The spot where I meet my groups for the start of my “Lost Generation” Montparnasse walking tour is at the foot of Auguste Rodin’s mighty, larger-than-life bronze statue of Honoré de Balzac. This walk is about the expatriate writers in this part of Paris of the 1920s, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and others. That’s what my walkers are here for. But before we move off on the walk itself, everyone wants to know about this statue -- and rightly so. It is a very strange sculpture with a very strange history to match.
In 1891, Emile Zola talked the Société des Gens de Lettres, of which he was the president, into commissioning a statue honoring the founder of their literary society, Balzac, who had died forty years earlier. Rodin, a great fan of Balzac’s writing, was awarded the commission. He promised to deliver it in eighteen months. After missing several deadlines he finally came up with a model that pleased him: a squat barrel of a Balzac exploding with raw vigor and, other than a band of cloth covering the massive bulge in his crotch, utterly naked. “Indécent et hideux” was the judgment of the literary society.
So Rodin went back to his studio and eventually created the final version: the giant Balzac we see today with the famous monk’s cowl he wore when he was writing cloaking his body from shoulder to foot, a blur of a face, and deep, dark pits for his visionary eyes. Rodin exhibited the work in a full-sized plaster model at the Salon of 1898. The critics threw up their hands. They called it “a colossal fetus,” “Balzac in a bag,” “an obese monstrosity,” “a snowman” … Zola liked it, but he was no longer president of the society, and his role in the Dreyfus Case (1898 being the year of “J’accuse”) made him too controversial to be any help to Rodin. The Société des Gens de Lettres rejected the statue.
Four decades later, on July 2, 1939, the statue, now cast in bronze, was installed here on the leafy traffic island at the central crossroads of Montparnasse, the Carrefour Vavin, where the Boulevards du Montparnasse and Raspail intersect, facing the Café Rotonde and Le Dôme. Another bronze casting of this Balzac statue stands in the garden of the Rodin Museum on the Rue de Varenne in Paris, and inside the museum is the “indécent et hideux” version which was so shocking to the literary society.