• Art, Past & Present: Part 1 of 3 - 'Rodin and the art of ancient Greece'

    By chance, three different art exhibitions in London currently all engage with the same subject – how particular artists considered the old and the new. Specifically, shows looking at Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Thomas Cole explore how they each viewed societal developments in their own times, wondered what their work should look like in the context of that and whether they followed, built on or reacted against those practitioners who came before. Fittingly all three finish on the same date, so you have about five weeks to experience all of them. My own encounters began with the British Museum’s Rodin and the art of ancient Greece.

    The putative originator of modern sculpture visited the British museum repeatedly. He took direct inspiration from what he saw there, especially the Parthenon Sculptures or Elgin Marbles. Uniquely, this innovative show presents the visitor with more than half a dozen instances to examine the source alongside the result. Thus a plaster cast of The Kiss (plaster, we find out, was often the only medium a clay original was reproduced in, pending its commissioning in bronze or marble by a buyer) sits next to a pair of Parthenon goddesses from the workshop of Greek sculptor Phidias or Pheidias, believed to be the creator of the monument’s integrated sculptural programme. In both, the Museum contends, faces are subordinate to bodies – Rodin found the ancient figures “participants in something that we do not see” and also believed in the lyrical concept of ‘phantasia’, whereby the sculptor’s apparition of beauty resided in the mind and was revealed by the hand. In both cases this shaped stone into flesh.

    Matching a dying Lapith warrior with Rodin’s The Martyr is also illustrative of this connection, as is a single figure in an extract from the superb cavalcade sequence – it is impossible to avoid cinematic terminology when describing this outstanding piece of ‘stop motion’ from 2,500 years ago, and indeed the curators note that a sense of movement might have been apparent when this frieze was seen through the screen of columns on the temple – and his The Age of Bronze. Rodin drew and had casts of such architectural elements to help him in his work, and recalled the “little mould makers” who sold convenient A4-sized replicas in the streets of European cities.

    Architecture is another link between these ages in and of itself, since not only did Rodin at one point go into business making architectural sculpture but The Kiss and many of his other works – including The Thinker, presented here in two very powerful versions including a terracotta – began as components of a vast pair of doors, the forbiddingly titled Gates of Hell, for a Parisian art museum. Patterned after the compartmented, richly-carved portal to Florence’s Renaissance Baptistry by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the doors were never made and the museum never built but for Rodin the detailed development work he undertook for the project acted as a kind of living sketchbook for the rest of his life. The exhibition takes pains to identify how those works derived from it made the transition to stand-alone pieces, including when Rodin decided to conjoin more than one source to form a new single form (that Rodin used the same fragments repeatedly but in different combinations is clear in the latest iteration of the wonderful Musée Rodin in Paris, where dozens if not hundreds of casts of arms, legs and torsos are displayed in cabinets, like a fin de siècle Airfix kit of Man awaiting assembly).

    For Rodin an ancient stone torso could seem as “real flesh [that] must have been moulded by kisses and caresses”, yet he also sought to prove that torsos in and of themselves, created as such from the start, could become valid artistic statements. This is shown when Lissos, a headless river god from the Parthenon, is put next to Rodin’s Ariadne, and Hermes stands adjacent to The Falling Man. With the first of these the Frenchman removed the head from a figure on the Gates, evoking an ancient sculpture eroded by time as the curators insightfully have it and so creating instant if self-assured comparisons with the past as well as supporting his thesis. I wondered at this point whether the distinctive cropping of statues in the paintings of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a near-exact contemporary of Rodin who also looked to the past for his subject matter, might have aimed for the same reading. Fascinatingly, Rodin collected items of sculpture, domestic artefacts and the like that COULD have been created by his hero Phidias as inspiration or for incorporation into his work whilst Alma Tadema carefully selected archaeological finds to be depicted in his paintings, even if he often then deliberately mixed-up or distorted materials, periods and scales for effect – he would frequently take say a Roman marble copy of a Greek sculpture and imagine the lost Greek original, or take a bronze bust designed for a room pedestal and enlarge it to Colossus size. Both men employed the modern technology or photography as an aide.

    Despite his clear love of the past, Rodin was no preservationist. He campaigned against restoration of the Parthenon, preferring to see it crumble, and felt that buildings in general should, like the human body, be born, mature and decay. Keen only to retain his library of inspiration, he looked to the future whilst referring to the past. This enlightening show shows both sides of his personality to good effect, and if it could have benefitted from a little extra layering – more context at the start, an audio guide, more on the techniques of past and present sculptors – and a slightly more intimate setting for some of the works than the cavernous unadorned black box of its new temporary exhibition gallery, it is still well worth seeing.

    Rodin and the art of ancient Greece continues at the British Museum, London WC1 until 29 July 2018

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own full-colour collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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