A Steichen & Rodin Creation Story: “Fiat Lux” Meets Adam’s Rib

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2013 by David St.-Lascaux

Below: Edward Steichen, autochrome of Auguste Rodin with “Eve,” 1907. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; permission pending.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. – Genesis 1:3

And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. – Genesis 2: 21-22


IN 1907, THE PHOTOGRAPHER Edward Steichen visited the studio of sculptor Auguste Rodin. Using the latest technology, autochrome color photography, an ingenious process involving tiny particles of dyed potato on glass which had been developed by les frères Lumière, Auguste and Louis Lumière, Steichen arranged the sixty-six-plus-year-old Rodin in the lower right quadrant of the two-storey frame (which Henri Cartier-Bresson would later literally, in “two-story-lines,” deploy), with his white hair and white beard, in profile, his hands hidden under the shrouding of a great white smock that forms the illusion of a base for the statuary. ■ Behind Rodin stands a human-scale plaster prototype of Eve, whom Rodin also shaped in marble; he also cast maquettes of her in bronze. Eve was intended, along with Adam, her co-committer of original sin, to flank the entrance of Rodin’s 37-year, uncompleted Divine Comedy interpretive La Porte de l’Enfer (“the Gates of Hell”), which project involved a number of Rodin’s best-known sculptures, including Le Penseur (“The Thinker”) and Le Baiser (“The Kiss”). ■ Behind Eve the soaring white walls of Rodin’s studio, made moreso by vertical postlines, and at least another pair of plaster works-in-progress add to the ethereal, white-on-white-on-white color scheme, intensified by the medium’s literal, stained glass window transparency (like stained glass, an autochrome must be backlit). The composition’s luminosity is further accentuated by the subtle contrast of Rodin’s glowing fleshtone face, a yellow-cushioned middle distance chair of white stained wood, and the honey-colored wooden frame of a background easel. ■ Charmingly, autochromes were atmospheric, regardless of the camera’s lens. The foreground master softly lit; the tower Eve, at most a meter behind, evanesces into mist as the eye proceeds upward from leg to knee to her modest wrapped arms to her shame-bent head, as she and her partner in the crime of disobedience receive the lethal castigation delivered, we imagine, in wrathful, sonorous rage by the angry Creator. The cruelly forbidden fruit was irresistible: To be like gods, whereas the wildly disproportionate punishment – banishment from Eden, was for the unsubmissive yielding to curiosity. The second punishment – mortality, when immortality was readily available, was equally contemptible, as was the gratuitous list of additional existential abuses. The insouciant Rodin – a maker in clay – had dared to play G*d, recreating Eve in snow-white sinuosity; Steichen, not to be outdone, had “let there be light” on the scene, making this one of the cleverest and most audacious portraits ever made, even if it was merely artificial and alchemical. ■ In a human footnote, Rodin felt that he had failed to do justice to Eve’s body, and he poetically died with this business unfinished. In fairness, giving oneself the task to create, let alone live with a woman would be to overreach, the loss of a rib – or Paradise – the least of it.

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