National governments, and their heads-of-state, like to show off. They like to prance around on the world stage. They like to give the appearance of “cultural exchange” (with cultures they are, most likely, oppressing). They like fanfare and pageantry, state dinners, and all kinds of ballyhoo to promote their reputations, dominance, and grand civilizations. For most of us who hold a fairly cynical view of government, we know that the majority of this ostentatious stuff is bullshit. It borders on propaganda, and is sometimes even painfully embarrassing. Did anyone see President Bush drumming and flailing around like a fool with that African music troupe a while back? Enough said.
But thankfully, there is at least one very cool story to have emerged from such an occasion. The year was 1906. French President Armand Fallieres was presiding over the Colonial Exposition, a huge hullabaloo which attracted over 2 million people. One of the official guests was King Sisowath of Cambodia, who brought with him the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. The group performed classical Khmer dance and had received rave reviews in Marseilles a few days prior. So all of Paris was eagerly anticipating their performance at the President’s garden party as part of the Exposition entertainment. Now here comes the cool part. Auguste Rodin, the phenomenal French artist and sculptor, showed up at the garden party to see the much talked-about Cambodian dancers. He had his ticket in hand, but was turned away for not wearing a tie!! WTF?? So the 66 year-old, badass that he was, got justifiably pissed. Pissed, but undaunted.
The old man was determined to see the dance troupe and tracked their appearances. He finally saw them perform at the Bois du Bologne. And it was worth it. Rodin was utterly captivated by the dancers- their unusual short hair, fleet-footed steps, and distinct arm movements. Rodin was blown away. The dancers became his muses, and he couldn’t get enough. The group was scheduled to stop back in Marseilles for a short time before they returned to Cambodia. Rodin followed them there. I love this guy. He’s a badass AND a stalker! Rodin’s decision to follow the group was so impetuous and passionate, so driven by all-consuming artistic inspiration, that he forgot to bring his drawing paper with him. So he got some paper from a local butcher shop and worked on that. In just one week’s time, Rodin did a staggering 150 drawings and watercolors of the dancers, and enjoyed a sportive and lively rapport with them.
Here is a wonderful photo of Rodin, sitting on a park bench, drawing one of the young dancers:
Dancers are not an unusual subject for art, as we all know. I have done a post or two on Degas and Matisse and their “Dancers”. And let’s consider how very different they are. It’s incredible. I’ve also written and posted, as an art model, about gesture, and how it represents the very essence of the human body in movement. And the body is always in movement. And the variation of movement, of gesture, of rhythm, and the shapes and lines created by movement, are virtually infinite. Dance is all about gesture and movement. It’s clear why artists want to capture it.
By his own words, Rodin was completely entranced and mesmerized by the Cambodian dancers. With regard to his “stalking” trip to Marseilles, he said “I would have followed them all the way to Cairo”. Wow. It sounds like the man was in love! But I suppose an artist gripped by an inspiring muse is “in love”, in a way.
Art historians will find this Rodin experience, and the work created, especially fascinating because Rodin was a distinctly “modern” artist. The Cambodian dancers, in contrast, were distinctly traditional. So a unique alchemy took place between the trailblazing, sensual, visionary Western artist and the old-world, ancestral art of an ancient Eastern culture. I am certainly not up to the task of discussing it in depth, but those qualified to expound on the topic are more than welcome to comment away. In the meantime, here are just a few examples of Rodin’s “Cambodian Dancers”:
In spite of the big 1906 Colonial Exposition, no one cares or remembers dick about Armand Fallieres or King Sisowath. But Rodin is remembered. He lives on. And because of his art, the Cambodian dancers live on too.