The French artist, Auguste Rodin, is generally considered to be one of the greatest sculptors ever. And he definitely enjoyed the British Museum. His first visit was in 1881, and although he didn’t return for 20 years, he later developed such a liking for it that he described himself as “haunting” the place. He also spoke favourably of the beer at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Rodin’s access to the marbles is useful evidence of the British Museum’s visitability. With Brexit questions of community in the air, the world’s fourth most-visited museum is restating its best claim to the marbles. Many more people can admire them in their custom-designed, climate-controlled, free-entry London home than they could in Athens. Even worse, the present EU-member discount for British tourists to the Acropolis will soon cease to apply.
Lovers of Lord Elgin can still grit their teeth and wait until next March when Melina Mercouri Day ensures free admission. The brilliance of this exhibition, which is supported by Merrill Lynch, the Bank of America’s wealth management division, is that the Parthenon Marbles can be seen alongside Rodin’s interpretations of them, without any cultural heritage having to leave the country. Rodin has returned to Bloomsbury, courtesy of the Musee Rodin. It will be a marvel to see the best of the ancient world complemented by the best sculptor of the early modern era. Is it the whole story though?
Two decades ago, there was an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum that presented an equally convincing look at Rodin and Michelangelo. Many still subscribe more readily to that relationship than the one between Rodin and the semi-mythical Greek sculptor Phidias of the 5th century BC.
There can be no doubt that Rodin was inspired by antiquity. It would be hard for any sculptor not to, although Brancusi tried.
Rodin’s first visit to Italy, in 1875, seems to have been more of an eye-opener than London six years later. He had religious beliefs, which are not often discussed, and spent part of his young adulthood in a Catholic monastery. When he went to the Sistine Chapel he did not hold his nose when drinking in the papal associations.
Rodin was overwhelmed by the art of Florence and Rome, most of which was in Christian contexts. Some he didn’t even have to leave Paris to see. Michelangelo’s Dying Slave had been intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II but ended up in Rodin’s favourite museum, the Louvre. It is widely considered to be the model for The Age of Bronze, the sculpture that set Rodin on the road to celebrity, created several years before his trip to London. The new exhibition makes an innovative statement by suggesting this work was inspired by the Parthenon Marbles.
One of Rodin’s few unquestionably religious subjects was St John the Baptist, a version of which was shown at the Royal Academy a year before his visit to London. It re-emerged from his studio in 1907, minus head and arms, as The Walking Man. The new exhibition proposes that the damaged Figure K of a goddess from the east pediment of the Parthenon was the light that led Rodin to lop off sundry parts of his finished sculptures.
There is certainly a sense of movement in both. Michelangelo was also quite an enthusiast of what he called the non-finito (unfinished). Rodin had not forgotten this when he was interviewed in 1910: “Michelangelo’s finest works are precisely those which are called ‘unfinished’.” It may have brought back memories of 1865 when he had barely coped with the official rejection of an intentionally incomplete tribute to Michelangelo, Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose.
Michelangelo was a flawed and broken-nosed believer in the equally flawed Church of his time. The Parthenon was a temple dedicated to deities more comprehensible to ancient Greeks than 19th century French¬men. Rodin was a spiritually-inclined artist who was fascinated by the energy and tension of Michelangelo, which usually prevailed over the harmonious equilibrium of the ancient Greeks. Despite his secular reputation, he created a Crucifixion scene. Mary Magdalene dominates the foreground with an eroticism that rivals Michelangelo’s fully nude rendering of the crucified Christ.
What was Rodin’s inspiration? In the last year of his life, the worst indignity he suffered was at the hands of the French government. Having given the state his sculptures, along with his collection of antiquities, he was outraged when the removals men took away a large gothic Crucifix. Unlike the antiquities, which proliferated throughout his museum-like home, this item was kept in his bedroom.
WHAT Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece.
WHERE British Museum, Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG, UK
WHEN Until July 29, 2018