Within the expanding aquatic metropolis that is Istanbul, two late-20th-century bridges straddle the continents of Europe and Asia. These traffic-laden steel bridges, spanning high above the ferries and other boats which ply the busy waters of the Bosphorus below, are visibly useful links between two civilisations. They are also symbols, perhaps, of the noble dream of bringing the mentality of the Muslim world closer to that of the non-Muslim world in a spirit of mutual admiration and respect.
A cultural event like a Rodin exhibition is worthwhile for its own sake. Held in a Muslim country, it may also nurture such a noble dream. Alas, a recent Franco–Italian diplomatic catastrophe with Muslim repercussions — an entertaining one, admittedly — has just been notched up by no less a sporting event than the World Cup Final. Dubbed ‘a genius’ like Rodin, the former French captain Zinedine Zidane may be a non-practising Muslim but he has proved a practised master of the Marseilles head-butt to the solar plexus. Franco–Muslim relations are currently combustible. Could Auguste Rodin succeed with sculpture in the sensitive field of cultural diplomacy at a time when ‘Zizou’ Zidane has so sadly failed with football?
Certainly, the metaphor of a bridge between civilisations provides a perfect context for the major retrospective exhibition Rodin in Istanbul (until 3 September) at the Sakip Sabanci Museum (SSM). It is organised jointly with the Rodin Museum, Paris. The mounting of such an ambitious show, which follows Picasso in Istanbul, poses huge financial, administrative, logistical and intellectual challenges. Dr Nazan Ölcer, director of the Museum, announces in her foreword to the weighty catalogue that ‘since it was established just four years ago, Sakip Sabanci Museum has set out to be a meeting place for world cultures’. An exhibition on Genghis Khan is to follow.
The Sakip Sabanci Museum, in other words, is a phenomenon. The Sabanci family is a very prosperous one and members of it have become enlightened patrons of learning and the arts. The museum is equipped with the requisite state-of-the-art technology. It is situated in the garden of the beautiful Sabanci family home in Emirgan overlooking the Bosphorus, about 40 minutes by car from central Istanbul. Its parent institution is Sakip Sabanci University, a private international university.
A bronze statue of a horse, bought at auction and an unwitting harbinger of things to come, was placed in front of the Sabanci mansion in 1952 shortly after the family had moved in. To the consternation of some local people who have grown fond of it, the horse has now been temporarily replaced by Rodin’s ‘Monument to Victor Hugo’. The eyebrows of the Emirgan locals are not the first to be raised by the monument, however. In the 1890s, Rodin’s decision to present the great literary icon unencumbered by clothes shocked French officialdom, which failed to appreciate that it was dealing with the legitimate heir of Michelangelo himself.
The ‘Monument to Victor Hugo’ is the only sculpture to be shown in the open air, although Rodin himself believed that sculpture is an outdoor art. Natural light inside SSM, which is built on a hill, comes from the windows facing the Bosphorus. The museum’s array of artificial light is mainly well directed, however. Entering the exhibition proper, there is an educational overture in a corridor replete with photographs. On the right are people and events in Rodin’s life. On the left are late-19th-century movers and shakers, including Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein — the usual suspects.
At the end of this corridor is Rodin’s sculpture of 1877, ‘The Age of Bronze’. Already Rodin’s great humanity begins to touch the heart of the Western viewer. Surely it will touch the heart of a Turkish public even though this public may be more attuned to calligraphy, craftsmanship, beautiful, intricate abstract patterns and the great architectural spaces of mosques. A movingly vulnerable life-size standing naked man, previously christened ‘The Vanquished’, miraculously vibrates with life. The bronze is so lifelike that Rodin was ignorantly suspected of direct casting. He therefore made a direct cast from the same model to prove his critics wrong.
‘I do not invent. I rediscover,’ Rodin once said, although his later assemblages — a hand from this sculpture added to a body from that — are wonderfully inventive and modern. Many of his early works, shown here on white pedestals against a dark-green background, are placed close to the fragmented statues of antiquity that Rodin collected compulsively. It is natural that there should be a focus on these works because Asia Minor possesses so many relevant archaeological sites through which the Turkish people today may discover the past of their own land — a past which links them via the Greeks and Romans to Western European civilisation.
Another special aspect of Rodin in Istanbul is photography. It abounds with classic early examples of the technique — albumen prints, silver gelatin prints, carbon prints and bichrome gum prints, which document the master himself, his studio, his work and his life of heroic, unremitting toil. Rodin was born in 1940, the year after the first daguerreotype was printed. He used photography and photographers to publicise his work, or to capture a particular aspect of a model, or to draw in pen or pencil on photographs of plaster casts for making revised versions.
Rodin was a modeller who worked swiftly in clay, content to have others carve marble versions of certain works. His plaster bust of Clemenceau is outstanding in this show, as are the bronze busts of Baudelaire, Hugo and Mahler. The controversial Balzac monument is memorable. Rodin was a superb portraitist with a deep love and knowledge of literature and all the arts. He was also a great draughtsman who saw drawing as the absolutely essential key to his work. Rodin made many different sorts of drawing. Some emphasise volume. Others are light and sensitive, in pencil and watercolour, brilliantly capturing the fleeting movement of dancers.
His drawings for figures within the ‘Gates of Hell’ are appropriately dark. In making them Rodin grappled with architecture and the problem of relating his figures to mouldings. The ‘Gates of Hell’ were commissioned by the French Directorate of Fine Arts for a museum that was never built. It became not so much a sculpture, more a mode of life in which Dante led the way. It has survived as a maquette and has spawned a host of single breakaway sculptures, including ‘The Thinker’ and ‘The Kiss’.
There could never be a definitive Rodin retrospective. He was too prolific an artist and too deep, too unfathomable, a man for that. Rodin in Istanbul is large but it is so stimulating that it left me longing to experience more. When the Royal Academy’s Rodin show opens in London on 25 September this year, there will be an overlap between the two shows. Bronzes come in multiple editions. It is a measure of Rodin’s amazing fecundity, combined with the special relationship which the British enjoyed with the French master, that London’s exhibition will be a very different one from Rodin in Istanbul. Edward VII, W.E. Henley, Robert Louis Stevenson and Gwen John, one of his four principal mistresses (the others being Rose Beuret, Camille Claudel and the Duchesse de Choiseul), come into the story.
As the Istanbul exhibition proceeds, a feeling of Rodin’s greatness grows and grows. It’s not so much about perfection as the very human struggle for perfection. Aspects of Muslim culture famously inspired European artists such as Delacroix and Matisse on visits from France to North Africa. The pollen of cultural cross-fertilisation can blow two ways. Rodin in Istanbul should be a revelation to the people of Turkey and it will surely be an inspiration to her artists.