Barnes Foundation hosts reboot of August Rodin

Over his lifetime, the sculptor Auguste Rodin created many, many sculptures of the human form — and exactly one book. It was about buildings.

“The Cathedrals of France” (1914) is not an architectural treatise but a rhapsodic ode to France’s famous Gothic churches, which he called “vast poems.”

In 2014, the Musée Rodin in Paris set about to republish “The Cathedrals of France.” It approached artist Anselm Kiefer to make work inspired by Rodin. Kiefer has been a lifelong admirer of the sculptor who died 100 years ago.

“He’s not a sculptor in the normal sense. He was an iconoclast,” said Kiefer “He always destroyed his sculpture. He would take an arm away, or a hand, and put it somewhere else. Always a fluctuation of elements.”

Kiefer — an iconoclast himself — is a renowned German artist now based in Paris. His work is often dark, sometimes sublime in a subtly horrific way. He found a kindred soul in Rodin.

The work he made for the Musée Rodin has come to the Barnes Foundation for a temporary exhibition, “Kiefer Rodin.”

“The book by Rodin, ‘The Cathedrals of France,’ is a book about architecture, the passage of time, and destruction. These themes are at the heart of Kiefer’s work,” said Sylvie Patry who, until recently, was a curator at the Barnes. Instrumental in bringing Kiefer to Philadelphia, Patry is now director of collections at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Kiefer started with a series of watercolors on plaster sheets, rough sketches of nude women set against Gothic architectural elements. They are bound into a series of books so thick and heavy they resemble sculptures themselves.

He didn’t stop there. Stretching out his Rodin inspiration, he made a series of monumental-sized paintings of apocalyptic skylines burdened with cracking paint, peeling splashes of molten metal, and what appear to be toppling buildings.

The paintings are adorned with sculptural elements, most prominently welded double-helix DNA strands. The most recent painting — never before seen until it appeared at the Barnes — has two of them in parallel, labeled A.R. and A.K., the initials of Rodin and Kiefer.

Kiefer likes to think of the DNA strands as Jacob’s ladders, the biblical symbol connecting earth with heaven.

The final room of the gallery has a display of glass vitrines with sculptural elements, depicting a rack of shirts hardened into stone, a massive iron scale weighing an egg-shaped rock, and what looks to be decaying plants.

“I wouldn’t say decay. I would say beginning,” said Kiefer. “That’s more interesting, because that starts something new.”

“Kiefer Rodin” will be at the Barnes until March. It will be the only U.S. venue for the exhibition.

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