I‘ve never seen such reverence or absorption in a museum crowd than in the British Museum’s new show, Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece. Most of the best work of Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) is on view, and it’s fair to say he’s still the greatest figure in modern sculpture. What makes the show extraordinary is its juxtaposition against some of the sculptures of the Greek gods that once decorated the Parthenon. It’s the first time these figures have been shown with modern art.
The show asks three questions. How did Rodin develop a time-travel connection to Pheidias (480–430 b.c.), the Parthenon’s designer? The building was the centerpiece of the Acropolis, ancient Athens’s Capitol complex. Rodin ultimately saw Pheidias as his mentor. How did the Elgin Marbles — the Parthenon pediments, friezes, and metopes at the British Museum — inspire his own work? Rodin was very familiar with the plaster casts of the Parthenon sculptures at the Louvre and began drawing them when he was a teenager in the 1850s. He first visited the British Museum in 1881 and made many more visits. He developed a nearly religious fascination with them. And why did the art world in Rodin’s time mostly miss what Rodin perceived and about which he obsessed?
Lord Elgin (1766–1841) bought the Parthenon sculptures from Greece’s ruling Ottomans in 1801. A few years later, he needed money to pay for a divorce from his wife and sold them to the British government. They were installed in the British Museum by the 1830s. I’m impressed whenever I see a show covering multiple, big issues so seamlessly. Usually a show of this scope is a sign of a curatorial failure to edit or focus. Here, the issues are elegantly fused and satisfactorily explored.
These themes can be digested in no particular order. Probably the biggest surprise in the show is that the Parthenon sculptures did not figure in the Renaissance. They were then unknown, in faraway, nearly abandoned Athens, still high up on the building as they were for 2,000 years. In 1687 a Venetian missile fired during a war with the Ottomans nearly blew the structure to smithereens, leaving many of the sculptures headless and singed and some in shards. What the artists, writers, and philosophers of the day knew of Greek aesthetics came from texts such as The Iliad and the work of Plato and Socrates, or from Greek art found in Italy and Roman copies of Greek art.
It wasn’t only ignorance that kept the Parthenon sculptures from figuring in neoclassicism. Once taken to London and popularized, they didn’t fit the visual storyline for Greek art developed in the Italian Renaissance and later by Winckelmann, Goethe, John Soane, and others. Esteemed as the sculptures were, they just had too much animal energy. Neoclassicism — think of its American variant — was cool, symmetrical, restrained, stern, austere, and distant. Those were the ingredients of the Greek ideal, but it was an incomplete and at times jaundiced view. It took Rodin to recognize, understand, and absorb the passions the Greeks sought to convey.
Shows that compare artists, such as the Clark’s Degas and Picasso or Baltimore’s Matisse and Diebenkorn, often fail because “this looks like that” turns simplistic and boring fast. It also makes the younger artists look derivative. Rodin instead draws from the Parthenon’s spirit rather than any particular motif. The curators compare The Kiss, from 1882, done soon after his first visit to the British Museum, and figures L and M from one of the Parthenon pediments.
One is a nude man and woman; the others are two heavily clothed goddesses, either sisters or mother and daughter. But both pairs have what Rodin called “the melt.” In the Greek sculpture, a perfect unity comes from folds of drapery flowing like molten lava and creating sinuous, luscious lines merging two separate figures into an intricate though consummated whole. The Kiss has the same sense of harmonious, natural union through corresponding contours and contrasts of hard and soft flesh. To Rodin, the Parthenon sculptures imagined the body not as a flat surface but as a projection of inner volume and inner magnetism. That was a big part of their genius and his own.
Rodin loved the physicality of the Parthenon sculptures, especially the male nudes. The river God Ilissos from the Parthenon pediment and figures from the building’s friezes impressed him for their ever-so-slight torsion, a convincing, emerging coil achieved not through arithmetical ratios like other Greek nudes but intuitively and effortlessly. After his study of the plaster casts, Rodin sought this sense of nervous, tense movement in his Age of Bronze, from 1877. Rodin was convinced that Phiedias and his marble cutters used human models, carving on the spot rather than making elaborate, preliminary drawings. That approach, where drawing was an essential preparation, was a standard, Academy-taught practice. No wonder Rodin skipped it. He flunked the entrance exam for France’s Académie des Beaux-Arts three times. He was virtually unschooled.
Rodin never went to Greece, and, of course, he never met Pheidias, but felt he knew both intimately. In a lifetime of thinking about the Parthenon sculptures, he concluded that Pheidias envisioned what Rodin in 1911 called “the entire human dream.” Thus came his inspiration for The Thinker, his tacit tribute to Pheidias, first done in 1881–82. Rodin’s secretary, the poet Ranier Maria Rilke, called it “the man who sees the whole immensity and all the terrors of this spectacle,” referring to humanity.
The Gates of Hell, from 1887, was originally based on a passage from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Rodin developed over the years into an all-purpose parade of the vagaries, complexities, and passions of modern life. He saw the Parthenon sculptures as one bookend in humanity’s story — the civilized world’s nascent self-awareness — and The Gates of Hell as its modern companion, possibly a world that knows too much for its own good.
Rodin might have pushed the intellectual kinship with Pheidias too far. That was his blind spot, not the show’s. Pheidias, after all, articulated in the Parthenon a comprehensive body of myth, in effect a religion and the ethical, political, and social foundation of the Athenian state. Rodin might have seen himself as a philosopher-artist, a correct view, but his work is far more intimate and personal than anything Pheidias imagined. He certainly saw The Thinker as bearing the weight of the world, so it’s comprehensive enough, but the figure suggests modern man as a free, empowered, individual atom unchained from tradition, hierarchy, and superstition. This differs from Pheidias’s world, where humanity was as often a speck or plaything of the gods. Marking the modern world, Rodin’s world, was a very new sense that no gods existed or, if they did, rarely if ever intervened. Still, no other artist had Rodin’s passion to root that modern zeitgeist and its visual vocabulary in the world of the ancients.
The show occupies one enormous gallery, open but intelligently separated into sections. It begins with The Kiss and ends with The Burghers of Calais, with plenty of Rodin and Parthenon sculptures in between. It travels to the Rodin Museum in Paris, the British Museum’s partner in the project. No other museums could have pulled it off. The catalogue and labels are beautifully anchored by direct quotes from Rodin, a superb writer, and people who knew him well, including Rilke and the sculptor Camille Claudel, who was one of his many mistresses. The curators show enormous respect for their subjects, self-control, and almost a sixth sense of their thinking. It’s autobiography, biography, history, drama, philosophy, obsession. And with so much great art, it’s riveting and unique.