Rodin never went to Athens. Instead he visited London, which since 1812 has housed that pinnacle of Greek art, the Parthenon Marbles. He first visited at 40 but was intimate with Greek sculpture from a young age. As a young man he studied in the Louvre galleries and in the print room, and in particular Le Roy’s Les Ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grèce.
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
From fragmented Greek sculpture, Rodin learnt that bodies and body language could depict emotion and not just facial gestures. In his masterpiece, Les Bourgeois de Calais the six figures are portrayed in deeply psychological terms. Each has a character and psychology defined by both body gesture and facial emotion.
Rodin liked old art with its broken bits. He thought buildings were like bodies, they ultimately decayed and died. He campaigned against restoration of the Parthenon in 1894 following a major earthquake for this reason.
This did not stop him collecting classical sculpture and fragments. He would assemble them together with his own pieces to create new works. Throughout his life he studied Greek art closely and sketched ancient sculptures in his sketch books. Later in life, he revisited these books and began cutting them up.
Rodin and Phidias
The problem with a show like this is that you always end up asking yourself who was the better artist rather than explore the influences and connections. The best ancient Greek sculpture is peerless. To place pieces from the Parthenon, next to another sculpture will always be unfair, especially if the artists’ work look similar (unpainted marble).
Rodin captured something more than just form from the Greek works. He was interested in movement and dynamism. He argued that photography did not capture movement, it merely arrested its energy artificially. His best works capture this frenetic energy.
Yet can it compare with the works of Phidias and his assistants, who captured movement and emotion and eternity? Although the exhibition liberally quoted from the poet Rilke, will Rodin ever inspire a poet to write as Keats did?
The exhibition was housed in the British Museum’s next wing. It was well designed, with a well considered UX, but people tended to crowd around large sculptures making it hard to navigate the show.
Overall it was an excellent show. 3.5 stars.