin, as he worked on the piece from 1880 until slightly after his death in 1917. Read that sentence again. The enormous piece was based more than partially on Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. It had to be, you see, because, next to the Lord of the Flies himself, Dante pretty much copyrighted Hell with his 13th century poem.

Interestingly enough, many of Rodin’s most famous sculptures were derived directly from smaller reliefs located within The Gates of Hell, including The Thinker, which can be found perched right at the top of the human matrix of this massive work and is meant to depict Dante himself mentally gestating the poem that invented the Italian language.

The museum set the sculpture up against a wall overlooking a garden courtyard area directly behind the naked back of the pedestal’d The Thinker. My first view of it is from afar, across this courtyard, and I was immediately buffeted both by its enormous size and the beautifully textured appearance of the piece, which grew even more textured the closer I got until my eyes were close to being poked out by every exquisitely crafted arm and leg extended in suffering. Made me want to run my fingers all over it, or at least grate cheese on it. That’s right. It made me want to shred cheese on the bodies of the writhing damned.

It also towered over me to the point that I just wanted it to fall on me. To look up at it almost feels like worship, similar to the way a small child looks up at a parent or an explorer up at a mountain. In fact, to be awed to that level by something natural is to be expected, but when an artist can cause that same feeling to be replicated over something artificial, that says something amazing about both the artist and the work. Anyway, all that flowery stuff just to say it’s big.

You have to pass right by the work to enter the museum itself, so I’m sure I’m not the first slug that got transcendentally stuck at those gates and couldn’t pass beyond them. I just stood there waiting for it to start moving like that Ex Nihilo painting behind Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate before the moviemakers got sued by the original artist and had to digitally alter every frame of the film that the work appeared in.

Which brings me to the moral of this story, not logically, of course, but just because that last paragraph cued me in to the fact that I’m getting mentally tipsy to the point of embarrassing myself in writing this article. The moral is don’t be an idiot like me. Go into the Rodin Museum.

You see, in doing the usual pantomime of research that I do for an OTIS article, I found a ton of amazing Rodin sculptures that I now want to see and which are located inside the museum, including, Balzac, The Burghers of Calais, and Head of Saint John the Baptist on a Platter. In addition, you should enter just to see his choice of titles for his works, many of which, like The Gates of Hell, sound an awfully lot like Hammer Horror films: The Hand from the Tomb, Possession, Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose, and The Hand of the Devil Holding Woman.

That said, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re not going to get better than The Gates of Hell, but that’s probably true of your eternal destiny anyway. See you there.