Rodin’s The Walking Man always appealed to you because of that pigeon-toed stride. He has no thumbs at all, nor hands, nor arms, nor head, nor genitalia. Body parts deliberately left out. No distracting expressions of face or hands. Just a fragment: torso mounted on legs. The energy is there all the same. The features of his naked torso look as unmade as a bed. His trailing left leg seems to shove off the ground with conviction. The man is frozen in bronze, yet time does not freeze for you, the spectator. It is as if you recall the last step and anticipate the next. You focus on the action, the transition, the walking man’s purpose.
Another day at the museum: There you are, slaloming about the museum’s sculpture garden, with its pond and waterfall, its fragrant lavender hedges, its Chinese Flame trees, banana shrubs, and walls of Heavenly Bamboo. Maybe because you’re there for your own sake — because no one’s shepherding you about the place, telling you where to look and how to interpret what you’re seeing — you take one step closer to that life-sized crowd of sadsack-looking figures: The Burghers of Calais. One step closer to a grouping of sculptures you’ve seen every other year since the fifth grade. Thirty years later and the sadsack figures have something to say to you. One sadsack figure in particular. It’s his hand, his right hand, and its thumb.
“His right arm is raised, bent, vacillating. His hand opens in the air as though to let something go, as one gives freedom to a bird. This gesture is symbolic of a departure from all uncertainty, from a happiness that has not yet been, from a grief that will now wait in vain … a monument for all who have died young.”
RAINER MARIA RILKE, 1903
One of Auguste Rodin’s most famous sculptures, The Burghers of Calais honors the heroism of six prominent citizens of Calais, France, during an English siege in 1347. Siege-induced starvation forced the city to parley for surrender. England’s King Edward III offered to spare the Calaisian people if any six of its top leaders would surrender themselves. He demanded these men walk out the gates, dressed in nothing but sackcloth, heads and feet bare, ropes about their necks, carrying keys to the city and castle.
Among the six were brothers, Pierre and Jacques de Wissant. It is Rodin’s portrayal of Pierre de Wissant that speaks to you. His large thumb, representative of his will, curves outward, away from the fingers. It is a sinuous, muscular digit, its curve revealing a gentle flexibility, a give. The young man stands, twisted, his shoulders and hips moving in slightly different directions. His head turns down and away from the direction of his stride. The expression on his face is a resigned good-bye.