A new exhibition at the British Museum brings together pieces by ‘the father of modern sculpture’ and the Ancient Greek sculptures that so inspired him
French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) is one of the most famous artists of the Belle Époque. Redefining the role of the artist for the modern age, Rodin’s radical work didn’t ‘idealise’ his subjects. Instead he focused on the raw intensity and natural expression of the individual’s emotions and desires. Lover of the painter Gwen John, dancer Isadora Duncan and sculptor Camille Claudel, Rodin was raved about by Oscar Wilde and his biggest fan was the ‘uncle of Europe’ King Edward VII.
But sometimes an artist can be too well-known. Rodin’s popularity has, today, almost obscured his talent. While we may all know The Kiss, The Thinker and The Gates of Hell, his iconic work sometimes feels hidden, as it were, in plain sight. It’s easy to take Rodin for granted – just as easily as Londoners take the British Museum for granted. Luckily we now have the chance to change that.
Offering a unique opportunity to reassess the ancient roots of Rodin’s defiant modernity, the British Museum opens a new exhibition of his work alongside the Ancient Greek sculptures that inspired him. Over 80 of Rodin’s marble, bronze and plaster sculptures – seen ‘in the round’ and suffused with natural light – are weaved between the famous Parthenon marbles and intimately arranged at eye-level, as if in Rodin’s own studio. To celebrate the opening of the exhibition, we present ten things you might not know about the artist.
1. He almost became a Catholic priest
After the death of his sister Maria, the grieving 22-year-old Rodin joined a religious congregation of priests and sought to train for holy orders. It was St. Peter Julian Eymard who sensed however that Rodin was better suited to an artistic career and encouraged his redirection. Rodin was soon ‘living in sin’ with a seamstress called Rose Beuret, with whom he had an illegitimate son in 1866. Despite his endless affairs, Rodin and Beuret remained together and two weeks before her death – less than a year before his own – they were married.
2. He was often skint
Born into poverty, Rodin received little formal education and was thrice rejected from the best art school in Paris. For the first two decades of his working life he struggled to pay the rent by working as a house decorator, sculpting with inexpensive clay and plaster during his spare time at home. He was 37 before he gained serious acclaim (for his life-sized bronze male nude The Age of Bronze) and 40 before he gained his first public commission (the dramatic and terrifying Gates of Hell).
3. He trained as a sculptor of animals
Despite art school rejection, Rodin was tutored to become a sculptor of animals by the artist Antoine-Louis Barye. No doubt the spontaneity he observed in the animals he studied later influenced the expressive dynamism of many of his human figures.
4. He was the father of modern sculpture
Rodin’s naturalistic work proved the link between ancient Greece and the Renaissance, and the Modernist figurative innovations of, for example, Henry Moore, Constantin Brâncuși and Alberto Giacometti. As exhibition curator Ian Jenkins points out, Rodin invented a new genre in contemporary sculpture – “the headless, limbless torso” – directly inspired by the damaged Parthenon figures. Something about these headless, limbless ancient remains clearly evoked, for Rodin and the Modernists that followed him, the existential status of human experience.
5. His idol was ancient Greek sculptor Phidias
Rodin owned over 6,000 ancient Greek sculptures of his own and built a museum to house them at his villa in the Paris suburb of Meudon. His idol was Phidias, sculptor of the Parthenon marbles that are still described by Musée Rodin director as a “yardstick by which to judge human civilisation”. “Measuring Rodin’s work alongside” that of Phidias, The Kiss will be shown in its original plaster form beside the ancient figures of the Parthenon that inspired it.
6. His work was scandalous
One of the earliest of Rodin’s naturalistic sculptures – Man with a Broken Nose – depicts an elderly working-class subject in a vibrantly expressive and ‘unfinished’ style. It was as radical, and nearly as scandalous, as his sensually sculpted bodies. During his lifetime, Rodin’s powerful and erotic nudes were, in British and American exhibitions, often delicately draped or ‘viewed on request’, so shocking they proved. Perhaps inevitably then, Rodin’s erotic drawings made of his lover, the dancer Isadora Duncan, were until relatively recently almost unknown to the public.
7. He loved London
The most French of French sculptors, Rodin loved London. First visiting in 1881, Rodin spent much of his time in London “haunting” the British Museum and often stayed at the Thackeray Hotel right opposite. As Museum director Hartwig Fischer says, “few responded with his passion” to the Ancient Greek collection, and to honour that passion the exhibition will even showcase more than ten of the sketches Rodin made of the Parthenon sculptures, some of them drawn on the Thackeray Hotel’s headed notepaper.
8. He didn’t actually sculpt in bronze or marble
Without formal sculptural training, Rodin made quick and dynamic ‘clay sketches’ of his models before sculpting them in plaster, sometimes multiple times. These clay and plaster models – the only original authentic forms produced by the hand of Rodin himself – would then be passed to his assistants charged with the complicated translation of them into either marble or bronze. In this way Rodin combined the demands of modern-day reproduction with the Renaissance tradition of the artist’s workshop, challenging ‘authenticity’ and redefining the role of the artist.
9. He had a stalker
Initially employed by 63-year-old Rodin as a model in 1904, the 27-year-old painter Gwen John modelled for him many times. Soon they became lovers and she credited him with her sexual awakening. But when he rejected her, citing age and weariness, she stalked him across Paris and Meudon, called at his studio obsessively, waited at train stations just for a glimpse of him, rented a flat around the corner from his home and wrote letters to him every day for more than a decade.
10. He died “from the cold”
Having given his work and his archive to the Hôtel Biron in Paris in 1916 (later to become the Musée Rodin) he, apparently, asked to rent a heated room there during his last winter, but was refused. After he died at his unheated home in the chilly wartime winter of 1917 his secretary claimed, in a pointed attack on the Hôtel Biron, that Rodin had died “from the cold”.
Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece runs at the British Museum, London, from April 26 – July 29, 2018.