Thinking about the 21st-Century Monument

"The Thinker," by Auguste Rodin, March 4, 1927  (
“The Thinker,” by Auguste Rodin, March 4, 1927 (

A lot of folks have given a lot of thought as to who The Thinker is and what he’s thinking about. Not everyone agrees on a single interpretation, not even the sculptor Auguste Rodin, who imagined many and wouldn’t say for sure which one he intended. Anyway, Rodin believed works of art should speak for themselves.

So everyone else got to have their thoughts about The Thinker, which made it very, very popular—and gave it its staying power.

That power is why this cast of the Thinker migrated from Paris and landed temporarily on Logan Square in 1927, awaiting completion of Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum. The Thinker had spoken, as it were, to Philadelphia motion picture magnate and philanthropist Jules Mastbaum, who went on a Rodin buying binge in 1925 and 1926. Mastbaum returned home from Paris with a cache of 106 Rodin bronzes. The Thinker would have the place of honor; he’d be the first to welcome visitors. All the more important to know what he was thinking.

Since Rodin first modeled the figure in 1880 as a central element for his monumental, complex Gates of Hell, it made some sense that The Thinker might be the artist himself. Or, possibly it could be Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy, which inspired the sculpture. But by 1904, Rodin freed The Thinker from his Gates project and “conceived another thinker, a naked man, seated upon a rock, his feet drawn under him, his fist against his teeth” …dreaming.

This larger, muscular stand-alone Thinker did more than dream, explained Rodin. “The fertile thought slowly elaborated itself within his brain.” He is “no longer a dreamer, he is a creator.” A romantic idea, and a popular one.

Rodin cast and re-cast his thinkers in monumental forms—dozens of times. They proliferated in public places from Paris to Louisville, Dresden to Detroit, guaranteeing The Thinker unfortunate fate as a visual cliché, but also assuring that thinking about The Thinker was anyone’s game.

“With his worn body and face of a primitive man,” The Thinker is, speculated critic Octave Mirbeau, the image of a cave man, looking at the unfolding below of the crimes and passions of his descendants.” He is “austere nudity, in his pensive force.” He is “the same as a wild Adam, implacable Dante, and merciful Virgil…but he is above all The Ancestor, the first man, naïve and without conscience, bending over that which he will engender.”

Cast in monumental scale, made of bronze to endure the ages and installed in civic settings, The Thinker became everyman for everyone, nearly everywhere.

Our public art, our memorials and our monuments are part of a civic cultural collective, or they should be. They should be ours to help us consider, recognize and remember, ours to help us organize the past and shape future memory.

It didn’t work that way in the 1920s. For all of his generosity, Jules Mastbaum usurped civic power acquiring Rodins for exhibition at the Sesquicentennial Exposition and as a subsequent gift for the City. It’s hard to fault Mastbaum for his philanthropy, but we could fault him for his presumptions. Mastbaum crossed a line thinking The Thinker was an appropriate idea of a monument for the 20th century city.

What would other Philadelphians in Mastbaum’s time rather have seen cast in bronze and displayed in public? They weren’t consulted.

Nearly a century later, the tables are turned. Now, thanks to Monument Lab, an innovative project taking place in Philadelphia between May 15 and June 7, 2015, we all have a shot at becoming Mastbaums. We get to propose monuments appropriate for the 21st century city. We get to say what they are, what we expect of them, and where they’d have the most meaning.

When imagination is at work, there are no limits.  So what will it be?

Visit Monument Lab in City Hall courtyard and submit your ideas, your inspirations.