RODIN AND THE ART OF ANCIENT GREECE

The Kiss (Image from britishmuseum.org)

Having recently found occasion to cursorily dabble among the many entries which, throughout the passage of time, are fated to accumulate alongside the stockpile of unanswered addresses and informational advertisements that daily filter through my internet link, I was, in catching the image of a finely crafted Greek sculpture beckoning silently from a podium upon my monitor screen, intrigued to notice that Bloomsbury’s British Museum was currently in the process of staging a relatively extensive review of the celebrated Victorian sculptor “Auguste Rodin’s” work.

Carefully scanning through a series of newspaper reviews pertaining to the display and observing that the reaction of the press to its realm of incident was generally positive, I duly performed an inquiry to assess whether or not I would be able to acquire a ticket for the show.

Discovering that the exhibition was running from the 26th of April through to the 29th of July, a period which, in neatly coinciding with the academic curriculum’s end of term summer holidays, would present me with an adequate opportunity to view the inventory of object’s presented forth for display, I briskly resolved to place an entry in my calendar and devote a day to an extensive exploration of the Museum.

Sweeping deftly in through the back alleys of Fitzrovia’s China town, I subsequently made haste towards the familiar colonnade that distinguishes the front of the museum, an apparition which, through some feat of dislocation, appears to lie elusive and fragmented at the end of every street when lost indecisively amidst the blind tirades of erstwhile navigation in the Bloomsbury area, and, after having gained my bearings, duly made forth towards the building, forging purposefully across it’s marvelous sky-lit courtyard to the exhibition’s foyer.

Situated in the Museum’s “Sainsbury” wing, a venue which, for the purposes of display, had, in this instance, been extended at it’s farthest extreme to allow natural light access across its inventory, the show appeared, upon immediate appraisal, to be devoted towards the pursuit of providing a studied comparison between a series of items once located about the circumference of the ancient Greek temple known as the “Parthenon” and those crafted somewhat more recently by the celebrated French sculptor “Auguste Rodin”.

Possibly the greatest sculptor of the nineteenth century “Auguste Rodin”, was, in this instance, himself recorded to have been inspired by the Parthenon’s reliquary when visiting the museum in the late nineteenth century, a display which in having been formulated in 1816 not long after the establishment’s foundation with the discovery of the “Elgin marbles” by “Lord Elgin”, later evolved to embrace a selection of statues found in the same location by “Frederick Lord Leighton”, a man who, in becoming the president of the “Royal Academy” in 1830, was observed to have inspired a number of French artists including the celebrated sculptor “Aimes Jules Dalou” towards providing a fresh interpretation of Greek art.

The “Elgin marbles” themselves were once part of an exquisite bas-relief frieze which, in having been discovered in the seventeenth century about the circumference of the Parthenon, were subsequently salvaged from epochal ruination in efforts to preserve a vestige of their peculiar iconography.

Describing a procession of warlike images devised, perhaps to infer that what could be thought a sign of decadence was instead indicative of a military potential that was eager to deflect acquisitive attention, the “Elgin marbles” were observed to have caused something of a sensation when first exhibited in London, inspiring a peculiar combination of both awe and dread, sentiments which, in recognizing the undeniable proficiency of ancient art, were also drawn to dwell upon the topic of it’s futility before the grander schemes of nature.

As a result of such conjecture, the museum subsequently became devoted to the research of human history, an instance in which it was observed to apply a hitherto unattended degree of academic concision to the study of articles which had hitherto been deemed little more than curiosities.

The Parthenon itself was thought to have been built upon the grounds of a larger temple system known as the “Acropolis” in the fifth century before Christ, a location in which it apparently boasted the work of the legendary Greek sculptor “Pheideas” a man who, in having labored throughout Greek’s golden era to produce the enormous hollow effigies of both “Athena Pathenos” and “Zeus”, stood alongside “Sophocles”, “ Socrates”, “Herodotus” and “Thucydides” as a preserver of the Greek cultural tradition, a distinction through which the sculptor was, in being thought capable of both calling the Gods forth among men and blessing inanimate objects with life, observed to have bestowed his name upon the output of a plethora of workshops located within the vicinity of Athenes.

Although long since forsaken by subsequent event, the giant structures which “Pheidias” created were, in having once belonged to the pantheon of wonders which distinguish the ancient world, recorded to have been truly magnificent creations, standing at least forty feet high upon massive wooden frameworks which, in themselves being armoured with both gold and ivory plate, were reputed to possess cavernous interiors within which companies of men could stand.

Although recorded never to have visited Greece during his life time, “Auguste Rodin” was, through association with his research, frequently referred to as “the French Phiedias”, a term beneath which he was, in being perhaps one of the most eminent interpreter’s of the Parthenon’s statuary on earth, observed to have actively campaigned against propositions to restore the building’s ruins for fear that such attention would both de-nature their underlying scheme and serve to aid the misinterpretation of any lesson that may be learned from their derelict condition.

Constituted largely from the dismembered fragments of statues describing large women clothed in loose fabric, a material which, in terms of suppleness, seems to resemble silk, the collection of figure’s salvaged from the foot of the Parthenon by Lord Leighton provide an insight into an era of blithe prosperity and subtle ingenuity, a period that, in both producing women of truly admirable proportions and garbing them with the finest cloth, was inexplicably destroyed at the haitus of it’s creativity, an effect which, in itself being preserved for posterity, subliminally came to represent a lesson in both futility and ill fated aspiration.

Presumed to have been modelled in clay before being cast in plaster and copied into marble, many of the figures in Lord Leighton’s collection were observed to have been both clipped together and pinned down with iron bolts when initially constructed, a methodology through which, over the passage of time, they were witnessed to have been universally disfigured, being found both decapitated and dismembered after having respectively fallen from their podia and shed their extremities.

Through coincidence with such an eventuality “Rodin” was, in initially having crafted conventional free-standing figures such as “The Age of Bronze” in 1877, witnessed to have begun experimenting with Greek forms, casting many of his creations without limbs in homage to the fallen condition of Leighton’s horde and also paradoxically setting other figures complete upon unhewn podia in recognition of the structural instability that had been perceived to afflict such work.

“Thought” cast in 1895 is perhaps the most completely realized example of such an approach, a sculpture which, in depicting an immaculately cowled woman’s headset upon an irregular rock base, represents an organic extension of the methodology which was proven to have preserved the detail of fablieus beyond that of free-standing statues throughout the ancient era, a circumstance beneath which it is fashioned directly from the rock upon which it stands to resemble a bather partially submerged in water.

In 1880 Rodin was commissioned to create a statue called “the Gates of Hell” by the French government, a structure which, in standing six metres high, was initially intended for usage as the entrance to a museum of arts, an establishment which, in keeping with the sculpture’s theme, had allegedly been destroyed in a fire.

Although never applied to the purpose for which it was intended, “The Gates Of Hell” nonetheless evolved to become an extended masterpiece, a complex fablieu of interconnected images which, in capturing the essence of the mingled hews that quite unintentionally find occasion to achieve fantastic nuance within the artist’s palette, came to represent a physical substantiation of the creative subtlety which the French impressionist movement of the era sought to achieve.

Recorded to have been influenced by the themes of both Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Baudelaire’s “Fleurs Du Mal”, Rodin was, over a passage of years, observed to have respectively added and removed fragments from “The Gates of Hell”, a process through which the sculpture became invested with a manner of life, a physical soul fated to undergo a perpetual state of adaptation.

Eventually employed as the centerpiece for the “Musee de Rodin” in Paris, “The Gates of Hell” was subsequently to serve as the inspiration for two of Rodin’s most famous creations, both of which were notably displayed at the British Museum’s exhibition.

The first of these sculptures, an archetypal depiction of two lovers locked in a tentative embrace known as “The Kiss”, was initially intended to represent an incident within Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, a circumstance which, in describing a man named “Paolo’s” incest with “Francesca” his brother’s wife, is transfixed immutably upon an outcrop of uncleaved rock by the interpretative skill of Rodin, a location in which it successfully transcends the crude elements from which it is cast, acceding a variety of tenderness more ordinarily ascribed to life.

The second, perhaps Rodin’s most well known sculpture, is “The Thinker”, a figure initially devised as a crest for the central Tympanum of “the Gates of Hell”, a circumstance beneath which the effigy is observed to represent both an image of “King Minos” presiding over the damned and that of “Dante” contemplating the underworld.

Later re-cast in the form of a crouching giant, a man who, upon standing erect would measure approximately ten feet in height “The Thinker” is, in adopting an instantly familiar posture through which it’s right elbow rests upon its left knee below a raised forearm supporting its chin, a complete circuit cast in stone, an apparel beneath which the statue seems, in its manner, to actively resist the cares of epochal dereliction that once served to blight the art of Ancient Greece.

Possessing a muscular subtly re-enforced frame, “The Thinker”, like both “the Kiss” and “Thought” rests perched upon an uncleaved pediment, where it appears as a natural extension of the rock from which it is fashioned.

Although many statues of classical antiquity were recorded to have been cast from the bodies of both living and dead subjects, a circumstance beneath which gestures like raised hands and feet were deemed to endow stone with a quality of life, Rodin was observed to have preferred to model such figures himself, using his knowledge of rock to create outward manifestations of the structural dynamic to which sculpture circumscribes.

As a result of such an approach, the finest part of many of Rodin’s creations are perceived to arise in their finish, an effect through which a range of contrasting surfaces and textures are, in reflecting light differently, witnessed to imply a tenderness which belies the physical constitution of their underlying scheme.

The bronze mask “ A Man With a Broken Nose”, modelled in 1865 from a life cast taken of a man named “Bibi’s” face, is, in this sense, observed to exemplify the manner in which different finishes can both alter and enhance a range of perceived attributes, the asymmetry inherent in a broken nose colluding with the reflective property of polished metal to the effect of both distorting and refining a variety of facial expression beneath certain light conditions.

Rodin was, in this instance, observed to have moved unfinished work around his studio during it’s completion in efforts to capture the effect of contrasting light sources upon his creations, a process through which the subtlety invested in each respective work is quite frequently observed to elude the faculty of it’s audience.

Possibly the largest sculpture on display at the museum is “The Monument To The Burghers Of Calais”, a piece of work which, in being commissioned by the French port of “Calais” to commemorate the handing of the city’s keys to “Edward the Third” during the 100 Years War, is composed of six life-size standing figures cast in bronze.

Depicting an episode in which a bearded man garbed in flowing robes is surrounded by five younger men who, in being similarly attired, bear nooses draped about their shoulders, “The Monument to The Burghers of Calais”, succeeds in capturing a peculiar sentiment of profound anxiety, an emotion which, in being artificially emphasized by Rodin’s skillful manipulation of each Burghers’ expression, is observed to infer that the practice of formal execution sustained to defer the event of dispute, ultimately means nothing when such conflict occurs, an instance in which all men, by equal measure, are, irrespective of class or up-bringing, simply doomed to die.

A frequent visitor to the Louvre art gallery in Paris, an establishment in which he was known to sit and make sketches, Rodin was, through association with the exhibition of work at Paris Salons, recorded to have become the vice president of the “Societe Nationale Des Beaux Arts” in 1893, an appointment during which he began to accumulate an extensive personal collection of ancient artifacts.

Eventually succeeding “James Abbott Mcneill Whistler” as the President of the “International Society of Sculptors, painters and gravers” in 1903, Rodin was subsequently recorded to have engaged in a relationship with the artist “Gwen John”, a woman who, in being the sister of the great British printer “Augustus John”, was observed to have been commissioned as a model for a number of art projects including “The Monument to Whistler” in 1914.

Subsequently achieving international acclaim through association with an extensive run of exhibitions staged in London, Vienna, Leipzig, Tokyo and New York, Rodin began to display items from his personal collection of antiquities alongside example of his own work, a term which, in resembling the schematic of that staged by the British Museum, encouraged audiences to draw comparisons between the elements which served to respectively divide and unite the artistry of different epochs.

Afflicted by a stroke in 1916, a condition from which he never recovered, Rodin was, in having become attached a woman named “Rose Beuret”, who tragically died shortly after their marriage, himself witnessed to have passed away during the latter months of 1917, a circumstance beneath which a large-scale replica of “The Thinker” was observed to have been cast by his studio to decorate the pair’s grave.

Sponsored by “the Bank Of America, Merrill Lynch” and organised through collaboration with the “Musee De Rodin” in Paris, the “Rodin and The Art of Ancient Greece” exhibition provides a fascinating insight into the artistry of two vastly different eras, presenting grounds for speculation as to the various schools of thought which respectively served to drive the creative souls of both pre-diluvian Greece and fin de siecle Paris, a study which, in presenting it’s audience with the opportunity to engage in speculation as to how even the most immutable apparel may cede to the bite of harsh climate, provides a perfect pretext beneath which to extend one’s study throughout the rest of the Museum.

For those interested in the history of sculpture and the cultural achievements of classical antiquity, then “Rodin and the Art of ancient Greece” comes highly recommended, an ideal venue for school parties, family outings, and romantic liaisons.

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A Victorian man trapped in the twenty first century

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Tom Scrow

Tom Scrow

A Victorian man trapped in the twenty first century

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