Rodin and the art of ancient Greece

Our arts contributor, Miriam Al Jamil, reflects on the women artists and classical statuary that once inspired and now outshine Rodin’s work.

The exhibition Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum is a triple celebration. It unfolds the visceral beauty of Rodin’s sculpture alongside exquisite Parthenon marbles, and both serve to exemplify the Museum’s pivotal role as keeper of the world’s treasures. The Parthenon sculptures on show have left a gaping space in the Duveen Gallery’s permanent display which conveys a subliminal message. The loss of the whole frieze would leave us (i.e. visitors from around the world) culturally impoverished. The exhibition catalogue reminds us that the Parthenon was not a place of cult worship, but was rather ‘a grand votive offering to commemorate Athens’ role in the victory over the Persians in the first two decades of the fifth century BC’ (p.15). It was also a treasury for tributary payments which maintained the army and thus Athens’ security. The sculpture which adorned this edifice was therefore a political statement from the beginning, overlaid now with the politics of our own Imperial past and our struggle to justify its rich pickings.

Goddesses in diaphanous drapery, figures L and M from the east pediment of the Parthenon, about 438-432 BC, Marble. Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

The huge new gallery space where the past exhibition, Defining Beauty, the body in Ancient Greek Art, was staged in 2015 accommodates the monumental form and for the Rodin exhibition we are invited into the Parthenon space itself. Around the walls, hangings represent fluted columns. We weave our way through Rodin’s inspiration and practices. We are invited to compare his work directly with that of Phidias, the ancient Greek sculptor associated with the Parthenon frieze, but the journey we take is wholly Rodin’s.

The last great Rodin exhibition in London was at the Royal Academy in 2007, also in collaboration with the Musée Rodin in Paris but additionally with the Kunsthaus, Zϋrich. This enabled The Royal Academy to secure the loan of a bronze cast of Rodin’s towering piece, The Gates of Hell (c.1890), from Zurich and it was placed in the Academy courtyard. At the British Museum, we have a wall projection of this complex work and a series of related models and drawings. It was commissioned as a doorway for a planned but unexecuted new museum of decorative arts in Paris. Rodin used Dante’s Inferno as his inspiration, although ‘Abandon all hope who enter here’ does not read as a particularly encouraging welcome.

Rodin was obsessed with the fragmented remains of classical sculpture. For him, it liberated his work from the rigours and demands of ‘finish’, and enabled the hand of the artist to guide the eye and construct a sense of haptic engagement with his clay, plaster and marble. For Rodin, the fragment always retained the ghost of a previous form and the potential for change; a release from the immutable into something free and strange. In a raw, small-scale, working version of The Gates of Hell (third maquette, 1880-81, which is displayed near the projection), we can espy the deep impressions in the clay that were made by the sculptor’s fingers. These indentations would later develop into new versions of the sculpture complete with a rocky outcrop representing the Acropolis. So many of his figures battle with their materiality, claw their way out of the stone, grasp at each other, resist their petrification. They seem to have had a living presence arrested rather than created by the chisel. A nearby case shows the tools of the sculptor essentially unchanged since the days of Phidias, directly connecting Rodin through time with the masters who informed his work. Michelangelo is as fundamental to his vision as Phidias, a Renaissance intermediary with the classical past.

Auguste Rodin’s La Porte de l’Enfer (The Gates of Hell) at the Kunsthaus in Zurich, Switzerland.

Stated in the exhibition, but largely unexplored for its influence on Rodin, is Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, Les Fleurs du mal (1857). How far did Rodin identify with Baudelaire’s exploration of estrangement from his contemporary modern world? How much of his sculpture is a statement of nostalgia and discontent? Some of Rodin’s tortured figures tell us more about fin de siècle angst than classical order and beauty of form.

Central to that angst was the fear and insecurity about female sexuality expressed by many of his contemporary male artists, for example the Symbolist Gustave Moreau (1826-98). Rodin had a succession of women in his life, a long-term mistress in addition to devoted pupils and models. Camille Claudel (1864–1943) now receives serious attention as a sculptor but previously only found a place in Rodin’s shadow. A photograph of her at work with her friend Jessie Lipscomb (1861-1952), also an important sculptor who studied at the Royal College of Art, belies the passive portrait head of Claudel, which Rodin produced with the title Thought in c.1895 (cat.42). His smooth workshop sculpture, carved by Victor Peter, emerges from its rocky marble plinth as a testimony to the skill of the craftsman. The glittering micas of the marble are tamed for the milky flesh of the face. The catalogue notes: ‘In a post-Freudian age, it would be tempting to see the work as a symbolic commentary on the increasingly stormy nature of their relationship’ (p.109). It is a disturbingly disembodied head that conjures up the image of Lady Jane Grey surrendering to the executioner’s axe.

Camille Claudel (left) and sculptor Jessie Lipscomb in their Paris studio, rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, 1887. Courtesy of ADAGP, Paris, 2012.

However, Rodin routinely represented female portrait subjects in this way, emerging from the stone, trapped in the substance from which they were created. A photograph of the artist Gwen John (1876-1939), another of Rodin’s models, shows her vulnerable and exposed, posing for the nearby Draped Muse for the Monument to Whistler (1914-18, cat.96). We do not of course see the confident nude self-portrait drawings by John which show her own dispassionate artist’s eye.

Gwen John’s Self-Portrait, 1902, oil on canvas, Tate Britain. Courtesy of Tate.

Our progression through the exhibition fragments our view of the sculpture, offering different angles and ever-changing juxtapositions. Rodin and his classical models merge into bodies on different scales, which stride across the spaces to disrupt our sense of where they belong – in ancient Greece or Rodin’s studio? The physical effects of time and location are clear in a close examination of the Head of the horse of Selene (cat.98). It represents one of the horses which drew the moon goddess across the sky at the break of dawn. It is the iconic figure from the East Pediment of the Parthenon and although familiar it still offers up surprises.

Benjamin Robert Haydon’s (1786-1846) drawings of the head (British Museum 1881, 0709.346) – which were made as soon as the Parthenon sculptures were shown in London – are beautiful, but they completely ignored the imperfections, perversely ‘restoring’ the fractured marble he embraced with such enthusiasm. The catalogue describes the sculpture as ‘a universal image that defines the very essence of equine exhaustion’ (cat.98). The left side is smoother than the right which is pitted and weathered from its long exposure on the Parthenon pediment. The lighting in the exhibition seems to highlight the delicate skin of the flared nostrils, the finely chiselled membrane which exemplifies the skill so admired by Rodin. However, Rodin’s interest was in the human figure. The horse is placed in the last section of the exhibition called ‘Emotion’ to complement other features of the Parthenon sculptures so that ultimately it is the Museum’s magnificent collection that has the last word.

Pheidias’ Head of the Horse of Selene, from the East pediment of the Parthenon Sculptures (East pediment O), 438-432BC, at the British Museum. Courtesy of the British Museum.

The British Museum is the only venue for this exhibition. The Rodin sculpture has travelled here as did Rodin, and his work enables us to revisit the Parthenon and experience the inspiration it once excited in him. Many visitors had their sketchbooks out and photos were permitted. In some ways, the comparisons the exhibition encourages are unbalanced and contrived. Rodin’s ancient Greek guiding spirit, Phidias, cannot speak and Rodin was a man of his time, but the sculpture itself always speaks and Rodin’s experiments with the human form are still relevant, exciting and never disappoint.

Rodin and the art of ancient Greece is at the British Museum until 29th July. For more information click here:

Miriam Al Jamil is researching towards a PhD in art history at Birkbeck. She is the Fine Arts editor for the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies online review page, ‘Criticks’ and is active in The Women’s Studies Group, 1558-1837. Miriam is also a key member of the Johnson Society of London and the Burney Society UK. She prefers fruitful inter-disciplinary conversations between literature, art and history, and classical sculpture is her inspiration.

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