Rodin and the art of ancient Greece
New exhibition at British Museum puts Rodin's work in new light
The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890.
Photograph. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Surprisingly, despite the title of this exhibition at the British Museum, sculptor Auguste Rodin never visited Greece or gazed upon the Parthenon. Instead, he took inspiration from the classic Greek pieces in the Museum and went on to create some of the most recognised sculptures in the world, including The Kiss.
“In my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum,” the French sculptor Auguste Rodin wrote in 1902. He had visited London for the first time in 1881, where he was struck by the beauty of the Parthenon sculptures. He continued to seek inspiration from the Museum's collections until shortly before his death in 1917.
Beautiful museums, he said, with their marvellous collections of Greek, Assyrian and Egyptian works awakened in him “a flood of sensations” and had “a rejuvenating influence” that led him to study the forms all the more closely. The work of Pheidias, the fifth-century BC sculptor who designed the Parthenon sculptures was a particular inspiration.
Now, at the British Museum, we have a golden opportunity to see some of the magnificent sculptures from ancient Greece that Rodin so admired, alongside a selection of his works from Paris. Better still, we see them at eye level, in unbeatable close-up, and beautifully lit.
Rodin and the art of ancient Greece is a collaboration between the British Museum and the Musée Rodin in Paris. Thus, the exhibition comprises over 80 Rodin works in marble, bronze and plaster, along with a number of sketches, notably of the Parthenon Sculptures, displayed “in conversation” with their ancient Greek precursors.
It opens with a pair of superlative sculptures: Rodin’s iconic The Kiss is set on a low plinth alongside reclining goddesses from the Parthenon pediment, made around 430 BC, a study of intimacy, all flesh and flowing drapery, the fabric clinging to their bodies giving the statue an erotic edge.
Walking full circle around these masterpieces, so wrapped in the emotion of the sculptures are we, seduced by the smooth intertwined figures of The Kiss (a pristine white plaster cast taken from the first marble version, 1888), by the sheer sensuousness of the marble goddesses, that we forget that all are faceless. It is the bodies that give expression, the bodies that we notice.
First, however, we pass by the outlandish bust of a woman with a miniature statue of the Parthenon balanced on her head (right). It is called Pallas (Athena) with the Parthenon (1896) and apparently was modelled on Marianna Russell, a friend of Rodin’s with Grecian looks.
Athena, the goddess of wisdom and patron deity of sculptors, was born from the head of Zeus after he had swallowed her mother. In this enigmatic work, Rodin suggests that the goddess is “giving birth to her own brainchild - the Parthenon” considered in Rodin’s day to be the epitome of intellectual and artistic achievement.
That other iconic sculpture, The Thinker (1903), is around the corner. Looking closely, we see that his body is all torsion, right elbow on left thigh in a tangle of limbs, and learn that he is perhaps not so much thinking as mourning. A head leaning heavily on the back of a hand is in fact a gesture of mourning in ancient Greek art, say the curators.
The Thinker reappears further into the exhibition as a miniature designed to sit near the top of The Gates of Hell, a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Rodin worked on this project for years, creating over 200 figures and groups as he worked through his ideas. Individual figures developed for this massive artwork feature in the exhibition: plaster casts of Ariadne, the Earth and the Moon, and so on, and beside each an accompanying photograph showing its intended position on the Gates.
When, in 1900, Rodin decided finally to unveil them at his first solo exhibition in Paris they were shown in a fragmentary state. But Greek fragments inspired Rodin. When Lord Elgin brought the Parthenon marbles to England in the early 1800s he wanted to restore them, and asked Antonio Canova to replace the missing parts. Canova refused; for him fragments were “the touchstone of authenticity for ancient Greek sculpture.” Similarly Rodin responded to fragments that had been shaped by time.
Ian Jenkins, exhibition curator, says, “Like many archaeological ruins, the Parthenon sculptures had been broken and weathered over centuries, but Rodin took inspiration from the powerful expression that they conveyed through the body alone, as many of them were headless.”
Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910
Photo: Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin
Rodin never saw the Parthenon; never went to Greece. But his passion for antiquity led him to start collecting, and over time his garden and house in Paris became littered with classical sculptures, headless and often limbless, and specially lit at night for maximum effect. He even started removing the heads and limbs from his own figures to make them closer to the broken relics of the past.
And wanting his art to express a multiplicity of emotions, from ecstasy to agony to torment, he produced work that revealed humanity compassionately, from The Kiss to The Burghers of Calais, to The Man with the Broken Nose. Quotes from Rodin pepper the gallery walls, so I’ll end with one that seems to condense so much within this show: “The body is a cast that bears the imprint of our passions.”
This is a marvellous exhibition. And as the British Museum hoped, we truly do see works by Rodin in a new light.
Rodin and the art of ancient Greece
British Museum, London
Until 29 July 2018
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