Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece review – an extraordinary reversal

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece review – an extraordinary reversal

British Museum, London
Seeing the Parthenon marbles in London was a turning point for Rodin – illustrated to stunning effect at the British Museum

5 /
5 stars

Translated from the Greek… A youth preparing for the cavalcade, left, from the north frieze of the Parthenon, c438-432BC. Right: The Age of Bronze, 1877 by Rodin. © Musée Rodin

Translated from the Greek… A youth preparing for the cavalcade, left, from the north frieze of the Parthenon, c438-432BC. Right: The Age of Bronze, 1877 by Rodin.
Composite: © Trustees of the British Museum/Musée Rodin

Auguste Rodin never saw the Parthenon and believed it should one day return, like the human beings who made it, to dust. When the greatest of all classical monuments was damaged by an earthquake in 1894, he campaigned against its restoration. Given the profound influence of classical art on his own work, first to last, it is hard to regard this as anything other than startling hypocrisy. But the sculptor had strange ideas about ruins and time.

The passage of millennia seems to have meant almost nothing to Rodin (1840-1917). His garden was strewn with classical sculptures casually got through dealers who bought them off tourists; he kept statues of Greek nymphs and gymnasts all over the house, specially lit by night for seductive effect. Headless, often limbless, these marble torsos twist, reach, strive and recline like the figures in Rodin’s own sculpture. Out of classicism, he forges modern art.

This is as well known as Rodin’s debt to Michelangelo in all those non finito figures emerging out of blocks of marble such as The Slaves; as well known as his reputation as a titan of sexual and creative energy, virile as his own figures and world-famous for those twin marble cliches, The Kiss and The Thinker. Or is it? This stupendous show is in fact the first opportunity anyone has ever had to look at his works – a condensed retrospective almost – alongside their specific sources in a portion of the magnificent, much disputed Parthenon figures at the British Museum. It changes one’s understanding of the artist.

Take the bust that opens the exhibition. Here is one of Rodin’s rather too numerous society beauties got up in white marble; so far, so fin-de-siècle conventional. But rising fully formed from her head is a miniature statue of the Parthenon. What once resembled a sort of fancy-dress diadem – a flattering play on Mrs Russell’s somewhat classical features – now seems more like an ideal art embodied, a lightbulb vision of antiquity. Pallas With the Parthenon, the work is called; Pallas – Athena – was the patron deity of sculpture.

Pallas (Athena) With the Parthenon, 1896, by Rodin at the British Museum.

Pallas (Athena) With the Parthenon, 1896 by Rodin at the British Museum. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Look at The Walking Man, famous through its many editions in different sizes, pocket to deluxe. This headless figure is imprisoned mid-stride, one foot forward, the other back, both weirdly, improbably flat to the ground. Compare him with the marvellous statue of Hermes, a copy of which stood in Rodin’s garden, standing still but longing to move, all his musculature tense with energy. What you see is the same sinuous god given release and then immediately held back. This is echt Rodin: implying forward motion, yet rooting a figure to the spot.

A pint-sized version in this show hoists the walker to the top of a Corinthian column: classical art twisted, coarsened, pushed to extremes – then mounted on a Greek pedestal for added estrangement.

To see ancient and modern sculpture juxtaposed like this is to follow Rodin’s thinking with compelling intimacy. For him, it seems, all forms are dynamic and interchangeable. The reclining body of Ilissos from the west pediment of the Parthenon, so strenuously male, apparently has female potential for Rodin: he softens the tendons and turns the river god into Ariadne; and then again, minus the bosom, into an extraordinary fluid transgender form – nothing less than the embodiment of Earth.

The river god Ilissos, from the west pediment of the Parthenon, c438-432BC.

The river god Ilissos, from the west pediment of the Parthenon, c438-432BC. Photograph: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ariadne, large version, 1905 by Rodin.

Rodin’s Ariadne, large version, 1905. Photograph: © Musee Rodin

Rodin was 40 when he took the boat train to London to see the Greek art known previously only through photographs and casts. Hitherto he had mainly worked from plaster copies in the Louvre. This is how one of his earliest, and most controversial, triumphs came into being. The Age of Bronze, that supremely introspective youth poised between idea and act, made its appearance in 1877. To contemporary eyes, it seemed so true to life that Rodin’s critics insisted it must have been cast straight from a living body. A Belgian soldier did indeed pose for the clay model from which the bronze figure was cast. But the hand upon the head, with its questioning finger, very obviously relates to the statue beside it in this show, of a Greek youth preparing for a cavalcade – nude, stretching, holding a spear. Rodin removes the spear, and thus the narrative; which is so much his way with the pilfering. Take the classical figure, shed the context, redirect the force and alter the meaning.

Meaning is always up in the air with Rodin. Even a sculpture as apparently simple as The Kiss goes two ways: the circling motion of the pose – his arm clamped to her thigh, she clutching hard to his neck – thwarted by the laborious execution of muscle. Together for ever, or unable to escape? And what’s on the mind of The Thinker, that muckle head-in-hand man with his colossal thighs and oddly unfulfilled hair? His head is not in his hand, in fact, but leaning heavily on the back of it – a gesture lifted straight from Athenian mourning statues. The question of whether he is thinking to a purpose or deep in melancholy now gets a new inflection.

The Thinker reappears in miniature at the top of The Gates of Hell, standing in for Dante, the Greek god Minos, the Almighty or even Rodin. By now it’s become clear that forms may be repurposed ad infinitum. And what this show makes staggeringly clear is the effect on Rodin of the British Museum. To see the Parthenon marbles all together was to view a miracle in fragments – a disembodied head, a single foot, an expressively clenched muscle. The experience unleashes his obsession with parts, and partial forms.

Auguste Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, c1910.

Auguste Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, c1910. Photograph: © Musée Rodin

An outstretched hand may be an icon of charity in its own right. An agonised face (biting back the grief in what is surely a portrait: the real and ideal always jostle in his art) has no need of a body. And who needs a head when a pair of striding legs conjures force of personality? Rodin sculpts fragments; and he puts fragments together like Frankenstein. His assemblages, as they’re known, might involve grafting a fluidly modern figure on to an ancient Greek urn. His groups may be assembled one by one, like The Burghers of Calais, with its gravely humble martyrs at odds with the main figure, Christ-like, yet with knuckles like King Kong.

This show is brilliantly orchestrated with superb pairings, startling shifts of scale and sculptures you can touch. It loops back on itself so that each figure is visible from all sides, and it shuffles the timelines so that you see the separate elements of The Gates of Hell among the Greek fragments that inspired them. And what this emphasises, above all, is Rodin’s unique way of working. That vast, convulsive frieze of fragments is nothing less than an accumulation of parts – inchoate forms, figures emerging dolphin-backed from the surface, or returning to it like crashing planes, single heads and disembodied limbs in wildly discrepant sizes, from low relief to free-standing sculpture: all united in one breathtaking collage. (And then broken apart and repeated in other media to have separate lives of their own.)

In art, nothing comes of nothing. Rodin acknowledged his debt in resounding terms: “The sculptures of ancient Greece remain my masters.” In bringing the two together, the curators of this show have achieved an extraordinary reversal. The genius of the ancient statues seems more present and immediate than ever, in all their emotional, intellectual and aesthetic refinement. And Rodin himself, who can sometimes seem both clumsy and conservative, now looks newly radical.

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece – trailer

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