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Rodin at the British Museum – June 2018

Thursday 28th June saw a group of SSS members brave public transport to visit the British Museum for a special lecture and exhibition of Rodin and the Parthenon sculptures of Greece. Barbara Marshfield organised this privileged group visit and it was both a surprising and very enjoyable experience.

In 1881 the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin made his first trip to London. No doubt the trains ran on time in those days. On a trip to the British Museum he saw the Parthenon sculptures and was captivated by the beauty of these ancient Greek masterpieces. Though weathered and broken over centuries, the Parthenon sculptures still convey a power through the bodies of the figures alone. This inspired Rodin, who went on to remove heads and limbs from his own sculptures to capture the feeling of these artworks of the past and, in the process, create a new genre of contemporary art.

Descending the stairs from the very airy and modern Great Court to the Education Centre, we were given tea and biscuits before being entranced by a lecture given by Ian Jenkins, the British Museum’s curator of artworks from Ancient Greece. His encyclopaedic knowledge of these ancient sculptures and the link between them and Rodin allowed us to gain an insight into the processes and the motivation of this master sculptor. There were a few surprises – apparently Rodin never carved anything! His team of craftsmen worked from Rodin’s drawings and clay maquettes. Plaster casts were made and scaled up to be cast in bronze or carved in marble. Rodin supervised closely but never actually laid a hand on a chisel! Many of his works were deliberately left unfinished as if the work would never be complete. Rodin’s figures are essentially human rather than idealised.

Through a slide show, we were led by Ian Jenkins through many of the pieces we were to see in the exhibition. He gave his interpretation of the works, many of which were unconventional and shocking at the time of their creation. Iconic pieces like ‘The Kiss’ and ‘The Thinker’ were given new meaning for me. The pose of the latter, for example, with the right elbow resting on the left knee, creates torsion in the body which would be difficult for a person to hold. The position of the back of the hand under the chin in ancient Greek sculpture would indicate mourning.

Rodin was fascinated by hands and feet. He sculpted over 200 hands in different poses. Each remarkably expressive on its own. The lecture was so fascinating that the hour passed very rapidly and we were freed for a lunch break before a timed visit to the exhibition.

The exhibition was laid out to show the way Rodin interpreted and was inspired by the Parthenon sculptures. Many were copied quite directly and positioned side by side to show this. Rodin was particularly in awe of Phidias, the Greek master sculptor, who Rodin believed was the greatest ever to have lived. He used much of Phidias’ style to create his own works – the massive, six meter high ‘Gates of Hell’, for example, which was an interpretation of Dante’s Inferno.

Walking round the exhibition one is mesmerised by the scale of some of the works. ‘The Burghers of Calais’ is a massive work that could be studied for hours and still reveal new aspects -the size of the hands and feet; the protruding ears and hooded brows; so many details that breathe life into the work and leave the impression of the fate that awaited these men.

Although I visited the Rodin museum in Paris many years ago, this latest visit, following Ian Jenkins’ insights and the revelation of Rodin’s relationship with ancient Greece left me inspired. As a stone carver I always try to reveal what is already in the stone and this is exactly what Rodin was after with his works – he wanted to reveal something human rather than reproduce geometric, idealised figures.

The exhibition ends with a bronze - ‘The Walker’ – a giant pair of powerful legs with a partial, unfinished torso above. There is a feeling of power in the stride; a determination to carry on; this is what Rodin seems to have been after through his work and he succeeded magnificently.

Thanks go to Curator, Ian Jenkins, for his revealing, humorous and mesmerising lecture; to the British Museum for staging such a clever and inspiring exhibition; and to our own Barbara Marshfield for organising the trip.

David Paynter

‘The Walking Man’ Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917) Bronze cast 1907 H. 213.5 cm ; W. 71.7 cm ; D. 156.5 cm

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