On Auguste Rodin’s sculpture «She Who Was The Helmet Maker’s Once-Beautiful Wife»


Written for Objektiv Press' series «One Image»

Rodin’s small bronze sculpture shows a seated woman. The posture is knotty, awkward, as if she is forced. One arm is stretched behind her back and she is seated a little askew. You can see the bones in the ribcage under the empty, hanging breasts. The shoulder joints protrude. She is skinny, but her belly is swollen under the wrinkled skin. The arms and legs are thin and sinewy. The whole body has sort of slumped. She bends her neck and looks down, her gaze almost directed inward, towards her own body. As if in shame. Everything here points downwards.

This sculpture from 1885 to 87 exists in several variants with different titles: ‘Dried-Up Springs’, ‘The Old Courtesan’ or ‘Winter’. The titles tell us how the artist wanted us to see this figure. We are supposed to look through or past her, to imagine who she once was, not who she is. The work is about a tragedy, a loss, something that moves towards the end. The artist makes it clear that this woman belongs to the past. She is grief.

I’m on my way to becoming an ageing woman myself. The body of the helmet-maker’s wife is both familiar and foreign to me. While there are plenty of ageing men in Western sculptural tradition, ageing women are rarely represented. And while the ageing men are portrayed with respect, even admiration, as philosophers, leaders, authorities, the few ageing women are a sad sight. They are grotesque, pathetic, laughable versions of the young bodies they once were. The necklines that once framed round, bouncy, firm breasts, now reveal now empty, sagging sacks. The seductive contrapposto poses have become angular, stiff and unstable. Toothless grins replace soft smiles, faces are hollow. Time makes men experienced, worthy and wise, while it makes women grotesque, almost repulsive perversions of themselves. The artists do not hide their contempt. The once beautiful wife of the helmet-maker knows herself that she has passed; she feels the weight of the artist’s gaze on her and bends under it.

When I was young, I often struggled with the feeling of constantly being evaluated as an object of other people’s gazes. Was I attractive enough? Pretty enough? Thin enough? Well-dressed enough? Pleasant enough? Too much? Too little? It was shameful and distracting, and it was a lonely experience, despite the fact that I probably share it with almost every other woman. I remember thinking that when my body was no longer fertile, I would no longer be perceived as an object. I would be free from the evaluative gaze and the eternal shame. The distractions would fall away. I would become a subject.

But the helmet-maker’s wife, and the other ageing women in art history, are not subjects. They are broken, worn-out objects; pathetic now that they can no longer be used for what the female body was created for: reproduction. But they still exist in the world. What is their purpose now? They are difficult to control, impossible, opinionated and nasty; they belong to the dark. Useless. In contrast to the life experience of the ageing man, which is represented with respect and interest, the knowledge of the ageing woman is threatening, dangerous. She is portrayed as ‘ugly’; she is mother-in-law, witch. Disgusting, ridiculous. In this sense, Rodin’s figure is perhaps a step in the right direction: the helmet-maker’s wife is at least not obviously evil or mad, she is just sad.

Art historians have praised Rodin’s ability to show the beauty of the ugly in this figure: that he was able to make the ugly beautiful. I think it’s the other way around. Through his gaze, I think this body is made ugly. The helmet-maker’s wife is not ugly. What we see is the artist’s gaze on her, not herself. In fact, and without any rhetoric, I think the helmet-maker’s wife is beautiful. Her thin body is interesting, dramatic, complex and hyper-elegant. Her face is sharp, deep and intelligent. She is rich in light and shade. I wish she had a name of her own. I wish she had refused to be ashamed, refused to sit in that uncomfortable, twisted position. Ageing women are not sadness. I wish Rodin had made a portrait of a person instead of a projection of masculine horror. I wish the helmet-maker’s wife would straighten her back and meet my gaze.