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How Greece helped shape Rodin in stone

Jane Clinton visits the British Museum and discovers how the ancient Greeks inspired the French sculptor

18 May, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon. Photo: Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

IT is the stillness that hits you first. Figures suspended, on the cusp of movement.

The British Museum’s Rodin and the art of ancient Greece is an exquisite display of Rodin and the inspiration behind his work.

The venue itself is central to the story of Rodin as it was here that he experienced his “ancient Greece” – he never travelled to the real thing so the British Museum became his substitute for Athens.

Of particular interest were the Parthenon sculptures (13 of which are on display) and in this exhibition we can see for the first time his work alongside the very sculptures that so inspired him.

There are some 80 works by Rodin in marble, bronze and plaster as some of Rodin’s sketches on display. The climax of which is the placing of the sculpture, Monument to the Burghers of Calais, at the far end of the Sainsbury gallery where natural light streams through the huge windows giving the sculpture an almost biblical resonance.

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432BC. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Rodin first visited London and the British Museum in 1881 when he was 40. He would become a regular visitor, so much so that he once remarked: in 1902 “in my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum”.

Some of his sketches included in this exhibition were even done on headed notepaper from the Thackeray Hotel which was opposite the British Museum and was where Rodin stayed when he was in London.

For Rodin, the ancient Greek Pheidias was the greatest of all artists and was a huge influence on his work. “No artist will ever surpass Pheidias,” he wrote in 1911. “The greatest of sculptors…”

Pheidias, who lived from 480-430BC was a revered artist who is known to have conceived of the Parthenon sculptures. Some of his most celebrated works included the statue of Zeus at Olympus, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the statue of Athena which stood in the Parthenon.

What does survive of his work includes half the marble sculptures that decorated the Parthenon.

These fragments were, to Rodin, masterpieces. He was against restoration of such pieces as he believed that their aged state reflected their “life cycle”. Even after the earthquake of 1894 he campaigned against the restoration of the newly-damaged Parthenon.

Rodin’s The Thinker. image © The Trustees of the British Museum

He was not alone in this stance. When Lord Elgin brought fragments of the Parthenon sculptures to England in the early 1800s (a move which remains deeply controversial) he asked Antonio Canova to restore them and replace the missing parts. Canova refused, insisting that they were the epitome of authentic Ancient Greek sculpture.

By the mid-1890s, Rodin had amassed a collection of more than 6,000 antiquities, many of which were fragments. He saw them as art to be celebrated and they inspired him to become one of the first artists to make the genre of the headless, limbless torso a work of art in its own right.

Two of Rodin’s most celebrated sculptures are represented in this exhibition and have received something of a reappraisal.

The Thinker, rather than capturing a man in deep thought, could, experts say, more likely be a subject in mourning judging by the position of his hands. With the chin resting on the back of his hand, a gesture of mourning in Ancient Greek art, is The Thinker a more mournful, figure, reflecting on the tragedy of the human condition?

Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), The Age of Bronze, 1877. Bronze. Sandcast before 1916. © Musée Rodin

Then there is The Kiss, carved from a single block of stone. Seemingly the epitome of romantic love, the version included in the exhibition, is a plaster cast of the very first marble version and became the one which Rodin would display in exhibitions and from which others were copied.

The Kiss more likely takes it inspiration from two female goddesses, which were originally on the East Pediment of the Parthenon, where one goddess reclines in the lap of her companion.

The two melt into one and this fluidity of the human form became a subject of greater discussion with the birth of photography in the 1830s and 1840s.
This new medium prompted artists and sculptors to re-evaluate how to depict movement.

While Rodin admired and used photography, he insisted that photographs “froze” action and only sculpture and drawing could truly capture the essence of movement.

“It’s the artist who tells the truth and the photographer who lies. For in reality time does not stand still,” he said (Art: Conversations with Paul Gsell, 1911).

Rodin, who died in 1917, once said “the body is the cast that bears the imprint of our passions”. These were the passions Rodin sought so fervently to inhabit his sculpture.

But it was perhaps the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, once briefly Rodin’s secretary, who captures the essence of Rodin and indeed this exhibition. “Men did not speak to him,” he wrote. “Stones spoke.”

Rodin and the art of Ancient Greece is at the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at British Museum, Great Russell Street, WC1, until July 29. Open daily 10am-5.30pm. Tickets from £17, children under 16 free. 020 7323 8181, www.britishmuseum.org/rodin

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