by Roderick Conway Morris

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Musée Rodin
Rodin with his antiquities collection, 1910

Rodin and the art of ancient Greece

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 1 June 2018


'I love the ancient Greek statues: they always have been and always will be my models,' declared Auguste Rodin in 1906. He never set foot in Greece, yet no modern artist ever had a more profound understanding of the art of that ancient civilization.

He studied these statues above all at the British Museum, which had acquired the Parthenon Marbles from Lord Elgin in 1816. The French artist first came to see them in 1881 and revisited them regularly until shortly before his death in 1917. His profound insights into them and their 5th-century Athenian creator, the sculptor Pheidias, not only inspired his own works but also vastly enhanced wider understanding of the significance of these masterpieces.

The extraordinary relationship between these two artists, ancient and modern, is now the subject of a spectacular exhibition at the British Museum, 'Rodin and the art of ancient Greece', curated by Celeste Farge, Bénédicte Garnier and Ian Jenkins. It brings together 80 of Rodin's works in marble, bronze and plaster, and some sketches, with selected pieces from the Parthenon Marbles, in a series of juxtapositions that increases in equal measure our appreciation of Rodin and Pheidias. Further illumination is added by the opening up for the first time since it was inaugurated in 2014 of the huge, previously covered, glass end wall of the Sainsbury Gallery, allowing natural light to flood in.

In 1880 Rodin received a major commission from the French government for the monumental bronze doors of a projected decorative arts museum. Neither the museum nor 'The Gates of Hell' were ever completed, but Rodin went on working intermittently on his vast portals - represented in the show by a towering plaster cast from the Musée d'Orsay - for the rest of his life.

Rodin's greatest single inspiration in designing the doors was the Parthenon Marbles, which also became a model for how the artist came to treat the various sculptural elements. For, just as the Greek sculptures had, by their removal from their original decorative arrangement on the exterior of the Parthenon, come to be seen as independent works of art in their own right, so Rodin's sculptures for the doors began to take on a life of their own.

Two of Rodin's most famous pieces, 'The Kiss' and 'The Thinker', present here in the form of plaster casts from the Musée Rodin, are classic examples of this process.

The fluidity and flexibility of Rodin's creative methods were made possible by the fact that he worked almost entirely in clay, delegating the task of transforming his works into marble, bronze or plaster to expert craftsmen.

There is an amusing silent film at the opening of the exhibition of Rodin furiously carving - for the camera - a block of marble, chips flying in all directions. He appears to be holding the chisel the wrong way round and in danger of poking his eye out. For in reality, like most of his contemporaries, Rodin never directly carved in marble nor personally cast works in bronze any more than Pheidias would have done in 5th-century BC Athens.

Rodin's view of the fragmented and detached remains of the Parthenon marbles was not only decisive in the direction of his own career but also in the entire course of 20th-century art. 'These are the damaged statues found in ruins: they are no less masterpieces for being incomplete,' as he said in 1907.

He began collecting his own museum of classical statues and fragments, eventually amassing some 800 pieces, which he kept and displayed in and around his home at Meudon, which he had designed himself. Of one, a torso of Aphrodite from 50-125 AD (on loan here from the MusÉe Rodin), he told a visitor: 'This is real flesh!…It must have been moulded by kisses and caresses!…One almost expects, when feeling this torso, to find it warm.'

This mystical conviction that the spirit of a great work of art could live on, even if incomplete, emboldened Rodin himself to produce original torsos and statues that were headless and limbless, thereby creating an entirely new genre in western art.

He passionately believed that a fragmented sculpture by a great master, whether the result of the ravages of time or deliberate design, could still powerfully convey both emotion and motion. This is forcefully illustrated by the astonishing grouping of works at the end of the show, which include Rodin's own headless and armless 'The Walking Man' and his bronze 'Iris, Messenger of the Gods', together with the marble 'Speeding Chariot', 'Cavalcade' and headless and limbless Iris from the Parthenon.

Rodin did not believe in progress in art. 'No artist will ever surpass Pheidias,' he said. But Rodin showed that the Greek sculptor could inspire new works of genius long after the glories of Greece had passed.

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece; British Museum; 26 April - 29 July 2018

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023