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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 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.


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

Vandalism and restoration ethics: The case of the Dutch “Thinker”

13th April 2011

Art restoration is increasingly becoming a culture within a culture. After a century of modernism, the possession of personal artistic skills and of technical proficiency are considered disqualifications in much contemporary art teaching and practice. Today, the preference is for “ideas” and “attitudes” and, in this milieu, even a brazen appropriation of the artefacts and ideas of others is taken as proof of creative potency. Restorers, who have long pig-a-backed professionally on the bona fide creations of past artists and are now hailed as technical wizards vis-à-vis today’s artists, claim a “right” to determine personally how the art of the past should be “presented” to modern audiences. With the art world incapable of producing another Michelangelo or Rodin, restorers lay claim to powers of artistic transformation and resurrection. A “New Michelangelo” has been offered, the acceptance of which would require the rewriting of art history itself. Catastrophic art injuries provide restorers with further opportunities to deploy their embalmers’ “black arts” and theoretical premises – and, with a self-regard that verges on narcissism, celebrate/immortalise their own interventions in portentous television documentaries. An instance of such may have arisen in the Netherlands.

Maaike Dirkx writes:

The American industrialists William and Anna Singer (see Fig. 3) used their wealth to collect art. Their collection is located in four museums, two in Norway, one in the United States, and the Singer Museum in The Netherlands. The Singer Museum in Laren was founded in 1956 by Anna as a small private museum and concert hall. Its sculpture garden housed a fine collection of statues, with as its most prized exhibit a bronze cast of Rodin’s “Penseur” or “Thinker” and Anna Singer always considered this statue the crown jewel of her collection.

In January 2007 thieves broke into the museum grounds and stole “The Thinker” and six other bronze statues with the intent to melt them down for their bronze value. The bronze would have yielded 350 euros when the “Thinker” alone was valued at over one million euros. After a few anxious days the “Thinker” was recovered but it had been tragically mutilated (see Figs. 1, 7, 8 & 9). The six other statues had already been melted down. What had saved “The Thinker” was public exposure: its theft had been widely reported in the Dutch media and the thieves, who later stated they had never heard of Rodin, had panicked and had buried what was left of the statue.

Although all concerned agreed that the statue had become a wreck and that Rodin’s original intent and artistic achievement could never be recovered, the insurers were not convinced. They claimed that, after restoration, the statue could still fetch a few tons on the art market. Rob Scholten, Head of Sculpture of the Rijksmuseum, resigned from Singer’s management committee because he was opposed to restoration which, he said, could only be cosmetic.

Another option was to exhibit the ruined statue as “a forceful symbol of art vandalism” as was done at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where a cast of “The Thinker” was damaged by a bomb in 1970 (see Fig. 6). But the Singer case bore no relationship to a “tradition of iconoclasm” and the idea was dismissed. For a small museum such as the Singer there were insufficient funds to buy another cast should one appear on the art market and casting another statue from one of the surviving plaster models was a legal impossibility since the French government, owner of Rodin’s estate, had implemented laws specifying that only 12 casts could be made from each surviving plaster model to ensure the quality of the casts and to prevent the appearance of forgeries (in the form of cast copies taken either from present bronze casts or from plaster models) on the art market.

After twenty months of wrangling a decision was reached: the statue was to be restored. An advisory committee of independent experts* concluded that “by restoring the external shape of the statue, its symbolic function for the Singer Museum can be retained”. Invoking “general principles of restoration ethics”, the committee recommended a restoration method that could be largely reversible and which would restrict the number of interventions as much as it was possible.

A major problem in the restoration was the missing right lower leg (see Fig. 7). Rodin’s bronzes were sand cast, an exacting method whereby a plaster model is pressed into sand which then retains the shape of the model. In complicated designs, a plaster model is cut into different parts that are cast separately and later joined together. The melted bronze is poured into the sand impression and after the bronze has cooled down, the sand casing is removed and the rough bronze figure is then chiseled, polished and treated to produce a specific patina. The plaster models could be re-used but they would deteriorate over time and through sand casting usage, reducing the quality of the casts.

The Musée Rodin possesses four original plasters for the studio-type “Thinker”. A team of Dutch digitalisation experts with their equipment travelled to Paris where the most likely plaster model used (identified by an abnormality on the big toe of the left foot and a “wart” on the back) was scanned in 3D images. The damaged Singer “Thinker” had also been scanned and by superimposing the two images, the details of the damages (such as the displacement of the left arm and skull) could be charted. The Musée Rodin gave permission to construct a plaster model of the Parisian right lower leg based on the scans, which was then cast by a Dutch casting firm and affixed to the statue.

The dislodged upper part of the head and left upper arm were manipulated back into shape at the Rijksmuseum Restoration Studio, a delicate operation (see Fig. 8). To determine how best to fill in the deep gashes made by the grinder, metallurgic analysis was conducted. The proposed epoxy resin saturated with bronze powder was approved by the consulting committee and Musée Rodin, as guardians of Rodin’s legacy.

It proved impossible to determine the exact composition of the patina: years of outdoor exposure meant that the patina on Singer’s “Thinker” had acquired different light and dark green copper sulphates. To retouch the original patina where this had disappeared as a result of aggressive grinding, a removable acrylic paint mixture was applied.

The question is a tantalizing one. For one thing, the statue was cast posthumously. Some 50 cast bronzes of this studio-size Thinker still exist in the world: are they mere copies or does each contain an intrinsic uniqueness?

Rodin worked with casters whom he trusted implicitly, such as father and son Rudier. It is believed that the latter, who cast at least five Rodin sculptures in the sculptor’s lifetime and was therefore fully aware of the sculptor’s intent and artistic demands, cast Singer’s impression of the “Thinker” around 1930. Anna Singer purchased the statue, with two other Rodin bronzes, possibly in 1937 when she visited the Musée Rodin.

Not only are plaster models different from each other (as we have seen, it was possible to identify with near certainty the plaster model used for Singer’s “Thinker” from the abnormalities in one particular model), but the casting process, too, yields a slightly different result each time and the applied patina will also be different in each case. It can therefore be argued that each of the fifty “Thinker” bronzes is itself unique in certain aspects or details. They are not uniquely original as works of art, but they are distinguishable and not mere identical copies.

Rodin himself modified the design during his lifetime: “The Thinker” in Melbourne, which is considered the first individual cast of the statue made by Rodin for the art collector Ionides in 1884, still wears the cap of the original “Thinker” on the Gates of Hell who represented Dante. Over the years, “The Thinker” became a synthesis of Dante, Victor Hugo and Baudelaire, representing the “artiste-poète” and later a man who, as Rilke writes in his biography of Rodin (1903) “… sits deep in thought, dumb, heavy with images and thoughts, and his entire strength (which is the strength of a man of action) thinks. His entire body has turned into skull and all the blood in his veins to brain.

The cultural uniqueness of the Singer “Thinker” lies in the fact that it was bought by Anna Singer: that gave it its added emotional value for the museum she founded. Although the statue was severely damaged, it was still recognizable as the historical version that she had acquired. That it could, therefore, be reconstructed seemed obvious. But what are we left with? Is the sculpture, to all intents and purposes, still a Rodin or is it today more a patched up product of a restoration studio? The symbolic value for the museum and the memory of its founder have been retained and honoured, respectively, but the “restoration” itself convinces only on a superficial level.

*The “advisory committee” (Adviescommissie) consisted of: Drs. Annemarie Vels Hein, Chairman (Chairman of the Museum Committee of the Singer Museum in Laren and former director of the Presentation Department of the Rijksmuseum); Drs. Ineke Middag, Secretary (former director of “museum affairs” of the Singer Museum); Ysbrand Hummelen, senior researcher of the ICN (the Institute Collections of the Netherlands); Robert van Langh, Head of Conservation and Restoration of the Rijksmuseum (field of expertise restoration of metals); and, Dr Louk Tilanus, art historian, Art History Department of the University of Leiden (field of expertise Rodin).

When the restoration proper started, the advisory committee made way for an “accompanying committee” in which two of the above (Tilanus and van Langh) also participated.

Maaike Dirkx is a Dutch art historian and researcher.

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Above, Fig. 1: sledgehammer and grinder damages to the Singer Museum’s “Thinker” by Rodin.
Above, Fig. 2: Edward Steichen: photograph (1902) of Rodin with “Le Penseur” (designed 1881) and the marble sculpture of Victor Hugo (1901).
Above, Fig. 3: William and Anna Singer. Anna Singer founded the Singer Museum, in Laren, in 1956.
Above, Fig. 4: Rodin’s the “Gates of Hell” inspired by Dante’s “Inferno” and commissioned in 1880 for the (never realised) Decorative Arts Museum (Musee Rodin).
Above, Fig. 5: The “Thinker”, c. 1884, thought to be the first independently cast studio-size “Thinker” (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne).
Above, Fig. 6: Enlarged cast, one of the last supervised by Rodin (1917), showing damages inflicted by a bomb in 1970 (Cleveland Museum of Art).
Above, Fig. 7: 2007 damages to the Singer Museum’s the “Thinker”.
Above, Fig. 8: The realigning of the upper and lower heads of the Singer Museum “Thinker” in a (televised) operation that was said to have taken “hours” and was followed by the pressing together of the now mismatched parts – an operation which resulted in the emergence of a crack on the neck.
Above, Fig. 9: Following chemical analysis (performed by Corus) and x-ray defraction examinations, the restorer/scientists could deduce no means of replicating the pre-injury patina on the bronze sculpture which had spent fifty years in the sculpture garden of the Singer Museum. In the absence of such information, the restorers opted to coat the sculpture with an acrylic paint.
Below, Fig. 10: the “Thinker” after its (insurance company prompted) “restoration” with epoxy resins and “re-patination” with acrylic paints. Fearing – for good reasons – that their epoxy resin “in-fills” might well need replacement at some future date, the restorers made casts of them in tin. Those casts and a cd containing all the data, were placed/immortalised, time-capsule fashion…inside the patched-up and painted remains of Rodin’s sculpture.
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