I circle Auguste Rodin‘s sculpture of Jean d’Aire from the Burghers of Calais. It stands in the sculpture garden outside the Cantor Museum of Art at Stanford. I go to look closely at his thumbs. His body position reminds me of a kouros statue, except his mood is very different. Instead of demonstrating the triumphant, athletic, young Classical Greek ideal, Jean d’Aire appears resigned and world-weary. His hands are angular and rough-looking.

In 1347, according to the fourteenth-century Chronicles of Jean Froissart, King Edward III of England laid siege to the French town of Calais. After eleven months, with the people desperately short of food and water, six of the leading citizens, or burghers, of Calais offered themselves as hostages to Edward in exchange for the freedom of their city. The king agreed, ordering them to dress in plain garments, wear nooses around their necks, and journey to his camp bearing the keys to the city. Although the king intended to kill the burghers, his pregnant wife, Philippa, persuaded him to spare them, believing that their deaths would be a bad omen for her unborn child.

“Those who have attempted to interpret Rodin’s sculpture have rightly applied such labels as ‘realistic,’ ‘romantic,’ ‘impressionistic,’ ‘symbolic,’ and ‘expressionistic.’ Jean d’Aire is all of these things – and much more. Jean d’Aire is convincingly observed, he’s filled with romantic passion, he’s rendered impressionistically (the rough, slashed surface produces an ever-changing series of visual moments as one walks around the figure), he expresses profound psychological insight, and he hints at an underlying symbolic dimension that can never be adequately verbalized.”   –Professor Larry Ligo, on Davidson College’s Jean d’Aire


On the Stanford campus, just outside the Cantor Arts Center, a spider spins her web from Jean d’Aire‘s right thumb to his naked right thigh. Another industrious arachnid crawls about on the figure’s left butt cheek. The wind is strong and sporadic. I wonder about the two spiders’ choices. The thumb turned inwards toward the resigned body seems a safer bet than the exposed buttock. I imagine a gust tossing the butt spider on a filament into the air, whipping him about, a tiny frame, spar, and spine on a silken kite string. The thumb spider, however, tucks into the eddy of the fingers, or of the groin. Hunkering until the gust abates, she then expresses her own spun dimensions.







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