Coming into Consciousness, Rodin’s “Danaide”

Rodins_Danaide

 

Deconstruction

Above is a picture of “The Danaide” by Auguste Rodin, a French sculpture alive during the turn of the century, between 1840 and 1917. Although Rodin is more famous for “The Thinker” and “The Kiss,” I chose to write about “The Danaide” because it represents Rodin’s more impressionistic side.

When you walk around the gardens of the Rodin Museum in Paris, you’re surrounded by marble sculptures that seem to emerge slowly from the rock. At first glance, everything looks rough and unfinished, but when you look closer you will see a shoulder or an arm or a breast emerging from the stone, as if there is a person trapped inside the rock who is trying to pull himself or herself into being. These aren’t unfinished projects that Rodin started then abandoned, these are the complete pieces. What he was doing was similar to the French impressionist painters of the time, which was turning away from realism and trying to capture a sense of movement and life. With Rodin’s sculptures there is the added sense of something emerging from the unconscious into the conscious.

Since Rodin liked mythology, “The Danaide” is supposed to represent one of the daughters of Danaus, who were condemned to spend an eternity trying to fill a basin with a hole in the bottom with water for the crime of killing her husband on her wedding night. In this sculpture, we are supposedly seeing the Danaide in a moment of despair when she realizes the futility of her burden.

However, the mythology of this piece isn’t the technique that interests me, but the technique of a sculpted marble figure emerging from the stone. When you see this piece in person, it’s as if you’re watching a woman pulling herself out of the stone. There is an emotion you can pick up, without knowing the mythology: all of this is built by the model’s awkward and submissive pose, the joints and muscles straining in her back, the smooth line of her hip contrasted with the rough heaviness of the stone. The points of connection between stone and figure are really interesting. In these pictures of “La Danaide,” you really only see it in her hair, but if you walk around the sculpture you will see how her body blends into the rock in places, particularly around her face and her hips and her knees. She never fully emerges, and the transition places all create a gesture towards the figure, but it’s clear that it is still raw marble. The marble she is coming out of is a key part of what creates the emotion because the figure herself is so lifelike, but the stone reminds you that this is not a woman, but a sculpture that began as a chunk of marble, and that this sculpture began as someone’s idea.

It’s even interesting to note the compositional proportions: there is more mass dedicated to the rough marble than there is dedicated to the woman.

If we are going to assign adjectives, than the associations I have when I look at the rough marble are those of the unconscious, turmoil, raw emotion, dream-state, immovability, heaviness, impermeability, blankness, potential. When I look at the figure of the woman, I see beauty, despair, submissiveness, motion, and the expression of an idea that was only hinted at in the raw marble.

What I see in “The Danaide” sculpture is movement from impressionism to realism. Like watching the process of emergence, an idea solidifying. In writing, you might mimic this technique to show someone regaining consciousness, awaking from a dream, phasing into reality, or putting together an idea from unconscious stimulus.

 

Instructions:

First, figure out what the mood of the unconscious state was supposed to be, since this would determine the value of the language. Since you’re trying to create a vague impression at this point, language is key because it has to carry the mood for everything.

Next, figure out the setting and point of view. Create a list of sensory details and images that support the emotional state you are trying to achieve.

In writing the impressionistic portion, use mostly sentence fragments and dependent clauses since you want the images, but you don’t necessarily want it to make any logical sense.

For the transition to reality, change the sentence structure so that the sentences show more coherence. Make the detail descriptions more realistic.

Then, write the realistic scene starting with a realistic description or explanation to orient the reader. Write the rest of the scene with the realistic details like normal.

Note the proportions: the impressionistic state should take up as much or more space as the realistic state.

 

Example:

Character: Warren Gruen

Setting and situation: Waking up in a hospital after being beaten.

Mood: Disorientation, physical pain

He tried opening his eyes, but the weight of the darkness pressed down on him, sucked him under. The darkness, the dark forest, dark green roots wrapping around his chest, pressing down, squeezing the breath out of him. He felt like he was falling and the ground came up to meet him. Boots emerging from the darkness. Boots hard like stone. He was being stoned. He tried to curl up, to protect himself, but his limbs were heavy, sluggish as if buried under sand, the heaviness trapping him so that all he could do was wiggle his fingers, leaving his body wide open. Boots. Rocks. Tree branches. The sound of ringing in his ears. A hard blow to the head, to the kidneys, to the back, to the stomach. Pain like snakebites all over. No where to turn. No protection. Time passed. In the darkness, he saw trees leaning over him. Trees that turned to angry faces then back to trees. Trees that turned to concerned faces. Helena’s face. Her mouth, her lips. Her blonde hair, a curl brushing against his face. Hair so light it blurred into a sun, a flashlight shining into his eyes while someone held his lids open. Eyes closed. The heaviness returned. Time passed. The sensation of being carried, wheeled somewhere dark and quiet. More time passed. He slept.

He became aware of the sensation of fog lifting from his mind. His body felt buoyant but immobilized. His arms and legs hurt when he tried to lift them. The throbbed. With his eyes closed, he ran through his body from toe to head, checking, assessing. Could he wiggle his toes? Yes, he could wiggle his does. Could he move his legs? His right one but not his left. His pelvis? A hard clenching in his stomach and in his back. He left his torso alone for now. His fingers? All ten digits wiggled and accounted for. His arms? His right arm was bent and wrapped to his chest; it throbbed when he tried to move it. He let it lay. The left arm had things attached to it that hurt when he moved. He lay still. Then he opened his eyes. Above him was a row of white ceiling tiles. To his right, a window, an IV drip, a heart monitor with the sound turned down. He was in a hospital.

About E.S.O. Martin

E.S.O. Martin is a writer, a California native, and a graduate of SF State's Creative Writing MFA program.
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