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Out of Rehab

Medardo Rosso's "The Golden Age" (1886-'87)

I once heard a theory that there are really only two dozen or so stock narratives, all contained in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. For example: Adventurers/thieves find treasure, then kill one another while each tries to grab the gelt for himself ("The Pardoner's Tale" and, more recently, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Foolish, vain man gets exactly what he deserves in the object of his affections ("The Nun's Priest's Tale"; more recently, Lolita). Bawdy, lusty dame defies convention and still manages to have last laugh ("The Wife of Bath's Tale"; most recently, Madonna's Truth or Dare). And so forth.

I have no clue whether the premise holds for literature or screenwriting. But when it comes to museums, the thesis is demonstrably true; there are maybe a dozen basic museum show plot lines, all being endlessly recycled. And Medardo Rosso: Second Impressions, the mini-retrospective of 19th-century sculpture now on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center, illustrates the point.

At first, Rosso seems a curious choice for this venue, since both collector and museum are firmly committed to modernism, and Rosso is usually considered an Impressionist, when he is considered at all. But the organizers, Harvard University's Fogg Museum, have trotted out one of art history's most reliable stock narratives: rediscovery, reconsideration and redemption. Thus unknown Impressionist becomes forgotten genius, a proto-modernist master ripe for art-historical rehab. And, voilà! Not only is Rosso plucked from obscurity, but Nasher's curious soft spot for the 19th-century sculptor is transformed from a collecting quirk into evidence of genius.

Unfortunately, the exhibition itself leads one to suspect the perfume has been put on the pig. This is not to suggest that the animal is unworthy of study. Medardo Rosso was born in Turin in 1858, the son of a stationmaster; beyond that, the facts of his life are hard to ascertain. He was apparently educated in Milan, then joined the army. Nobody knows where he learned to paint and to sculpt.

Though apocrypha and fact are difficult to separate, it seems safe to describe Rosso as theatrical, quarrelsome, eccentric, unconventional, self-aggrandizing, dogmatically avant-garde and absolutely convinced of his own genius--in short, almost a parody of the 19th-century artiste. As a young man, he was expelled from an art academy for punching another student who'd refused to sign a petition pushing for nude models of both sexes. His early work, consisting of down-and-out subjects from real life (prostitutes, street urchins, hooligans), suggests he was greatly influenced by Daumier and keenly aware of French intellectual and artistic developments. Eventually, in 1889, he moved to Paris.

Although Rosso lived well into the 20th century, succumbing to circulatory problems in 1928, he stopped making original sculpture around 1907 and began obsessively reproducing his own earlier works. As the catalog explains, this allowed him to indulge his obsession with the process of sculpting and with the sculptor's material. The catalog attempts to argue that this is more evidence of Rosso's precocity, and that even here he blazed the way for 20th-century artists like Duchamp and Brancusi. The argument seems tortured. Artists have been ripping themselves off since time immemorial; if anything, it seems evidence of what Freud would soon identify as obsessive-compulsive disorder. And it was no great loss, since, by then, Rosso's most innovative work was more than a decade behind him.

The catalog posits that, while Rosso was never widely known outside artistic circles, he influenced not only Rodin and Giacometti but a host of other chiselers you've likely never heard of, including the futurist Umberto Boccioni. The show, however, presents little evidence to support these claims. Although the catalog details Rosso's exact methods and innovations, the curators at best do a half-assed job of getting to the bottom of questions about Rosso's influence on others. For example, the organizers simply mention the famous incident in which Rosso accused Rodin of plagiarizing Rosso's "Bookmaker" in order to make Rodin's famous "Monument to Balzac" and move on without attempting to resolve the claim.

The problem with the Nasher show lies less with its premise than with the proof. Consisting of variations on five different works, the exhibition includes only 18 pieces of sculpture--far too few to get an accurate overview of Rosso's oeuvre, much less display his precocity. The reason for this is unclear. Rosso's sculpture is not exactly rare; it appears regularly at auction, and examples are widely held. Granted, some of Rosso's most radical works, like his funerary monuments and his "Impression of an Omnibus," have been lost or destroyed. But they exist in photographs, and the evidence they provide is indispensable to any honest debate about Rosso's genius.

Instead, the exhibition focuses on Rosso's "radical" working methods and his experiments with casting and materials. Thus we are presented, for instance, with four versions of Rosso's bust, "Jewish Boy": here in smooth bronze, there in light wax over plaster; here in dark wax over plaster, there in roughly patinated bronze; here with the nails from the sculpting process proudly exposed, there with more base, here with less; and so forth. And rather than explore the "proto-modernist master" theme, the organizers treat us to speculative psycho-sexual babble about the "larger meanings of Rosso's repetitions."

There were any number of interesting shows to be made of this material. For example, the organizers could explore whether Rosso is closer to Rodin, or to Renoir. They could contrast Rodin's "modern" themes--dislocation, duality, dissonance, the Yeatsian sense that the center cannot hold--with Rosso's "modern" traits: ambiguity, irony, nihilism. They could compare Rodin's aggressively frank and psychologically see-through use of the fragmented human form with Rosso's enigmatic, obtuse, not at all straightforward approach. They could point out how Rosso's waxed bronze and plaster body parts create spectral, otherworldly images, conveying doubt, insecurity and the fleeting nature of life. They could analyze how the flickering of light and how the melding of sculpture and background make Rosso's figures difficult to read and impossible to pin down, like photographic double exposures. They could show how, at first blush, the work is Impressionist in its sentimentality, and how, after staring at it for some time, darker meanings emerge. They could ask, for example, whether "The Golden Age" is a sweet depiction of a mother and child, or a less-cartoonish precursor of "The Scream." They could speculate whether Rosso's sculptures depict people, or whether they are, in fact, mummies decaying before our eyes, foreshadowing the horrors of the 20th century.

But no. Rather than explore these questions, the show is content simply to mention the spat over how much Rosso's "Bookmaker" influenced Rodin's "Monument to Balzac." They gloss over all the good stuff: the radical use and meanings of the sculptors' language, the fragmentation, the off-kilter perversion of contrapposto. In the end, the Nasher show makes too much of too little. The narrative premise may work, but you'd never know it from viewing this mere trailer, in which too much rests on a pose.


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