Artwatch UK

Rodin and ancient Greek art – a personal view of a magnificent show

Last night we were bidden, as Sir Roy Strong might have put it, to the opening and reception of the joint British Museum and Rodin Museum exhibition “Rodin and the art of Greece”.

It proved an extraordinary and privileging occasion that was close to our heart in very many respects. Guests were ushered into a corner of the Great Court for drinks and canapés. In that dwarfing space the buzz of expectation among the small standing groups resembled a Royal Opera House opening of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. The company was illustrious. Among the many VIPs, journalistic aristocracy was present in Sir Simon Jenkins of the Guardian and Lord Gnome of Private Eye. The Two Greatest Living British Sculptors were represented by Sir Anthony Gormley R. A. (who sported some Palestinian headwear around his neck). The British Museum’s new director, Hartwig Fischer, opened the speeches well and graciously. The man from the generous sponsors, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, followed and the French Ambassador opened the exhibition itself with certain ironical asides about the virtues of European cooperation. And we then poured into the exhibition.

As others have already indicated, this show, the combined product of a great dedicated artists’ museum and a great “universal” encyclopaedic museum, is simply stupendous. On entry, the shock of the space and its fabulous contents was also operatic: a beautifully lit elegantly constructed chip-board “set” snakes down the centre of the otherwise soul-less and dispiriting Lord Rogers’ black box, which, thankfully on this occasion, has been opened to disclose a courtyard. The continuous low plinth carries the larger, show-stopping sculptures and creates subsidiary spaces that house drawings and smaller works. Sparks fly between the works on display. The labels are good and the catalogue is exemplary. If the essential message of this engagement of a giant of modernism (Rodin) with a legendary classical artist (Phidias) – that to advance we must look back – seems subversively reactionary in today’s art world, so much the worse for us. But for this artist, the timing feels optimal: Modernism is a spent and disintegrating force. Its void is filling with assorted non-artistic activisms and relativisms.

The show is welcome in other respects. It springs from the strengths of museum curators working to their departmental briefs, in this case that of Ian Jenkins, a very fine classical scholar, who himself, as it happens, has carved stone. Even before the show opened Jenkins was creating sparks of his own. He had noticed a distinct echo in Rodin’s “Thinker” of a convention for mourning figures in Greek classical art. Yesterday (24 April), a sculptor took issue with this suggestion in a letter to the Times (see below) claiming a likelier source to be present in Michelangelo’s sculpture and paintings.

Certainly, Rodin’s awareness of and indebtedness to Michelangelo (who once said that he was never less alone than when alone with his own thoughts) was immense and, as David Breuer-Weil points out, there are strong figural resemblances. Nonetheless, Jenkins’ point was phrased with precision and he had elaborated it with striking eloquence on yesterday’s Radio 4 Today programme – this itself being a most welcome development: we have rather forgotten in recent years that museums are their curators. In the two cited Michelangelos the Lorenzo de’ Medici figure is thoughtful but imperious and unperturbed. His back is straight and his shoulders are held high. A forefinger touches his nose and lips but it has no structural function. In the painted prophet Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, while the figure slumps the lower legs are decorously crossed and bear little weight. It so happens, this is a figure with which we have engaged in the past and it is carried on the back of the current ArtWatch UK members’ Journal:

As seen in the Jeremiah detail we had adapted for a newspaper illustration (above), the head rests heavily on the hand which grips the lower face and entirely conceals the mouth – perhaps this near-universal indicator of thought stems from the source of speech being taken out of commission? There is a vital difference between the Thinker and the Jeremiah. In the former, the head rests heavily on the hand but the forearm/hand serves only as a prop or buttress. Indeed, the entire figure is a dynamic portrayal of weight, as we noted in graphic shorthand last night in the diagram below right. Even the legs are involved in buttressing the entire slumping figure who grips the very earth with his toes (photo. by promentary.net.au). Crucially, the hand does not engage directly or expressively with the face other than insofar as the upward buttressing force of the knuckles distorts the upper lip.

The face itself (above) is not simply thoughtful or absorbed but mournful, desolate. This head is as heavy as the heart within the figure. Jenkins seems vindicated on his observation. For artists and, particularly for sculptors, this show is, more than an invitation, a command to stop, look and draw. The British Museum has sensed as much and will be making drawing materials available to visitors. For our part, we would urge them not to be bashful and to seize the opportunity to draw unselfconsciously and purposively. Drawings are best seen not as a species of self-expression but as straightforward explanations. Draw to explain that which seems interesting significant or distinctive in a particular figure. There are no right answers here, just nice observations worthy of being made. Drawing regularly disciplines thinking and sharpens looking. (Degas once told a woman she had a beautifully drawn head. Draughtsmen know exactly what he meant.) Last night we snatched some drawings of the backs of figures, as below with Iris from the Parthenon whose flowing animalistic energy directly inspired Rodin to make an even more dynamically eroticised bronze.

RODIN’S METHOD ENCAPSULATED

We would especially urge all visitors to take careful note of a little showcase at the far end of the gallery (next to a demonstration of plaster piece/mould casting). In it are two small modelled figures that constitute a summation of Rodin’s sculptural insights. The models were made to explain/demonstrate the differences between classical sculpture and Michelangelo’s figures. We wrote of Rodin’s understanding of differing figural conventions four years ago in the Jackdaw magazine.

The quoted Rodin comments in the article above came from the 1912 English version of Paul Gsell’s Art by Auguste Rodin. We supplement them here with a fuller account from the horse’s mouth:

“One Saturday evening Rodin said to me ‘Come and see me tomorrow morning at Meudon. We will talk of Phidias and of Michael Angelo and I will model statuettes for you on the principles of both. In that way you will quickly grasp the essential differences of the two inspirations, or, to express it better, the opposed characteristics which divide them’…Rolling balls of clay on the table, he began rapidly to model a figure talking at the same time. ‘This first figure will be founded on the conception of Phidias. When I pronounce that name I am really thinking of all Greek sculpture, which found its highest expression in Phidias.’

“The clay figure was taking shape. Rodin’s hands came and went, adding bits of clay; gathering it with in his large palms, with swift accurate movements; then the thumb and the fingers took part, turning a leg with a single pressure, rounding a hip, sloping a shoulder, turning the head, and all with incredible swiftness, almost as if he were performing a conjuring trick. Occasionally the master stopped a moment to consider his work, reflected, decided, and then rapidly executed his idea…Rodin’s statuette grew into life. It was full of rhythm, one hand on the hip, the other arm falling gracefully at her side and the head bent. ‘I am not [f]atuous enough believe that this quick sketch is as beautiful as an antique,’ the master said, laughing, ‘but don’t you find it gives you a dim idea of it? […]Well, then, let us examine and see from what this resemblance arises. My statuette offers, from head to feet, four planes which are alternatively opposed. The plane of the shoulders and chest leads to the left shoulder – the plane of the lower half of the body leads towards the right side – the plane of the knees leads again towards the left knee, for the knee of the right leg, which is bent, comes ahead of the other – and finally, the foot of this same right leg is back of the left foot. So, I repeat, you can note four directions in my figure which produce a very gentle undulation through the whole body.

‘This impression of tranquil charm is equally given by the balance of the figure. A plumb-line through the middle of the neck would fall on the inner ankle bone of the left foot, which bears all the weight of the body. The other leg, on the contrary, is free – only its toes touch the ground and so furnish a supplementary support; it could be lifted without disturbing the equilibrium. The pose is full of abandon and of grace.

‘There is another thing to notice. The upper part of the torso leans to the side of the leg which supports the body. The left shoulder is, thus, at a lower level than the other. But, as opposed to it, the left hip, which supports the whole pose, is raised and salient. So, on this side of the body, the shoulder is nearer the hip, while on the other side the right shoulder, which is raised, is separated from the right hip, which is lowered. This recalls the movement of an accordion which, closes on one side and opens on the other…Now look at my statuette in profile. It is bent backwards; the back is hollowed and the chest is slightly expanded. In a word, the figure is convex and has the form of a letter C. This form helps it to catch the light, which is distributed softly over the torso and the limbs and so adds to the general charm…Now translate this technical system into spiritual terms; you will then recognise that antique art signifies contentment, calm, grace, balance and reason…And now, by the way, an important truth. When the planes of a figure are well placed, with decision and intelligence, all is done, so to speak; the whole effect is obtained; the refinements which come after might please the spectator but they are almost superfluous. This science of the planes is common to all great epochs; it is almost ignored today.’”

And then, Gsell noted, Rodin turned to Michelangelo: “‘Now! Follow my explanation. Here, instead of four planes, you have only two; one for the upper half of the statuette and the other, opposed, for the lower half. This gives at once a sense of violence and constraint – and the result is a striking contrast to the calm of the antiques. Both legs are bent, and consequently the weight of the body is divided between the two instead of being borne exclusively by one. So there is no repose here, but work for both lower limbs…Nor is the torso less animated. Instead of resting quietly, as in the antique, on the most prominent hip, it, on the contrary, raises the shoulder on the same side so as to continue the movement of the hip. Now, note that the concentration of effort places the two limbs one against the other, and the two arms, one against the body and the other against the head. In this way there is no space left between the limbs and the body. You see none of those openings which, resulting from the freedom with which the arms and legs were placed, gave lightness to Greek sculpture. The art of Michelangelo created statues all of a size in a block. He said himself that only those statues were good which could be rolled from the top of a mountain without breaking; and in his opinion all that was broken off in such a fall was superfluous

‘His figures surely seem to be carved to meet this test; but it is certain not a single antique could have stood it; the greatest works of Phidias, of Praxiteles, of Polycletes, of Scopas and of Lysippus would have reached the foot of the hill in pieces. And this proves how a formula which may be profoundly true for one artistic school may be false for another.

‘A last important characteristic of my statuette is that it is in the form of a console; the knees constitute the lower protuberance; the retreating chest represents the concavity, the bent head the upper jutment of the console. The torso is thus arched forward instead of backward as in antique art. It is that which produces here such deep shadows in the hollow chest and beneath the legs. To sum it up, the greatest genius of modern times has celebrated the epic of shadow, while the ancients celebrated that of light. And if we now seek the spiritual significance of the technique of Michael Angelo, as we did that of the Greeks, we shall find that his sculpture expressed restless energy, the will to act without hope of success – in fine, the martyrdom of the creature tormented by unrealisable aspirations…To tell the truth, Michael Angelo does not, as is often contended, hold a unique place in art. He is the culmination of all Gothic thought…He is manifestly the descendant of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. You constantly find in the sculpture of the Middle Ages this form of the console to which I drew your attention. There you find this same restriction of the chest, these limbs glued to the body, and this attitude of effort. There you find above all a melancholy which regards life as a transitory thing to which you must not cling.’”

Clearly, Rodin would have no shortage of ideas if invited to deliver the Reith Lectures. We think we understand what political point Gormley wishes to make with his neckwear. The point of his sculptures is less apparent, as we complained in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (12 March 2008):

This Rodin/Phidias show has not been cost-free in terms of disruption and the further cleaning of the Parthenon sculptures but, leaving such aside, it is the most sculpturally engaging and instructive we have seen since the great 1972 Royal Academy and Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition “The Age of Neo-Classicism”.

ArtWatch has no politics and, as mentioned, this is an entirely personal response to an exhibition but, nonetheless, we would respectfully point out to the French Ambassador that that earlier wonderful internationally cooperative Neo-classicism show – the fourteenth exhibition of the Council of Europe – was mounted two years before Britain voted to join what was presented to its electorate as a common market in goods. Culturally-speaking we were all Europeans then and we will remain so after Britain has exited the grand project (some believe great folly) that is the European Union. In or out of that organisation, Britain and France will continue to play roles in pan-European culture, just as did the two sculptors below, one being French, one British, whose work was included in the 1972 exhibition. The Briton, Flaxman, had earlier echoed the ancient convention of mourning that Ian Jenkins has so well spotted in Rodin. Art is a universal and welcoming, all-inclusive language. We should keep politics out of it at all costs.

Michael Daley, 25 April 2018

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *