Art Review: Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece, British Museum ‘A Masterclass’

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I am a huge fan of Rodin’s work. Whenever and wherever I see it, I can only but marvel at the smoothness of the skin he was able to fashion out of marble, and marvel at the detail he was able to carve into the stone. But, most of all, it was the great man’s ability to capture life – to evoke movement and emotion – that astounds me. And it is precisely this aspect of his work that impresses most in this fascinating new show at the British Museum.

Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917) is widely respected as one of the greatest and most innovative sculptors of the modern era but it is not so widely known that he took much of his inspiration from Ancient Greece, the Parthenon sculptures, and the work of the fifth century BC sculptor Pheidias, in particular.

Rodin never visited the Parthenon in Athens, but he did visit the British Museum to sketch and examine the works (“in my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum,” he once said). Indeed, his iconic The Kiss, that lauded piece of heterosexual love, actually evokes two female goddesses, originally on the East Pediment of the Parthenon, one of which reclines luxuriously in the lap of her companion.

And that revelation, for me at least, makes for fascinating food for thought as I gazed upon a plaster cast of Rodin’s famous work on loan from the Musée Rodin. And it’s not the only instantly recognisable piece on display for The Thinker is here too, a couple of versions of it. And it is this piece that launches the show into its most interesting part.

For, rather wisely, the curators have kept the controversial pieces of the Parthenon the Museum owns out of this show and, instead, focuses on Rodin’s creation of The Gates of Hell, that whopping masterpiece that stands at six metres high and four metres wide, which recreates a scene from Dante’s Inferno.

The original remains in Paris but the collection of individual works on show here pull out the individual scenes, those figures in agony in hell, from the door and allows us to take each individual achievement as the masterclass that it is.

A small version of The Thinker as we know it now sits above the doors, contemplating the destruction beneath, maybe even judging it. And as we follow the exhibition through, we witness hands clenched in pain, anguished men clutching at their heads in despair, desperate figures scrambling up rocks to flee the heat and the pain whilst other figures tumble back down into the chaos…

These are extraordinary works, Rodin’s masterfulness at excavating such torture, such a powerful conveyance of extreme emotions and the human condition from stone… The emotional energy in these works is just astounding.

This exhibition is a masterclass, for sure, but it is also illuminating, not least in Rodin’s interest in using the power of a fragment to convey the form and meaning of a complete work. For many of these ancient pieces that inspired Rodin had lost limbs, chunks of torso, even heads. Rodin found this incompleteness fascinating and sought to recreate this archaeological ruin feel in his works, being the first modern sculptor to make the headless, limbless torso a genre in its own right, such as The Walking Man on show here which is without arms and a head.

This is a tremendous show – how could it not be with so many great works on display? But it is also an educational and revealing one. A very special exhibition indeed.

British Museum, London, to July 29, 2018.
Tickets from £17.
All installation images by me.

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