There are a handful of post-Renaissance painters that nearly everyone knows by name—van Gogh, Picasso, Whistler perhaps—but for modern sculpture there is really only one name that non-art geeks consistently recognize: Auguste Rodin. The Thinker is easily Rodin’s most recognizable piece, and one of the most famous artworks of all time.
One of Rodin’s lesser known works is Man and His Thought, which depicts a powerful adult male figure “kissing” the chest of what appears to be a young adolescent girl. Radical feminists and professional outrage-mongers who fail to grasp the symbolism implied in the work’s title might propose this to be little more than a three-dimensional image of an adult male sexually abusing a young female. That would be wrong (in both senses of the word).
Several of Rodin’s works deal with man’s—and especially artists’—relationship with his own creative impulses. This piece is one of them, as the sylphic being half-emerged from the stone represents both the source of creation (inspiration) and the creation itself (art). Like the myth of Pygmalion, to which this work alludes, the artist breathes life directly into coarse dead stone, and out of it emerges a figure of lithe feminine beauty, shown as a young girl because she is not yet fully formed, an artwork still in the process of being born.
This is not to say that there is no sexual element here at all. Does the artist have an erotic relationship with his own work? Certainly Pymalion did. Other women failed to satisfy him, and so he created his own in Galatea, who is both his metaphorical child and his lover. (Indeed, there is even a blatantly incestuous interpretation of the myth by poet and classical studies scholar Robert Graves.) That might be enough for some critics to advance the idea that Man and His Thought justifies parent-child incest. Of course, it doesn’t. Rather, it implies that an artist’s relationship with his creative output is inherently incestuous in a psychological sense.
Though the two figures are mismatched in size, they seem to fit together quite snugly, suggesting that they were made for each other the way Pygmalion and Galatea are. Well, certainly one of them was made to fit the other!
Bonus: Here is a lovely illustrated tribute to Rodin’s sculpture by Sharon C. McGovern: