Turn-of-the-Century Apsara Drawings Come Home

In July 1906, Auguste Rodin went to the palace of then French president Armand Fallieres for a garden party featuring a performance by the dancers of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. All of Paris was abuzz. The dancers had been performing to rave reviews in Marseilles as part of France’s 1906 Colonial Exposition and had come to Paris to do just three performances. Rodin had an invitation to the president’s party but no tie, and the guards turned away the furious-and, by this point in his career, quite famous-sculptor.

Days later he managed to see the troupe perform at the Pre-Catalan theater in the Bois du Bologne in Paris, and by all accounts, Rodin, then 66, fell madly in love.

“They made the antique live in me…. I contemplated them in ecstasy,” he wrote at the time.

He was besotted enough to follow them back to Marseilles, leaving Paris so precipitously that he forgot to bring his art supplies and had to buy drawing paper from a butcher. “I would have followed them all the way to Cairo,” he wrote.

It was an extraordinary meeting in several ways: It was King Sisowath’s first state visit to France, and the first time Rodin, already charged by his exposure to Javanese dance in 1889, encountered Khmer classical dance.

“It was a cultural exchange at the pinnacle of each culture,” said Christina Buley-Uribe, a curator from the Rodin Museum in Paris. “Here you have a real exchange of two authentic traditions. It is the encounter of Rodin’s modernity and this very traditional dance.”

From this brief union-Rodin had about a week with the dancers before they returned to Cambodia-came 150 of Rodin’s most famous drawings.

Forty of them will be on display for the first time in Cambodia from Dec 23 through Feb 11 at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

“I’m sure Rodin would have been absolutely happy to present them here,” said Buley-Uribe. “He was so enthusiastic about these dancers. Long afterward he talked about them.”

The French government is sponsoring the exhibit to commemorate the 100th anniversary of King Sisowath’s visit to France. To house the fragile works on paper, they renovated one wing of the museum and built a special temperature- and humidity-controlled room-the first in Cambodia that meets international museum standards and is capable of handling such fragile works of art, according to officials from the French Embassy and the National Museum.

The whole project cost about $200,000, according to Fabyene Mansencal, first secretary at the French Embassy in Phnom Penh.

“France is attached to cultural diversity and to dialogue among cultures,” Yvon Roe d’Albert, the French Ambassador, wrote in an e-mail. “By historical tradition, Cambodia is one of the countries with which this dialogue can most naturally develop in the reciprocal interests of our two countries. We must therefore favor, through this exhibit, the access of the Cambodian public, and particularly of young Cambodian creators and artists to this form of art directly inspired by the Khmer choreographic tradition.”

Khun Samen, director of the National Museum, said he had never heard of Rodin before curators from the Rodin Museum in Paris approached him about mounting the show. “We permit the Rodin Museum to have an exhibit here because we need also the renovation of the room,” he said. “After the Rodin exhibit, we will use the room as a multi-purpose room.”

He said that like many Cambodians, he does not know much about drawing. But added that he finds Rodin’s work “beautiful.”

“The drawings reveal the glory of Cambodian art in Europe,” he said.

Most of the National Museum’s collection is stone and bronze, durable enough to handle weather. “Cambodia has a special gift from the gods,” Khun Samen said. “The temperature is constant.” And that, he said, means his museum can be essentially open to the air. “We have natural air, natural flowers, natural smells,” he said. “We have problems with birds and insects.”

What is to Cambodian art a blessing, is to a French artist like Rodin who worked with watercolor and gouache on paper a horror. Paper expands in the humidity and heat of Phnom Penh and contracts in dry, temperate Paris. Gouache can expand but not contract, which means that if not properly temperature-controlled, the paint would flake off once Rodin’s drawings were returned to France.

Drawings are among the most fragile kinds of art, and the new room in the National Museum will be able to house other delicate mediums, like paintings, plaster sculptures and terracottas.

Khun Samen said he hoped to use the new room for conferences and to show films, as well as to display works on loan from international museums and some textiles in his own collection. Also important, he said, is the air conditioning. Some 40,000 of the 70,000 people who visit the National Museum each year are foreigners, he said. “In Cambodia, it’s too hot for foreigners,” he said. “I need one room with air-conditioning.”

Asked whether the cost of renovating the room where the sketches will be held was justified, Fabyene Mansencal said, “It’s a question we are probably going to hear a lot. Why not?…. Of course, health, education are important, but culture is also something important and something we have to offer Cambodian people.”

The authenticity that attracted Rodin to the dancers in 1906 must have been all the more striking against the fake villages and frank exoticism of the Colonial Exposition. France and England were major colonial powers, and the expos were a way for them to demonstrate the reach of their empires.

“The French, Germans, and especially the English wanted to show their power by showing their colonies,” Buley-Uribe said.

“They brought people from different regions. Nothing was authentic. It was a fake image of the Far East.”

The short hair of the Cambodian dancers astonished the French. Rodin bribed the girls to hold their dance poses for long stretches, offering them toys and shoes so he could sketch them. By the end of the week, they were calling him “Papa.”

The affection was not sexual, said Buley-Uribe. Rodin had not fallen in love with the dancers themselves, he had fallen in love with the dance.

“I think he was in love with the Cambodian dancers the way he was impassioned by French cathedrals,” Buley-Uribe said. “For him it was the perfection of antique art.”

There is only one sketch of a nude Cambodian dancer, which Buley-Uribe said was not done from life. “He said behind the clothes you could see the line of the nude,” she said. “Their movement was so perfect, so tense, so real he could see the line of the body. They didn’t have to take off their clothes.” He labeled one drawing of a Cambodian dancer “nude,” though she was fully clothed.

“The exoticism didn’t interest Rodin at all,” said Buley-Uribe.

“The exotic aspect of the Cambodian dancers is zero. Rodin chases his own idea and grasps whatever he can find. The exotic costumes, for example, are completely simplified. He’s interested in their gesture and in his ability to assimilate them for his own purpose.”

In preparation for the exhibit, which was on view at the Rodin Museum in Paris earlier this year, curators from the Rodin Museum came to Phnom Penh to try to match up the gestures in the drawings with the gestures of Cambodian dance. “Some drawings were precise,” said Buley-Uribe. “Others were completely unrecognizable by the Cambodians. They didn’t know what it was.”

Cambodian classical dance is an essentially conservative form, comprised of a succession of postures with distinct, unchanging gestures.

Proeung Chhieng, vice-rector of the Royal University of Fine Arts and Dean of the Faculty of Choreographic Art, contributed an essay to the catalog for the Rodin exhibition. In it, he writes that Cambodia’s dance is a tradition with precise choreographic language, which “excludes any improvisation or variation.”

Rodin, in contrast, used the dancers as a basis for his own invention. He not only Westernized them; he also modernized them.

Rodin imbued his sketches of the dancers-some of which seem to move more than the dance itself-with tempests of lines that suggest the intensity of his own fascination with the dancers. He dressed them in Grecian robes and placed in their hands small statues and palms, Greek symbols of victory, before washing them with the colors—ochre, rust, and blue—of Italian frescos.

Some Cambodians, Buley-Uribe said, have told her that the drawings seem “ugly” and “unfinished.”

“I said to them, yes, it is an ugly drawing, but it’s also beautiful,” she said. “Look how he sees the movement. They are little sculptures dancing. They are alive.”

Rodin also sketched King Sisowath, focusing more on the awkward heaviness of his mouth than on his ability to look regal. Other luminaries came in for similarly harsh treatment, Buley-Uribe said.

Rodin sculpted the bust of Duchess Anna de Noailles emphasizing her aquiline nose. “She was furious,” said Buley-Uribe. His take on Pope Benois XV was also, she said, greeted with dismay.

Rodin’s loyalty was to art, rather than power. “Rodin doesn’t care about beauty,” Buley-Uribe said. “He wants to have the portrait be expressive.”

But even in his radical reinvention, he honored the essential divinity of Cambodian dance.

In 1907, Rodin mounted, to great acclaim, the first major exhibition of his drawings in Paris, which featured the Cambodian dancers and a number of erotic nudes. Buley-Uribe said the exhibit solidified Rodin’s reputation as a draftsman and helped him to win a commission to create frescos for a new state-run museum in the former Saint-Sulpice Seminary in Paris.

His “Gates of Hell,” an intense, extravagant sculpture that may be his best-known work, was to stand in the choir of the former chapel, and as a counterpoint, the director of the museum requested frescoes of paradise. “When Rodin thought of the angels of paradise, he thought of the Cambodian dancers,” said Buley-Uribe.

Rodin returned to the drawings he had made in Marseilles, she said, tracing them, re-sketching them, touching them up with watercolor, and turning their mokot into angel wings. He even transformed a few into a kind of painted bas-relief, not from Angkor, but from his own vision of ancient Greece. Rodin never created those frescoes for the chapel.

To the extent that anything man-made can be, Rodin’s Cambodian dancers were beyond colonialism and beyond sex. In 1914 he wrote: “What mirage has appeared in my mind?”

“I go back once again. I arrive, I lift my eyes: That angel is a Cambodian angel.”

(Additional reporting by Chhay Channyda)

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