‘My Acropolis,’ Auguste Rodin called his house at Meudon. Here, the sculptor made a Parthenon above Paris. Surrounded by statues of ‘mutilated gods’, he cast himself as the Phidias of the age. His collection was part cabinet of curiosities, part charnel house. He bought Nile crocodiles and Peking ginger jars, painted sarcophagi and chipped red-figure vases. Crowded among his 6,000 Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Assyrian, Chinese and Japanese objects were his own plasters, bronzes and clay models: hands by the hundred, legs vast and trunkless, arms beckoning, fidgeting, reaching. Isadora Duncan set up her ‘Dionysian’ dance school nearby to teach Hellenic rhythms. In the catacombs of the Rodin Museum of Meudon today you feel it would take only a note or two on the panpipes to bring these eerie limbs to life.
In the summer, Rodin brought his satyrs and Venuses outdoors. They deserved to be seen in sunlight. If not under the blue skies of that ‘marvellous Hellenic setting’, then the variable weather of Île-de-France would do. He displayed figures ‘skyed’ high on columns with ornate capitals, inspired by the Naxian Sphinx from Delphi. He made delicate female figures in plaster to bathe in the bowls or perch on the lips of Greek calyx cups. At night Rodin showed his fragments by candles, the light flickering on headless bodies and bodiless heads, animating limbs and torsos returned from the underworld. ‘This is the hospital of the Olympians,’ Rodin joked, wrapping cracks, clumsy joins and imperfections in bandages. A leg, a hand, a head, a torso all’antica were ‘masterpieces’ in their own right. ‘Though broken, they are not dead;they are vibrant, and I make them allthe more vibrant by completing them in my mind.’
‘It’s like real flesh!’ Rodin told the critic Paul Gsell. ‘It was as if it had been petrified by kisses and caresses… Touching this torso one half-expected it to feel warm.’ At home Rodin could forget the dreary ‘Touch-me-not’ notices in the British Museum and the Louvre. Once, he had been caught in the National Museum of Rome running his hands over the Venus of Cyrene to see how she was made.
‘Antiquity is my youth,’ Rodin said. He had discovered her in adolescence and his headlong teenage lust, passion, infatuation endured until his death in 1917, aged 77. As a student Rodin had no living master. He failed three times to get into the École des Beaux-Arts and so appointed Michelangelo and Phidias — sculptor of the 5th-century BC Parthenon frieze and pediments — his teachers. Not Polykleitos, though. Too slick, too perfect, too boringly canonical. Phidias gave Rodin twistings and torsions, grapplings and overlappings. Phidias summoned the Gods down from Mount Olympus; Polykleitos did handsome athletes from a catalogue. Rodin could not read Latin or Greek and knew Ovid only through French translation, but in his studio he recreated the Athens of Perikles.
Rodin as student of the antique is the subject of the British Museum’s dazzling new exhibition Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece, curated by Celeste Farge, Ian Jenkins and Bénédicte Garnier. The Rodin museums in Paris and Meudon have lent generously and the British Museum has plundered its own collections — leaving gaps in the sequence of Parthenon marble sculptures in the Duveen Galleries. Rodin’s own works — ‘The Thinker’, ‘The Kiss’, ‘Iris’, ‘The Walking Man’ — will be shown alongside British Museum holdings and objects from the sculptor’s collection. This is once-inna-lifetime stuff. When I visited the Meudon cellars in March, vases, figurines and gauntlet hands were wrapped in wadding ready to travel to London.
It was a journey Rodin first made in 1881, aged 41. He had recently received his first commission from the French state. ‘The Gates of Hell’, a Dantean nightmare in bronze — ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’ — was intended for the doors of a new museum of decorative arts in Paris. The museum was never built and, freed from a deadline, Rodin worked at the ‘Gates’ for the rest of his life. He pulled figures from the doors and lintel, remade them, rotated them, put them on the Procrustean rack. Rodin’s figures never look entirely comfortable. Not for him the graceful contrapposto. Instead he draws on Phidias, whose figures twist and shout, throw punches and haul on horses’ reins.
Curator Ian Jenkins observes that we think we know Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’. Ask anyone to mimic him and they adopta brooding, Hamlet, alas-poor-Yorick pose. But the body Rodin makes is more contorted than that, leaning his left elbow on his right thigh. Try it. Don’t slip a disc. ‘The Thinker’ is more a bent and bowed Man of Sorrows than a Left Bank philosopher.
On visits to London, Rodin ‘haunted’ the British Museum. ‘Temple London Museum of muses,’ he wrote in disjointed shorthand in his notebook. He had only seen the Parthenon sculptures in reproduction. As a student he had tried his luck in the print room of the Imperial Library in Paris. ‘As I wasn’t very well dressed they only let me see certain things, but I also looked at the books that had been left out by more highly regarded visitors.’ He had seen the Parthenon through engravings by adventurous topographers such as James Stuart and Nicholas Revett. Even a photo-postcard of the Parthenon, sent by a friend, had ‘a spiritual and terrifying effect on me’.
Standing face-to-foot with the Elgin Marbles, first brought to London in 1816, said Rodin, ‘awakened in me a flood of sensations’. He made sketches on the headed notepaper of the Thackeray Hotel and bought antiquities from Spink & Son, still selling in Bloomsbury today. The English press called him ‘the French Phidias’. He couldn’t have hoped for a better headline.
The Lapiths and centaurs of the Parthenon metopes — the scenic squares of an architectural frieze — had an exhilarating effect. A Lapith braces a foot against the body of a centaur, toes bent back. Legs are locked in battle. A centaur hoof-kicks a Lapith right in the Grecian urns. Necks turn, shoulders wrench, muscles strain. Rodin marvelled at ‘how such powerful sensuality could be conveyed by sucha severe man as Phidias’.
Rodin never went to Athens. The King of Greece invited the sculptor in 1906, but Rodin, then 65, put it off and put it off. He was ill. There were commissions to finish.He would be seasick.
Perhaps it was for the best. How could the ruined Parthenon with its beggarsand tourist touts live up to the Hellenic ideal? Rodin was buried beneath a bronze ‘Thinker’ at Meudon — his Acropolis of the imagination.
Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece at the British Museum until 29 July.