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Overwhelming legacy

28 September 2006

10:04 AM

28 September 2006

10:04 AM

What a spectacle at the Royal Academy: the main galleries packed with the sculptures of Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), in a massive show which dazzles with its vehement and emotional handling of materials. Here is a giant of an artist, but the paying public is overloaded with visual stimulus. It is simply impossible to take in so much at one time. How many visitors will return? How many have the time or will spend the money? (Admission is £10.) And yet this is work of central importance to the development of Western art in the last century and a half, not some petit maître like Modigliani, who is being given his second exhibition at the RA upstairs in the Sackler Wing. Rodin is credited with bringing sculpture into the modern age and with reasserting its importance after centuries of relative neglect. He deserves a whole series of exhibitions devoted to the various aspects of his prodigious output; instead we are given the one extended look. It’s stupendous, but also a little stupefying.

It’s not as if there was a shortage of work to borrow. When he died, Rodin left virtually everything he still owned to the French state. Most of what is at the RA comes from the Musée Rodin (the sculptor’s former home in Paris) and the store at his country house at Meudon. Admittedly, a number of exhibits are fragile, and we are exceptionally grateful for the loan of such items, but I have a sneaking suspicion that much on the international museum circuit that is not lent nowadays on the grounds of fragility is really down to politics and the officiousness of conservators. So, many thanks to the Rodin authorities for allowing these sculptures to travel (the exhibition will go on to the Kunsthaus in Zurich, 9 February to 13 May 2007), a gratitude qualified only by a feeling of regret that we will not be granted more time to discover Rodin’s depths in instalments rather than in one go.

The Academy’s exhibition is subdivided into ten chronological sections. It actually begins out in the courtyard with ‘The Gates of Hell’, a commission to make a pair of bronze doors for a new museum in the Louvre Palace, which became a kind of compendium of Rodin’s thoughts and themes. It’s a wonderful advert for the show (you can study it freely without buying a ticket), which embodies at least a dozen of the motifs which became free-standing sculptures and feature in the exhibition, including such iconic images as ‘The Thinker’ and ‘The Kiss’. As a mini-catalogue of Rodin’s interests and a general introduction to his style and content it can scarcely be bettered. The scale of the man’s inventiveness can at once be gauged and marvelled at. Rodin claimed it was Michelangelo who freed him from academicism, when he studied his work in 1876 at first hand in Italy. ‘The Gates of Hell’ are in many ways Rodin’s answer to Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’, with plentiful echoes of Dante on the side.

Moving indoors, the visitor is greeted by John the Baptist, standing larger than life in the middle of Gallery 1, beckoning us to enter. Immediately to the right is Rodin’s first large sculpture, ‘The Age of Bronze’ (1877). A beautiful and subtle piece, it was evidently considered too lifelike, as Rodin was accused of casting it from moulds made from life. Sculptor Richard Deacon describes it as ‘solidified light’, and indeed the way the surface takes and gives back light, enunciating form in the process, is remarkable. In this room is a typical and attractive example of Rodin’s early decorative style, ‘Blue Head’ in terracotta with a blue pottery glaze. There are also some rather ghastly kissing babies, reminding us that sentimentality was another charge levelled at this great sculptor. But it’s not much in evidence here, so don’t be put off.

Gallery 2 introduces works on paper — including a fine group of Rodin’s drypoints, such as his powerful heads of Victor Hugo, and a pen, ink and watercolour drawing of three dancers from 1883. Rodin’s drawings are a wonder: the invention and economy of line in such sheets as ‘Figure Seen in Profile on One Leg’ have to be studied with care to be fully appreciated. Rodin wrote: ‘The secret of a good drawing is in the sense of its concordances: things launch into each other, interpenetrate and clarify one another mutually. This is life’s way.’ A comment equally pertinent to his sculpture. Here also are other artists’ representations of Rodin, chiefly Sargent and Legros. Off to the left is a darkened room with various contemporary sculptors, like Deacon, Rachel Whiteread and the ubiquitous Antony Gormley, talking on film about Rodin, plus installation photos from the Musée Rodin.

The main gallery contains some of the great themes of Rodin’s maturity: ‘The Burghers of Calais’, his magnificent portraits of Balzac and such lesser but evocative subjects as ‘Crouching Woman’ and the monumental nude of Jean d’Aire. And so this enormous exhibition progresses through the galleries, moving from darkness into light, depending on the materials (bronze compared to plaster and marble) and on cunningly controlled lighting levels. Different rooms deal in detail with the plaster studies for ‘The Gates of Hell’, Rodin’s collectors in Britain and his relationship with the Antique. Obsessions come and go, not always easy to track: his work is expressive and general in its meaning and emotional resonance, rather than intensely specific. His huge energy was matched by his appetite for women. Among his more famous lovers were the sculptor Camille Claudel and the painter Gwen John, both very talented but somewhat unstable. (There’s a bust by Claudel in Gallery 3 and a head of her in brown-washed plaster in Gallery 4, while John is immortalised in Rodin’s ‘Monument to Whistler’ in Gallery 8.) Gallery 9, devoted to the late drawings, many of them erotically charged, is eloquent testament to Rodin’s love of women.

The drawings would make a stunning exhibition on their own, but it seems that we are to be deprived of the opportunity to see Rodin piecemeal. He has been much criticised for being better at parts than at creating a cohesive whole (Cézanne said his work needed to be unified by placing it in another context, like the portal of a cathedral), so it seems that this exhibition is determined to present Rodin as a unified subject. The result is indigestible. As the exhibition’s principal curator Catherine Lampert points out in her introduction to the sumptuous catalogue (£24.95 in paperback): ‘Rodin’s legacy is overwhelming if one tries to absorb it as a whole.’ You can see why the organisers wanted to give us as much as possible of such a great artist, but they in turn must forgive us if we retire exhausted from the fray.

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