Art outdoors is art of a different sort. In the natural world, surrounded by trees and grasses, birds and bugs, weather and passersby, such sculptures live their own lives. They
Art outdoors is art of a different sort. In the natural world, surrounded by trees and grasses, birds and bugs, weather and passersby, such sculptures live their own lives. They don’t hide away in hushed rooms, waiting to be seen, or require an audience to come alive. Instead, they offer themselves freely and without transaction, a bit of magic within the larger wonder of God’s creation. In such a setting, to see art of true genius, of magnificence, is a rare kind of enchantment.
The first time I experienced this was as a child growing up in Pasadena, California. Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker sat outside our beloved Norton Simon Museum, up high, beside a twisted coral tree. Bent over, chin on fist, he thought with every muscle in his body as cars whizzed past, as Santa Ana winds brushed his skin, as the floats of our annual Rose Parade glided by. Perhaps he thought, How ephemeral, their beauty.
Rooted, sturdy, honest, visceral, he was the unmistakable creation of the French artist who was renowned as the founder of modern sculpture. Rodin was a renegade in his time, eschewing artifice, embracing the truth of what makes us human.
I live in North Carolina now, and that’s what I think of every time I see one particular self-contained beauty who stands along a path at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. She is Rodin’s Naked Muse, without Arms (Study for “The Monument to Whistler”). She is sorrowful and alone. She is not decorative — she’s real. Thankfully, she’s not without family. They are a short stroll away, along a serpentine path to a place of peace-filling enrichment to rival any house of worship.
Here, in the Rodin Garden, a private but airy courtyard spliced into the museum’s famed glass-walled building, sculptures of beauty and pathos surround a quietly trickling reflecting pool. Each is astonishing in its own way.
To visit these works one by one, and then to sit and take them all in — to feel their humanity within the gentle containment of their outdoor room, to let the whoosh of traffic fade into white noise, to consider the genius of the sculptor and the stories of his subjects, to embrace the simplicity of bronze and gravel, glass and water — is to leave the world behind.
Four of the remarkable 30 Rodins that represent one of the nation’s most beautiful repositories of this master’s works stand here; the rest are just inside the museum’s doors. Shepherded by NCMA’s former director Dr. Lawrence J. Wheeler, the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation donated all of these works of art to our state museum in 2009.
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The first and largest of the outdoor sculptures, The Three Shades, anchors the space and sobers the visitor. Depicting the souls of the damned at the gates of Hell as described in the Inferno of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, the Shades are three identical figures united in grief, turned in on themselves, heads bowed low, shoulders aligned. Rodin carved them to stand atop his monumental 180-figure Gates of Hell, from which they would be seen from far below; subsequently, they were cast as this independent, larger-than- life work, to be appreciated face-to-face as the flawed but human beings they are.
At the time Rodin sculpted these poor men, his peers chose very different subjects, preferring idealized depictions of the characters of myth and legend. Rodin preferred something rawer. Even his technique was turbulent — his modeling pocked, his subjects’ emotions unvarnished.
Even Rodin’s technique was turbulent — his modeling pocked, his subjects’ emotions unvarnished.
Take the noble Jean de Fiennes, Clothed, steps away from the Shades. In mid-stride, de Fiennes beseeches, arms outstretched. He is one of the six Burghers of Calais who, in 1347, offered themselves as hostages to King Edward III of England, the monarch who’d laid siege to their city during the Hundred Years’ War. De Fiennes is clear-eyed but despairing, brave and sorrowful. A maquette of Rodin’s entire celebrated monument to this man and his brethren, The Burghers of Calais, is inside.
On a recent visit, I went inside to see these tiny Burghers and made the unexpected acquaintance of a knowledgeable security guard. He engaged me in a long conversation about Rodin’s life and loves, his sculpting technique, and the casting process that created the bronzes in the Rodin Gallery. He even handed me a slip of paper he’d prepared for interested visitors with a website that explains the ancient and complicated lost-wax method.
Rodin had clearly gotten to him, too.
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Back in the garden, another tragic figure from the artist’s Gates of Hell stands nearby. Meditation with Arms depicts a young woman twisting her body to shield it from a fate of damnation. Her vulnerability is painful to behold, her grace inarguable.
And then, along the pool’s opposite side, a shift, a surprise: two contemporary works of an entirely different sort leap into this mythic mix. Disembodied bronze wings by South African artist Wim Botha appear, full-feathered in flight. Part of the Intercessions series created by the NCMA’s director, Dr. Valerie Hillings, to juxtapose works from different eras and mediums to spark intriguing “conversations,” Botha’s sharp, birdless wings soar on spiky scaffolds. Like their neighbors, they are made of bronze; unlike them, they are not of this world, not human or burdened or tragically fated. Instead, they depict an abstraction: forward motion, possibility, the triumph of will. What else could make bronze wings soar? To their desolate fellows in this sanctuary, these wings offer salvation.
And then, finally, one more Rodin: the Asia Minor mother goddess, Cybele. Substantial in scale, reclining, grounded, headless, she is a universal female form with power to spare, a celestial body of earthly proportions. Facing the Shades, her maternal presence underlines the promise of Botha’s wings and offers something gentler — forgiveness, acceptance, a lap to lie in.
Several empty, rounded plinths stand nearby, dotted around the pool and among the sculptures. When my children were small, they’d leap on these platforms to strike statuary poses. At quieter moments, visitors find them welcome spots for contemplation — a pause before exploring the 164-acre museum park and its more than 30 additional outdoor sculptures, like Thomas Sayre’s Gyre and Vollis Simpson’s Wind Machine. Some of the park’s sculptures look so at home in the land, so heartwarming and familiar, it’s as if they bloomed in place, like Henry Spencer Moore’s Knife Edge and Large Spindle Piece.
And there are more. None, perhaps, to rival the Rodins, but extraordinary, varied, and very much worth meeting. Make their acquaintance, and you’ll see: Our masterworks are in great company.
NC Museum of Art
2110 Blue Ridge Road
Raleigh, NC 27607
Commissioned for the opening of the Thomas Phifer-designed West Building in 2010, Ursula von Rydingsvard’s Ogromna is the Rodins’ nearest neighbor. A craggy tower of honeycombed cedar more than 20 feet tall, it appears to have spun itself out of the earth’s core to get a better look.
The latest addition to the NCMA’s Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park, Hoss Haley’s Union 060719 stands on a rise at the entrance, a proud and welcoming sentry. Haley created its lithe curves and linear heft out of Corten steel in his Spruce Pine studio in 2019.
The stainless-steel tree that greets all comers with its twisting branches isn’t really a tree at all, says its maker, Roxy Paine. It’s a “dendroid” — inspired by trees, but not meant to replicate one. A viewer can spot other likely influences: the connectedness of living things, the beauty of the irregular, the tensile strength of the rooted.
The 183 individual wood-fired ceramic pillars that form a row across the gentle hills of the park landscape are the work of Seagrove artist Daniel Johnston. Made of native clay, they range in size from a few inches to more than six feet tall, together evoking an organic border, fence, or outcropping.
This subtly gorgeous “art-as-shelter” structure offers an unexpected and light-dappled respite from the sun or the rain. It also frames a striking view of Yinka Shonibare’s colorful Wind Sculpture II as it waves against the acres of treetops that make this magnificent park such a welcome sanctuary.