The longer I spent in the British Museum’s admirable new blockbuster show, Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, the more keenly I seemed to feel the presence of a third, uninvited presence, hovering in the background, unseen but persistently present. Yes, it was none other than that contemporary art super-star, Britain’s very own Damien Hirst.
It soon becomes apparent as one examines the exhibition in more detail, that this kind of emergence is a savvy fiction – ELS
The exhibition leads you along a trail that finishes up with something very familiar, the famous Burghers of Calais bronze group, which normally lives in Victoria Tower Gardens, close to the Houses of Parliament. This was purchased by the National Art Collections Fund in 1911, during the lifetime of the then very celebrated artist, and presented to the nation in 1914. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece – don’t get me wrong – but has the moralistic tone appropriate to both the actual subject of the work and to the location chosen for its display. Gillian Wearing’s sculpture of the suffragette heroine Millicent Fawcett, newly installed around the corner in Parliament Square, is essentially a work that falls into the same category. I wouldn’t be hugely surprised to wake up one morning and find that some worthy contemporary artist has been commissioned to produce a comparable group of female figures, jostling Rodin’s Burghers for space in Tower Gardens, on the theme of #Me Too.
In one way the comparison suggested by the B.M. show, one between Rodin’s work and another very famous enterprise in public sculpture, the marbles created by the great Athenian sculptor Phidias to adorn the Parthenon, seems entirely appropriate. Doubly so when one considers that Rodin adored these works, came a number of times to London to see them at the B.M., and considered them to be the very best thing that Britain’s capital had to offer to a visitor. The show punches the theme home with both scholarship and skill.
What it also demonstrates, apparently oblivious to the fact that it is doing so, is Rodin’s startling cousinship to many of the procedures and attitudes that we now think of as being typical of contemporary art. Not necessarily in a good way.
The bulk of the Rodin sculptures on view are made not of bronze, nor of marble, but of plaster, general thought of as an intermediary substance, moving towards the fully finished art work. Henry Moore, a major Modernist sculptor on a level of celebrity and influence with Rodin, pioneered, at least in the earlier part of his career, a revolt against this way of working, inherited by Rodin from neo-classicist predecessors such as Canova. Moore, at his beginnings, took Michelangelo as his exemplar, armed with chisel and hammer, hacking the form out of the block. As is notorious, Michelangelo succeeded in spoiling many of his own creations as a result, or impatiently left them unfinished. Rodin was certainly susceptible to the lure of the non-finito, making works where the figures are just emerging from the parent block. A good example here is the marble group called The Earth and the Moon (1898-1899), borrowed from the National Museum of Wales.
It soon becomes apparent, however, as one examines the exhibition in more detail, that this kind of emergence is a savvy fiction, nothing much to do with Rodin’s basic attitudes towards sculptural technique.
One of the major reasons that the Parthenon sculptures attracted him was their damaged and indeed ruined state. The damage stimulated his imagination. In this he was very much a man of his own Late Romantic epoch. In common with many of the artists and admirers of art of his own generation and those of many preceding generations before his own from the Renaissance onwards, he was very reluctant to accept the fact that the classical sculptures made in antiquity had, if made of marble, usually been painted to resemble life.
The damage to these ancient masterpieces led Rodin to the idea of creating works that were in what might be described as ‘a state of becoming’, momentary visions evoked as the concept moved from one state to the next. He often borrowed elements from previous works of his own, not necessarily in any way directly related to the subject he had in hand. A good example is a sculpture called The Centauress (1901-1904). The exhibition catalogue describes it thus: ‘Also known as The Soul and Body, The Centauress is an assemblage of a female torso, a head from Fugit Amor and the body of the horse from the Monument to General Lynch, dated 1887-1889.’
The sculpture shows a hybrid creature, part human, part horse, with an immensely elongated neck. She is being throttled by a pair of human arms, without a head or even much of a torso, placed on top of a rough-hewn pillar. The catalogue compares this work, rather unconvincingly, to a Parthenon metope where a centaur is throttling a Lapith. In fact, with its use of drastic elongation, it is oddly reminiscent of a famous Surrealist work by Dali – Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War). Dated 1934-1936, this is a full generation later than Redon’s sculpture.
The exhibition is prophetic in other ways – much more drastic ways – than this. In its casual forcing together of images borrowed from very disparate sources to make new compositions, it has an eerie resemblance to the images Damien Hirst showed at his recent big show in Venice, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.
It also, like Hirst’s art, displays a cheerful indifference to the idea that work by a master artist has, to be authentic, to have been made entirely, or at least very largely, by the master’s own physical hands. The catalogue note for The Centauress tells one cheerfully that it was carved, not by Rodin, but by an assistant called Victor Peter. Who he?
But then, of course, Rodin’s idol Phidias didn’t actually carve the Parthenon marbles himself. He left that to his team, while he got on with producing the chryselephantine statues in gold and ivory that made him famous to his contemporaries, but which are now lost to us. ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same.’
Rodin and the art of ancient Greece British Museum 26 April – 29 July 2018 £17 Adults