Much as I can and do admire works of art for their beauty, whenever I go to a gallery, I’m keen to find out more about their creator. It’s the human element which brings art to life for me.
At the British Museum’s ‘Rodin and the art of ancient Greece’ exhibition, I learned a reasonable amount about Auguste Rodin the man, his influences – and his close relationship with the British Museum, of which I’d previously known little. I’ve summarised this below, together with my exhibition highlights.
“I invent nothing, I rediscover”, said the man described as “one of the most radical artists of the modern era”. Rodin was referring to how he drew his inspiration from Greek and Roman art and to his spiritual mentor, the ancient Greek sculptor Pheidias – like Rodin, the most famous sculptor of his lifetime and whose works are displayed alongside those of Rodin.
In 1881, aged 40, Rodin made the first of many visits to the British Museum. At a time when ancient Greek culture was thought superior to all others, the Parthenon sculptures were at the height of their fame. Rodin had studied them from books, plaster casts and originals in the Louvre, but his encounter with them in the Museum had a long and lasting effect. Rodin never visited Greece, but London became his substitute for Athens with the temple-like British Museum becoming his spiritual home.
“I love the sculptures of ancient Greece…they have been and remain my masters”, Rodin stated, explaining that it was their “sincerity” that moved him most. Although he never saw the Parthenon in the flesh, he created his own legend around the temple and its survival from antiquity. For him, buildings were like the human body – they came into being, matured and decayed. Rodin believed that this lifecycle should be able to run its course and campaigned against the restoration of the Parthenon following earthquake damage in 1894.
Rodin’s 1899 sculpture ‘The Martyr’, above, is influenced by the dying Lapiths on a Parthenon metope (carved plaque) and Charles Baudelaire’s poem ‘The Martyr’ in ‘The Flowers of Evil’. You can see that Rodin has rotated the figure so that it lies prostrate, its expression of agony all too apparent. The South metopes on display elsewhere in the British Museum show the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at the marriage feast of Peirithoos.
Around 1890, Rodin began acquiring large-scale Roman statues and making monumental versions of his own work. Some, he gifted to the British Museum, including the below headless statue of the so-called ‘Seated Agrippina’, dating back to AD96-192.
Throughout his lifetime, Rodin collected over 6,000 antiques, including many ‘fragments’. These, he saw as works of art to be celebrated and they inspired him to become the first modern sculptor to make the headless, limbless torso a genre of art in its own right. At the end of 1900, he built a museum in his garden at Mendon to house his growing collection of antiques. At night, by lamplight, he would show visitors the subtle modelling of the carved marble, caressing the ancient surfaces to emphasise its beauty.
I will conclude this post with the two works that moved me the most. Rodin’s 1908 ‘Monument to the Burghers of Calais’ is memorable for its beauty, depth of emotion and also its history. If you aren’t familiar with the story (I wasn’t), you can find further information here. I could have spent hours gazing at it; it’s extraordinary how Rodin conveys such depth of feeling, not only through facial expressions but throughout the six figures.
And finally, ‘The Kiss’: surely Rodin’s most famous work. What more is there that can be said about this evocative portrayal of doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca, inspired by Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’? This is art in its purest and most moving form.
The British Museum is one of my favourite destinations in London. Never yet have I been disappointed by any of its exhibitions; invariably, I come away feeling enlightened and gratified. And yet, I confess to a tinge of disappointment today. Far more of the sculptures on display were those which Rodin had gifted to the Museum, rather than his own work – his generosity is wonderful, of course, but I wish I had seen more of his own sculptures.
I’m also still unclear as to why, given how much Rodin loved and was influenced by Greek art, he never visited the country itself. Surely, if he could travel from France to England and Italy, he could have made it as far as Greece? There may be a very simple explanation, but if there was, I missed it. A 3/5 experience, instead of the usual 5/5 I award to the Museum.