It started with a kiss …
Walking into the Rodin and the art of ancient Greece exhibition at the British Museum brings visitors face to face with The Kiss, one of Rodin’s most famous sculptures. This special exhibition explores the influence the museum had on Rodin’s work, which he visited for the first time in 1881. Home to the Elgin marbles, Rodin was instantly captivated by the beauty of the ancient Parthenon sculptures. Containing a mix of Rodin’s work and the early masterpieces, the British Museum explores how the ancient world influenced his aesthetic imagination.
“Your beautiful museums, with their marvellous collections, Greek, Assyrian, and Egyptian, awakened in me a flood of sensations, which is not new, had at any rate a rejuvenating influence, and those sensations caused me to follow Nature all the more closely in my studies.”
– Auguste Rodin
The French sculptor Auguste Rodin (François-Auguste-René Rodin, 1840-1917) was one of the most influential European artists of the period and the first since the heyday of Neoclassicism to engage the public with his form of art. Although he is now a famous name, his background was not so propitious. Rodin came from a poor background, the second child of Marie Cheffer and Jean-Baptiste Rodin. He was mostly homeschooled until age 14 when he attended the Petite École, a school that specialised in art and mathematics, however, his application for further study at the École des Beaux-Arts, was rejected on three separate occasions. For many years, Rodin worked as an ornamental mason but he aspired to be something of much more importance.
Rodin’s first major influence, before he visited the British Museum, was Michelangelo (1475-1564), whose statues inspired him when he visited Italy at the end of 1875. Michelangelo’s male nudes were one of the stimuli for Rodin’s The Age of Bronze (1877), which also sits near the entrance to the exhibition. In order to produce this particular bronze statue, Rodin studied the body of a Belgian soldier, Auguste Neyt; a Roman statue of the spear-bearer Doryphoros; as well as Michelangelo’s Dying Slave (1513-16). When The Age of Bronze was first exhibited, it sparked controversy because of its naturalistic appearance. Although Rodin had sculpted it by hand, he was accused of having cast it from a live model.
By 1880 at the age of 40, Rodin’s reputation had been established, earning him a commision by the Paris state to produce a decorative door for the proposed Musée des Artes Décoratifs. Entitled The Gates of Hell, Rodin poured his finest creative energy into the work for 20 years, however, the museum never came into being. Nonetheless, it resulted in 200 figures of which many formed the basis of Rodin’s most famous sculptures, such as The Kiss and The Thinker (1881-2).
The name and the figures featured on The Gates of Hell were inspired by Dante Alighieri’s (1265-1321) Divine Comedy. The individual figures, ranging in height from 15cm to 1m, represented a scene from the first section of the narrative poem, Inferno.
Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost.
Justice urged on my high artificer;
My Maker was Divine authority,
The highest Wisdom, and the primal Love.
Before me nothing but eternal things
Were made, and I endure eternally.
Abandon every hope, who enter here.
The Kiss and The Thinker, both featured in the exhibition, are large marble versions of the original sculptures Rodin produced for the gate. It was normal for sculptors to produce several versions of their work in various sizes, particularly when the originals were in miniature form. In order to exhibit his work, Rodin created the larger versions that the British Museum has borrowed for this show. In fact, one cast of The Thinker sits overlooking Rodin’s grave in the garden of Meudon, where he once lived.
The Kiss, whilst seemingly romantic, has a darker side. The two figures are Paolo and Francesca, two lovers featured in The Divine Comedy, who are about to be discovered by Francesca’s husband – also Paolo’s brother. In a fit of rage, the husband/brother kills the pair; this scene is their final, bittersweet embrace.
The Thinker was designed to sit up high on The Gates of Hell, looking down on all the people wishing to enter. This was originally going to be Minos, the judge of the damned as described in Dante’s version of Hell. After the gates never came to fruition, the soon enlarged sculpture became known as The Thinker. It shows a man with an athletic body sitting with his chin resting on the back of his hand as though lost in meditation. Alternatively, art critics have interpreted it as a man in a state of depression over the tragic nature of the human condition. The pose in which he sits is typical of the sign of mourning in ancient Greek art.
Other figures from the gate are also displayed in the exhibition, however, they are significantly smaller and less impressive than the two previously mentioned. These include The Crouching Woman, Falling Man and Sister of Icarus, the latter being a character entirely made up by Rodin’s imagination.
Interspersed between Rodin’s sculptures are examples of the remains of the Parthenon marble statues produced between 438-432 BC. The majority of these have lost their heads and extremities, leaving only their torsos and upper legs intact. Nevertheless, Rodin saw the beauty in these sculptures, proclaiming, “… they are no less masterpieces for being incomplete.”
As visitors to the exhibition will notice, Rodin frequently created works that resembled these ancient Greek sculptures, complete with missing heads. He aimed to honour the remains he so admired, relying on the bodies to give expression to the figures.
“This is real flesh! … It must have been moulded by kisses and caressess … one almost expects, when touching this torso, to find it warm.”
– Rodin, 1911, speaking about Torso of Venus
For many years, Rodin spent a large amount of his time at the British Museum; it became his second home and allowed him to visit ancient Greece without leaving London. The statues he so admired were originally from the Acropolis of Athens, which Lord Elgin (1766-1841) had brought to England in 1803; these sculptures are often referred to as the Elgin Marbles.
It is thought that many of the Elgin Marbles were designed by Pheidias (480-430 BC) who is regarded in antiquity as the greatest artist of all time. Unfortunately, the most famous of his works have not survived, notably the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In 447 BC, the Greek statesman, Pericles, commissioned Pheidas to produce sculptures, which would later decorate the Parthenon in Athens, in celebration of the Greek victory against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon during the Greco-Persian Wars (490 BC).
Although only fragments of the original marble statues survive, Rodin was inspired by the headless, limbless figures and deliberately appropriated this all’antica (“after the antique”) look in his own sculptures. He was particularly drawn to the way motion could be expressed in stationary stone.
During his lifetime, the process of photography was rapidly developing and artists were able to capture and study movement for the first time. Rodin, however, disliked the photographic outcomes, stating “It’s the artist who tells the truth and the photographer who lies. For in reality, time does not stand still.” (1911)
Pheidias, or other artists who worked on the Parthenon, depicted movement through the position of the body. Despite the limbs no longer existing, movement can still be detected by the angle of the torso and the drapes of the tunics or cloaks the figures wear. With this in mind, Rodin replicated the ancient master’s technique, particularly in his bronze sculpture of The Walking Man (1907). This decapitated body is full of energy, which makes it appear as though he has been walking purposefully for a length of time.
“It is not my Walking Man in himself that interests me but rather the thought of how far he has come and how far he has yet to go.”
– Rodin, 1907
Whilst Rodin has a reputation for lopping off heads and appendages, he also produced a number of sculptures with all their limbs intact, for instance, The Kiss and The Thinker. Another example is a monument commisioned by the city of Calais in honour of six men who were willing to sacrifice themselves to end Edward III’s siege on Calais during the Hundred Years’ War. Fortunately, as described by the medieval writer Jean Froissart (1337-1405), one of the wealthiest of the town leaders, Eustache de Saint Pierre, volunteered as a sacrifice, followed by five other burghers, however, their lives were spared by the intervention of England’s queen, Philippa of Hainault (1310-1369), who persuaded her husband to let them go, claiming that their deaths would be a bad omen for her unborn child.
Rodin’s monument, The Burghers of Calais (1884-9), depicts the six hostages in a range of stances from anguish to courage as they anticipated the threat of death. Each figure is dressed in sackcloth and their bodies and facial expressions reveal the tension and anxiety they felt. Along with Eustache de Saint Pierre, who looks like a worn-out old man, stands Andrieu d’Andres with his head in his hands, Jean d’Aire, Pierre de Wissant and his brother Jacques, and Jean de Fiennes.
The result of Rodin’s hard work was not exactly what the civic authorities had hoped for; they were expecting something that portrayed the burghers as heroic and patriotic. Nonetheless, The Burghers of Calais is a strong example of Rodin’s radical designs.
The British Museum’s exhibition contains the bulk of Rodin’s masterpieces, beginning with The Kiss and The Thinker, and ending with The Burghers of Calais and The Walking Man. Interspersed between Rodin’s works are several ancient marble sculptures, the majority of which the British Museum already owned. What is interesting to note, aside from Rodin’s appropriation of the Parthenon sculptures, is the skill and technique used to produce such perfect figures.
It is safe to assume Rodin never actually worked the stone but rather produced plaster models for others to copy. Likewise, it is doubtful that Pheidias produced the Parthenon stones, most likely only being the designer. Nevertheless, the marble versions of Rodin’s sculptures are made to look exactly like his initial versions, complete with finger marks and indents.
To engage visitors, the museum has provided examples of the tools used to sculpt marble and the process the stone goes through, from rough edges to a smooth finish. Everyone is invited to touch and feel examples of marble during different stages of the sculpting process.
The first stage labelled “roughing out” is the least delicate of the processes. With a hammer, tools such as a pitcher and a point are struck against the stone in order to remove large, unwanted chunks. The remaining stone has a rough texture where pieces have broken away. The sculptor then applies various chisels to refine the surface and gradually shape the stone into their desired appearance. Finally, the marble is finished with a rasp or emery stone, which creates a highly polished surface.
Another technique that Rodin employed was bronze casting. For this, the artist would produce his sculpture in clay with his hands, which would then be covered in plaster by studio assistants. When dry, the plaster could be carefully removed, thus producing moulds to be sent to a foundry where it would be filled with bronze to create the final outcome. This was a particularly expensive process and Rodin only used it when he was commissioned to do so, for instance, The Burghers of Calais.
From beginning to end, Rodin and the art of ancient Greece is set out by theme, finishing with Rodin’s ability to depict motion in his statues. It is fairly easy to navigate with a semi-one-way system ensuring that visitors get the opportunity to view everything in the exhibition. The only issue with this is in busy times queues form in order to read the information by each individual sculpture. Also, as photography is permitted, people are forever waiting to get a clear shot of the statues.
Although the sculptures are given the praise and justice they deserve, the information about Rodin himself is rather limited. Rodin is described as a radical sculptor who was not appreciated as much during his lifetime as he was after his death. Now considered one of the greatest sculptors of the 19th and 20th centuries, Rodin was ridiculed for his ideas, which were simultaneously modern and antiquated.
The information provided by the museum is only in relation to Rodin’s work or his response to the Parthenon sculptures. Missing are details about his upbringing, family life and personal factors that help connect visitors with the artist. Granted, the British Museum focuses on antiquity rather than art, but it would have been beneficial to know more about Rodin’s history. There is barely any reference to his models, particularly his lovers Gwen John (1876-1939) and Camille Claudel (1864-1943). Nor is there any meaningful acknowledgement of his 53-year relationship with Rose Beuret, whom he finally married in 1917, a mere two weeks before her death. Rodin died in November of the same year after suffering a severe bout of influenza.
“At certain times, he simply stands before his relics, meditating … How his fingers tremble when he touches these old stones!”
– Gustave Coquiot, 1917
Essentially, Rodin and the art of ancient Greece is as much a celebration of the ancient Parthenon sculptures as it is a reflection on Rodin’s work. There is something of interest for both the historian and the artist. Although not particularly educational, it makes up for this with the brilliance and awe-inspiring nature of the sculptures on show. It is a fantastic opportunity to see Rodin’s most famous works up close and to appreciate the detail in the art of the ancient Greeks.
Rodin and the art of ancient Greece organised by the British Museum with Musée Rodin, Paris is on show until 29th July 2018. Tickets are priced at £17 per person, although discounts for certain visitors are available. Members of the British Museum can visit for free with a valid pass.