Rodin and ancient Greece: a perfect pairing
For the first time, the British Museum is bringing together the works of Auguste Rodin with those of his self-assigned spiritual and artistic mentor, the ancient Greek sculptor Pheidias.
On the face of it the artists could not be more different. Rodin’s life is well documented and his art remains famous and reproduced across the world. By contrast, Pheidias’ life is recorded only in passing by Roman commentators who lived 500 years after his death, and most of his art is lost to the ravages of time. But there are some striking similarities.
Both artists were the most famous sculptors of their lifetimes. Despite living centuries apart, Rodin wrote and spoke as if he knew Pheidias personally. Seeing his hand at work in the sculptures of the Parthenon, Rodin imagined Pheidias as a friend and teacher who guided his hand as he created representations of the human form.
No artist will ever surpass Pheidias… The greatest of the sculptors, who appeared at the time when the entire human dream could be contained in the pediment of a temple, will never be equalled.
Auguste Rodin, 1911
Like Pheidias, Rodin did not personally carve everything that we put his name to. Rodin was sometimes seen posing for the camera with hammer and chisel in hand, but he did not carve in marble himself. He preferred to model figures in clay, and then have them cast in plaster or bronze. If he was working in marble, he would delegate the task of copying the clay model to a stone carver under his personal control. In this, his practice may not have been very different from that of Pheidias. It is most unlikely that Pheidias would have carved any part of the architectural sculpture of the Parthenon, but he very probably designed it, fashioning models and making drawings for the pediment and frieze.
Sometimes we can see Rodin’s admiration for Pheidias at work in compositions that have not always been acknowledged. One such example is the comparison between the pose of a figure in the cavalcade of the Parthenon frieze and Rodin’s The Age of Bronze.
In The Kiss, the sculpture transcended its original purpose to become representative both of Rodin’s own works and of a new naturalism in the history of art. The Kiss has almost become a cliché demonstrating how great works of art become overfamiliar. But by placing The Kiss together with these figures (below, likely of goddesses) from the east pediment of the Parthenon, we see almost for the first time the miraculous ability of both Rodin and Pheidias to conjure warm flesh out of cold marble.
The final coupling from the exhibition we’re highlighting here shows a goddess (figure K) from the Parthenon’s east pediment – headless, armless – with Rodin’s Walking Man, also headless and armless. The one is raising herself from her seat, the other strides out of the exhibition into a different world, that of modernism and abstract expressionism. In Walking Man, we can see how Rodin radically lopped off the head of his own sculpture in order to make it more like the Parthenon sculptures.
Rodin is unique in the history of art for his intense determination to bridge the gap between the past and the present. What mattered for him in his own work was the expressive power of the body and he found it in the works of Pheidias.
See how Rodin was inspired by antiquity in the special exhibition Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, on display from 26 April to 29 July 2018.
Sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.