3D printing the next Rodin


My personal 3D printer and I, together we’re going to be the next Auguste Rodin.

Having spent the past academic quarter taking a course through the personal 3D printer (P3D) program, I’ve mastered the fine art of 3D printing, a skill only a select dedicated few are able to master. Indeed, I once had to spend three whole hours leveling the printing bed of my Creality Ender 3 Pro, so its extruder would not spit out filament mid-air! Having resolved that, though, along with the truly Herculean task of figuring out how to transfer G-code from my laptop to the machine, I, equipped with this revolutionary technology, am truly amongst the ranks of the great sculptors of history. 

For I can make beautiful three-dimensional forms on demand. Not wasting any time with lesser sculptors, I’ll prove my prowess by imitating one whose work is celebrated at the center of campus: Auguste Rodin, and specifically his “The Burghers of Calais.”

For the less culturally sophisticated, the French city of Calais commissioned the French “father of modern sculpture” to produce this piece in 1895, as a memorial to the leaders of their town who offered themselves as sacrifice to their English besiegers during the Hundred Years’ War. The result has been a bit of a success, you could say, with replica casts now in numerous cities around the world including London, Paris, Venice, New York, Philadelphia, Tokyo and Seoul. Though as you’ll shortly see, not as many as will marvel at my masterpieces!

Because with the truly revolutionary power of 3D printing, I’ll be able to make dozens of these popular ‘Burghers’ with just a button click. The French Third Republic at the time of Rodin, art historians explain, had a fetish for statue-making. Such ‘statuomanie,as they call it, will look like nothing once I start mass producing my pieces. To start, I won’t need to waste time repeating all the thought and effort Rodin put into such mundane tasks as drawing by hand in pencil or watercolor to prepare, positioning the figures relative to one another, or articulating their bodily expressions of defiance or anguish. Such time-consuming inefficiencies are why it took Rodin a lifetime to create his oeuvre. I, on the other hand, need only pull pre-canned designs from myminifactory.com or yeggi, so for me it’ll take a few short weeks, months at most.

And rest assured, this won’t mean my copies will be poor quality. On the contrary, thanks to the terrific accuracy of 3D printing nowadays, I’ll be able to produce replicas of Rodin’s work that fool even art historians. Compared to the traditional sculpting tools — hammers, chisels and other outdated analog devices — my printer’s 3-axis 40×40 aluminum extruder is accurate up to 75 microns. I doubt even Rodin’s hand was that steady; he probably couldn’t redo his own work as well as I’ll be able to! Some critics may call this mere plagiarizing, but I’d point out that Rodin himself was a bit of a copy-cat, deriving inspiration for his famous “Gates of Hell” from Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” on his trip to Florence. (What’s beyond the gate can’t make that much of a difference, right?) Rooting out digital CAD files of Rodin’s work online will simply be my version of such an Italian “Grand Tour.”

To turn these files into physical form, my beloved 3D printer (or, from the proceeds of auctioning my first pieces, my workshop of printers) will crank out masterpieces day and night. Loaded with a four gigabyte SD card storing 117.9 copies of the “Burghers of Calais,” they’ll be far more efficient than Rodin’s studio assistants, who’d take weeks transforming his clay models into plaster molds to produce the final bronze cast. Yes, I know Rodin’s said to have given his expert molders and casters credit for these contributions to his final product, viewing sculpture as a “collaborative” process, but I don’t buy it. How annoying that must have been, to rely upon imperfect humans, with such bothersome inefficiencies as taking lunches or weekends off! This could’ve only slowed him down.

As mechanically accurate as 3D printing is, admittedly there’ll be aspects of the ‘Burghers’ that are irreproducible. For instance, the precise angle Rodin imparted to the group to communicate their seemingly inexorable trajectory towards self-sacrifice can’t be reproduced by my printer’s nozzle, where it doesn’t have an underlying surface onto which to extrude filament in mid-air. No matter, though. Either I’ll just rotate the entire group by twenty or so degrees so they’re simply upright — such details aren’t that important, are they? — or I’ll just leave out Pierre de Wiessant’s arm. In that case, viewers will just have to marvel at my piece from angles where that small omission isn’t visible.

3D print from myminifactor.com. Pierre de Wiessant’s hand, to the left, can’t be that important?

What my printer won’t be able to reproduce will be more than compensated by the improvements it makes via so-called “generative design.” Wikipedia defines this as “an iterative design process that involves a program that will generate a certain number of outputs that meet certain constraints.” The computational outcome of this black box algorithm is bound to be highly optimized, and therefore superior, so no need to worry over the aesthetics of the results. Just to speculate, though, I rather find Pierre de Wiessant’s hand to be not quite gnarled enough; I bet my optimization algorithm will twist it a bit more — how much more will be interesting to see! Or, Eustache de Saint-Pierre’s head doesn’t seem downtrodden enough for my taste; I bet the model will crank his forlorn expression down even further. Critics will surely laud these algorithmic alterations as subtle yet profound, enhancing the artistic value of a masterpiece without my even really trying.

Pierre de Wiessant and Eustache de Saint-Pierre (Images: The Metropolitan Museum of Art “Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Calais. A Resource for Educators,” 1999).

And now that I’ve set my imagination to improving Rodin’s work, here’s another idea: The scale of 3D printing is growing quickly, and it’ll only be a matter of time before we can print entire houses. Bigger is always better, so why don’t we scale up the ‘Burghers!’ As they are, Rodin made the six burghers very slightly larger than life — about 2 meters tall — perhaps to impart gravity to their impression on viewers. Why be so subtle, I say! In China, they’ve 3D printed an entire bridge, 26.3 meters long. If I get my sculpting hands on that printer, by my calculations I’ll create a 13.15-fold greater effect on viewers than Rodin’s originals.

As for material, I’ll improve on the rather boring one Rodin limited himself to. Yes, bronze is nice, and has been used by sculptors for over four and a half millennia, but I don’t think it’s quite flashy enough for today. 3D printing supply companies like Hatchbox sell a stunning variety of differently colored plastic filaments; I bet a set of green burghers — or even better, of green polka dotted ones — would be especially elegant, don’t you think? Some might question whether Rodin’s expression of the play of light and shadow on the human body can be replicated on a plastic filament. I say, just shine a brighter light on the thing! One very bright LED from my local hardware store should do the trick. Or even better, some of Hatchbox’s newest plastic filaments even glow! And while I’m pondering materials, why limit myself to just one? When you think about it, it’s not at all realistic that the burghers’ clothing, skin, hair, and shoes should all be the same hue. Given you can now 3D print multi-materials, I’ll print the ‘Burghers’ in multiple colors! I’m not sure how Rodin would’ve colored them if he’d had the amazing tools at my disposal, but to liven up their rather somber attitude — they seem so sad as they are, no? — pink with purple polka dots will do just fine.

And so, when I exhibit my pieces in the Musée Rodin in Paris at first, and then in countless other museums, the art world will absolutely eat up my work. Sometimes literally, in fact, thanks to recent advances in 3D-printable edible materials. Rodin himself, according to the art historian Antoine Bourdelle, “seemed to drink in the very soul of the clay while working.” Art critics who drop by my studio will similarly admire me taking bites out of my sculpted forms. Maybe I’ll even make ‘Burghers’ out of, you guessed it, burgers! How clever the critics will call me. More than clever, they’ll praise me for my technological sophistication, for ushering in a new age of sculpture even more radically than did Rodin.

And to placate those few who call my work tasteless? Well, I’ll simply add salt.

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