The Thinker

Cleveland’s Philosopher King

Wounded but forever pensive, The Thinker graces the Cleveland Museum of Art’s original main entrance. In 2017 he quietly celebrated the 110th anniversary of his casting and the 100th anniversary of his installation in Cleveland. In 2020 he’ll stoically acknowledge 50 years since the assault that ripped him from his base and shredded his legs below the calf. Ironically, that March 1970 bombing might have increased The Thinker’s metaphoric permanence: Lacking ambulation, University Circle’s marquis gatekeeper, philosopher and historical symbol is more intransient than ever.

The Thinker is one of 25 identical twins: 900-pound bronze casts based on a 27-inch-high clay and plaster model created by Auguste Rodin in 1880. Rodin supervised roughly ten of these castings, including Cleveland’s, but he died shortly before installation occurred in 1917. The Thinker model was part of a commission for the proposed Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. The museum was never built but a number of Rodin masterworks emerged, including The Gates of Hell, The Kiss and The Thinker, all inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. The bronze Gates of Hell (20 feet high, 13 feet wide and weighing eight tons) was slated to be the Museum’s front door. A small cast of The Kiss can be seen in the lower right section of the door. The Thinker (Le Pensure), originally entitled The Poet (Le Poète), resides atop the door panels. Some believe he is Dante observing his characters in The Inferno. Others postulate that The Thinker is Adam, musing about the destruction his sin brought upon mankind.

The Gates of Hell and bronze casts of The Thinker and The Kiss now reside at the Musée Rodin in Paris. Another of The Thinker’s identical siblings stands atop the graves of Rodin and his wife Rose, and a third guards the entrance to the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. Other US cities in which he resides include Baltimore (2), Denver, Detroit, Louisville, New York (2), Pasadena, San Francisco and Kansas City. Thinkers can also be found in Argentina, Germany, Denmark, Japan, Belgium, Russia and Sweden. Cleveland’s Thinker is one of last casts that Rodin supervised personally.

At about 1:00 AM on March 24, 1970, a bomb equivalent to three sticks of dynamite exploded beneath The Thinker, knocking him from (and destroying) his pedestal and turning his lower legs to shrapnel. He landed face down, perhaps using the occasion to contemplate Hell more directly. The Cleveland Art Museum opted not to replace the statue and reinstalled it without repairing the damage. The decision’s prime motive was a desire to preserve and honor Rodin's original work which, in turn, might memorialize the turmoil of the Vietnam War years. It’s generally agreed that the attack was undertaken by a Cleveland faction of the Weathermen (aka., the Weather Underground) an ultra-radical political group that voiced its opposition to the Vietnam War (and US imperialism in general) by bombing government buildings, banks and other targets. A spray-painted message at the base of the toppled statue read “Off the ruling class.” No one admitted to, or was ever charged, for the crime.

Thus The Thinker goes on doing what he does best. Stabilized with Incralac (a copper and copper-alloy coating) and washed and waxed twice annually, he endures miserable winters and occasional scorching summers without complaint. If statues could only talk.

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