LONDON — In 1881 Auguste Rodin encountered the Parthenon marbles for the first time on a trip to London. As for art historian Johann Winckelmann who described their “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” in 1755, the marbles represented the pinnacle in growing contemporary enthusiasm and admiration for ancient Greek, and to a peripheral extent, Hellenic art. By the 1890s, Rodin had collected thousands of antiquities and fragments, as evidenced in photographs of his garden and studio suffused throughout the British Museum’s show Rodin and the art of ancient Greece. That the antique played a defining role in Rodin’s radically modernizing sculptural style is immediately visually obvious. Greek figurative sculpture of the 5th century BCE had art historically been long considered the height of naturalism — the newly discovered Parthenon the jewel in its crown — and we see it dually worshipped and intensified in Rodin’s bodies, which concentrate and over-accentuate naturalism to the point of becoming hyper-real; famous is the contemporary accusation that he actually cast from life. Pictured surrounded by his ancient fragments, he is quoted as saying, “This is real flesh!”
In mounting an exhibition exploring Rodin and antiquity, the British Museum is in the enviable position of being in ownership of that jewel in the crown, and while Ian Jenkins, senior curator of Greek art, and co-curator Celeste Farge explore many compelling facets of how Greek art informed Rodin’s practice, an overwhelming proportion of the show feels obliged to focus on finding — even forcing — direct visual correlations between the Parthenon specifically and Rodin’s sculptures, which can be a dangerously blinkered way to proceed.
For example, a convincing instance argues that “Thought” (1895), a half frowning female head emerging from its encasing marble block, refers to the ancient idea that artists had an inner vision of their subject which by carving would be released from the raw material. Similarly, a neat link is highlighted between Rodin’s “Pallas (Athena) with the Parthenon” (1896), in which the goddess of wisdom and patron of sculptors, who was miraculously born from the head of Zeus, is imagined here bearing from her own head a miniature version of the Parthenon temple.
Some comparisons made elsewhere, however, are less convincing because of their generality; it is curious, for example, to match Rodin’s large scale erotically driven “The Kiss” (1882), its two figures entwined rising up from their plinth, with the reclining female figures L and M from the East pediment on the basis that their sensuously clinging drapery and arching headless bodies share an erotic charge. Yes, but this serves to highlight a shared commonality as much as it does the larger number of characteristics that differentiate them: content, form, style. It is understandable, however, in the context of displaying two iconic and striking sculptures at the very entrance of the show for impact.
There is plenty of textual content emphasizing Rodin’s regard for the Athenian sculptor Pheidias, credited with the sculptural program behind the Parthenon, but curatorially for the bulk of the show this appears to have led to ‘playing snap’ – pairing Rodin’s sculptures with specific Parthenon fragments where they visually happen to mirror one another. Rodin’s reclining “Ariadne” (1905) is matched with the similarly reclining river God Ilissos. “Funerary Spirit” (1898) is “reminiscent” of a head and torso from a metope block on the south side of the Parthenon because of its “sinuous movement of the body and head position.” 1899’s “Martyr,” it is suggested, “may” have been influenced by the dying lapith on a Parthenon metope. Such cherry picking of visual similarities — more specifically, mirrored bodily positions — employs an oversimplifying tunnel vision, which threatens to exclude the other factors that helped to define Rodin’s work. An exception proving the point does so because it highlights the significant factor of movement. “Iris, Messenger of the Gods” (1890–91) clearly stems from “Iris, Messenger of the Gods” from the west pediment. They are both kinetic, suspended, disembodied torsos caught in mid-flight, sharing a palpable sense of potent energy.
A fascinating revelation in the show is Rodin’s language of fragments. It is hard to conceive today that until the 19th century, common practice was to restore antique fragments, apparently unperturbed by invention, and that the Belvedere torso was relatively unusual in escaping reconstruction. Like many of his collected antique fragments, Rodin assimilated them into his work either by casting or, in the Belvedere’s case, conceptually forming the very core of 1880’s “The Thinker.”
That the British Museum contentiously owns the Parthenon marbles is both a blessing and a hindrance to its objective, in that while there would be no excuse for not including them in a survey of Rodin and Greek art, the museum nonetheless feels the need to justify their use by finding deliberate echoes of it in Rodin’s work where its influence is already clearly evident in less literal, more philosophical ways. It also achieves something remarkable, which is to diminish Rodin’s formidable presence. The marbles are usually displayed in a custom-built, uber-grey wing of the museum, lit poorly and just beyond head height. Here, they are thrillingly up close, intimately and warmly lit, and they can be studied in the round. Much of Rodin’s work here is, unfortunately, represented in white plaster, which kills surface texture stone dead; the skin of the Parthenon marbles by contrast sings with vitality. The show occupies a generous open single space with some beautifully measured displays of undeniably fabulous loans from the Rodin museum in Paris. Yet the striving, struggling sheer expression of Rodin’s guttural figures conversely highlight the calm superiority of the insurmountable marble figures, serene even in battle. It is a rare and curious occurrence when an exhibition highlights both the similarities and differences of its comparative subjects with such close equilibrium.
Rodin and the art of ancient Greece is currently on display at The British Museum through July 29.