In 1903 Auguste Rodin said, “The most interesting thing about London is the number of its antiquities. In my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum.” It was an uncharacteristically understated way of describing his visits. As the British Museum’s exhibition, “Rodin and the art of ancient Greece”, comprehensively reveals, the French sculptor’s creative relationship with the classical was profound and his interest in the British Museum’s antiquities intense and long-lasting. He first visited London in 1881, when he was 40, and returned a dozen times over subsequent decades. One set of works in particular compelled him to keep coming back: the sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, commonly known as the Elgin Marbles.
In his art Rodin was anything but understated. By the early years of the 20th century he had achieved international fame with his radically innovative sculpture. His works were monumental and emphatic in their physicality; he rejected the polished decorum of contemporary neoclassicism in his pursuit of a coarse naturalism. A hallmark of his art was the use of different finishes in the same work, so that the figure appears to emerge from the unsculpted material as though it is in the process of being created.
Part of the appeal of the Elgin Marbles was their authenticity. Whereas most ancient Greek sculpture was only known through later Roman copies, this was the real deal, designed by Pheidias (c. 480 – 430 BC) the most celebrated sculptor of the Athenian Golden Age. Though they were venerated as the highest achievement of Greek art, few artists in Rodin’s day had dared contend with the marbles. But Rodin saw in them not an unattainable ideal, but a sincere naturalism. Expressive of emotion and movement they offered valuable lessons for modern art. Most of all, he was inspired by their broken, dislocated quality. For him, the fragment could embody truth. “These are the damaged statues, found in the ruins,” he said, “and they are no less masterpieces for being incomplete.”
Auguste Rodin, “The Age of Bronze” (1877)
His first full-scale work, “The Age of Bronze” was a demonstration piece, a means of showing he could take on a subject that had come to epitomise Greek art: the athletic male nude. Rodin was drawing on a number of sources, including “The Dying Slave” by Michelangelo, which he would have seen in the Louvre. He was also inviting comparisons with two of the most revered works of Greek antiquity, the Doryphorous (spear-bearer) and the Diadumenos (diadem-bearer) by Polykleitos. But Rodin’s muscular youth does not have the graceful symmetry nor arithmetically calculated proportions of Polykleitos’s athletes; instead, he charges his figure with a tense energy, as though caught in motion.
“The Age of Bronze” was controversial when first exhibited in 1877, because critics thought it so naturalistic that Rodin must have cheated by casting directly from a living body.
Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, from the north frieze of the Parthenon (c. 438–432 BC)
Rodin borrowed the right-hand gesture of “The Age of Bronze” from this figure on the Parthenon frieze. The youthful horseman is a participant in a ceremonial procession, in which the Athenians were depicted as an ideal community of “the beautiful and the good”. He restrains his steed with one arm, and beckons his companions with the other. Rodin never made direct copies of Greek sculpture; his interest here was in the turn of the body, the sense of anticipation and excitement conveyed through the dynamism of the pose.
Rodin had not seen the Elgin marbles when he made “The Age of Bronze”, his first visit to London was in 1881. But he was already familiar with casts and drawings of the marbles, which he would have seen in museums in Paris and Brussels.
Auguste Rodin, “The Kiss” (after 1898)
Rodin originally intended “The Kiss” to depict an episode from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”. Two lovers, Paolo and Francesca, are caught up in the passion of their first kiss, but will imminently be discovered by Gianciotto, Francesca’s husband and Paolo’s brother, who then kills them both. The nakedness of the two figures, which accentuates their exposure and vulnerability, combined with the physicality of their hold on each other, scandalised audiences when the sculpture was first shown. However, the work soon lost its narrative significance, and has since become a universal symbol of sexual desire.
This is an important plaster version of the sculpture, which Rodin exhibited and kept throughout his life, and from which subsequent copies were made. Rodin was a modeller, not a carver. He sculpted first in clay, before casting in bronze or plaster. Marble versions were then delegated to a specialist stone carver. In this respect, his approach was similar to Pheidias’s, who is attributed with designing the Elgin Marbles, though it is thought the execution was carried out by his workshop.
Goddesses in diaphanous drapery, from the east pediment of the Parthenon (c. 438–432 BC)
Like the first commissioned version of “The Kiss”, these two goddesses from the east pediment of the Parthenon were carved from a single block of stone. Rodin was inspired by the intimate relationship between the two female figures and the way they appear to merge into one another. It is not known which goddesses they represent, or why they are depicted in this manner, but their clinging drapery, which emphasises the shape of their bodies underneath, gives them an erotic quality.
The decapitated statues of the Parthenon pediment had a powerful influence on Rodin’s art, inspiring him to seek ways of conveying emotion through bodily expression. In “The Kiss”, for example, the faces are obscured, and we read the couple’s passion in the dynamism of their reciprocal gestures. Rodin also made sculptures without head or limbs, transforming the fragment into the finished work.
Auguste Rodin, “The Thinker” (1903)
Shortly before his arrival in London in 1881, Rodin had been awarded his first major public commission: a set of monumental bronze doors for a new museum of decorative arts in Paris. The museum was never built, but the doors – inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and known as The Gates of Hell – became an evolving project over the rest of his working life. He created over 200 separate figures or groups for the commission, from which individual elements, such as “The Thinker” and “The Kiss” were extracted and enlarged as stand-alone sculptures. The idea of a monument comprised of fragments, which then becomes a source of new monuments, mirrored his creative relationship with the Elgin Marbles.
“The Thinker” embodies a number of paradoxes. A muscular, male nude, it combines both the idea of physical potency and of mental introspection. A static, seated figure, it also has a pent-up energy, a forceful presence through the forward leaning pose and the twist of the right elbow resting on the left knee. Like “The Kiss” it has become a universal symbol, but is it an image of mental and creative exertion, or is he a man-of-sorrows contemplating the fall of civilisation?
Rodin and the art of ancient Greece British Museum until July 29th