Rodin never went to Greece. He was the most anti-academic artist imaginable, who defied every classical rule. Yet the recent exhibition at the British Museum on this unlikely theme was a revelation. From his first sight of them, Rodin was besotted with the Parthenon sculptures, but he took an unorthodox view of the stones, prizing them for their fragmentary and ruined state.
There had been an earlier Rodin who invented immense epic schemes, like the Gates of Hell, six metres high, and seething with hundreds of figures. This project combines the medieval material of Dante’s Inferno with the modern spirit of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. The static form of this set of monumental doors becomes a great field of movement and upheaval, a gate which shudders convulsively, rather than a stiff and stable barrier.
Rodin’s responsiveness to the art of the past is full of surprises. He writes imaginatively about Gothic cathedrals as vast poems, not all of which can be taken in at once. He focuses on their porches, which he likens to grottos or caverns lit unevenly by the sun, which brings certain figures into view while it hides others, shifting throughout the day. His Gates are a kind of condensed porch, and reading him on the subject one inevitably applies these ideas to his own project, too vast and various to be comprehended all at once, so that the sun’s movement becomes a metaphor for our attention, shifting over the surface, continually leaving parts of it behind.
Thence perhaps arises Rodin’s strange conviction that every part of the Gates allows us to intuit the whole. And so he detached small and incomplete elements from high on the cliffside of the work and brought them down to eye level,
attaching them to notional cornices with new flourishes of plant matter or fabric. They are complex little knots of movement composed of flying and falling figures, but they are at the same time defiantly fragmentary, parts not wholes, more suggestive than complete and perfect entities, like shorn-off pieces of the Parthenon that have long evoked for some observers earlier, fresher stages of the work, as if you had stumbled into Phidias’s studio.
One of the achievements of the exhibition was to create a continuity between Rodin’s appreciation of the antique fragment and his understanding of his own work as metamorphic, continually re-forming itself in new combinations, seen from fresh angles. At the entrance to the exhibition a strange hybrid appears, a woman’s head with a small Greek temple planted on it as if growing from it. The carving of the marble face is soft and subtle as if it fades before our eyes, but her hair and shoulders are rough-hewn. The temple doesn’t fit, in more than one way. It is plaster and crudely fashioned; the stone has been abruptly sawn off to accommodate it.
It makes some observers think of Athena born violently from the head of Zeus; others are reminded of those allegorical busts with castellated headdresses who represent classical cities. The face is recognisable as the wife of an Australian painter, a favourite model of the sculptor’s: perhaps it is his awkward way of representing antiquity inspiring the present.
Another work (called Thought at some point in its life) shows a woman’s head emerging from an uncarved block, recognisable as one of the most interesting women in Rodin’s life, the sculptor Claudine Claudel, whose work, which resembles his, he tried generously to promote. Other small elements detached from the Gates are shown attaching themselves to, as if growing back into, the blocks they came out of. A couple of these in the exhibition acquire cosmic titles like Earth and Moon and Constellation but seem to have shrunk from their original dimensions.
More often Rodin enlarged small figures from the Gates to greater than life size and lopped off their heads and one or two of their arms, with the effect of making them more powerful and less specific, more like survivors from ancient civilisations or pioneers in the modern drive toward abstraction.
In the 1890s Rodin got more interested in and more able to afford antique fragments. Twenty examples from his much larger collection were included in the exhibition. Some of them would hardly get a second glance, except that we read his rapturous comments and try to see them with his eyes, as precious visitors from Phidias’ time, remembering also his endorsement of the child’s fresh vision.
The exhibition also made one see the British Museum’s Parthenon fragments differently, first by mounting fully rounded figures below eye level and allowing nearer views and freer passage round them than we are used to. Strange to find or to remember that Ilissos the river god and two lounging deities are fully carved all the way round though they were originally mounted high overhead at the narrow ends of pediments.
And curators have singled out especially fragmentary sections of frieze where it is exciting to imagine plunging or rearing movements continuing beyond the edges of the slice we are left with. Rodin had radical ideas about restoration and argued publicly that restoring the Parthenon would change something natural into an unnatural pastiche. His famous Walking Man was originally found in a garbled state in his studio and was further ruined when enlarged, by removing his head and arms. Now critics like Rilke find the deepest profundity in those absences. It is in any case a direction in which the sculptor increasingly moved. Hard to believe therefore in a last grandiose project of which Rilke gives the only report known to me, a great Tower of Labour (or Work?) with a spiraling relief representing human occupations, starting with miners at basement level.
One of the highlights of the exhibition was the treatment of the Burghers of Calais, brought indoors from their normal location on the Embankment. Apparently at Meudon Rodin always moved much of his work outdoors every spring, because that is where, following Greek practice, he thought sculpture belongs. The hill at Meudon was or became his Acropolis where he emulated his hero Phidias, surrounded by his own work mixed with his antiques.
Though brought indoors, the Burghers had the next best thing to changing daylight and natural air, standing next to a tall glass wall, conveniently lower than Rodin ended up displaying them, with ample room for circling round them. The grouping of the six over-life-size figures is one of the great triumphs of his career. They walk as you walk round them, changing their relations with the others, arriving and departing in endless combinations, all within a basically frieze-like format, like planets following their different trajectories, but pulled finally back into place by the gravitational force of the others.
The result is more unruly and more dynamic than the processions in the Parthenon frieze, but the one has probably inspired the other, vertical elements in horizontal movement, each strongly characterised but all moving to the same tragic end in spite of the reprieve awaiting them, which we know about and they don’t.
Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, by Celeste Farge, Bénédicte Garnier and Ian Jenkins, book of exhibition at the British Museum from 26 April to 29 July 2018, with exceptional photographs and stimulating text.