Lusting after ruins: Rodin and the art of ancient Greece

For much of his life, Auguste Rodin suffered from an undiagnosed complaint: an ailment the Germans call Ruinenlust

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, c.1910. Photo: Albert Harlingue, © Musée Rodin

For much of his life, Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917, suffered from an undiagnosed complaint: an ailment the Germans call Ruinenlust — ruin lust. He was hardly the first: Shelley cast it in poetic form in “Ozymandias” while in 1767 the philosophe Denis Diderot succinctly defined its morphology: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures.”

For the early part of his career, Rodin’s Ruinenlust had lain dormant but in 1881, aged 41, he came to London for the first time and visited the British Museum where he saw the Elgin Marbles. Their mixture of the perfect and the weathered, the whole and the fragmentary, had a profound effect on his art. It was far from his first encounter with the sculptures: he knew them from books and casts and from the stately Parthenon fragments in the Louvre, but nevertheless, in the British Museum, their sheer amplitude and variety took him by surprise.

What struck him most forcibly was what might be termed “the poetry of imperfection”. Unlike the Neoclassicists who preceded him, Rodin was not interested in flawlessness or Winckelmann’s idea of an ideal body as indicative of an ideal society; rather, it was the sculptures’ very fragmentariness that was so evocative. One of the reasons Rodin never carved his works (despite often posing for photographs chisel in hand) but modelled them for later casting was because it gave him greater scope for expressiveness. The knocked-about surfaces of the Parthenon statues showed him how to take this further.

Rising goddess, figure K from the west pediment of the Parthenon, c.438–432 BC, © The Trustees of the British Museum

“The Age of Bronze”, 1877, by Auguste Rodin, sandcast before 1916 © Musée Rodin

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece at the British Museum shows how that initial encounter — the first of 15 trips he made to London and to the museum, where he spent so much time he claimed he “haunted” it — manifested itself in his work. The exhibition pairs some 100 of Rodin’s works, among them his own plaster copy of The Kiss and sketches of the Parthenon sculptures he made on headed notepaper from the Thackeray hotel across the road from the museum, with a dozen of the originals that inspired them.

Perhaps the most striking example of the Parthenon effect can be seen in two before and after works. The first is his St John the Baptist, started in 1877 and showing the naked preacher striding, talking and gesticulating. It was modelled from an Italian peasant named Pignatelli, a “rough, hairy man”, said Rodin, who “expressed violence in his bearing . . . yet also the mystical character of his race”. He made the work larger than life size because he was still smarting from the accusation that rather than sculpt a previous work, The Age of Bronze, he had simply taken a cast from the model. The second work, The Walking Man, was made in 1899-1900 using studies for the legs and torso of St John. These he reassembled, marginally out of true and critically without head or arms.

The resulting sculpture was no longer identifiable as the saint but, drawing directly from the headlessness of many of the Parthenon sculptures, became both a modern work in which Rodin distanced himself from the Salon tradition of high finish and completion and antique in its brokenness, as if it had just been excavated. The sculptor’s response to the critics who did not understand its roughness was heartfelt: “Those people . . . Don’t they think that an artist has to apply himself to giving as much expression to a hand or a torso as to a face? And that he is logical and far more of an artist to exhibit an arm rather than a ‘bust’ arbitrarily deprived by tradition of its arms, legs and abdomen? Expression and proportion are the goals. Modelling is the means: it’s through modelling that flesh lives, vibrates, struggles and suffers.” In the exhibition, The Walking Man is placed alongside the headless and armless figure of a goddess from the east pediment of the Parthenon. It is a pairing not necessarily of straight borrowings but of correspondences.

“Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade”, from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Kiss, meanwhile, is shown next to the figures of two reclining goddesses, diaphanously draped and sensuously intertwined. The coupling demonstrates both how Rodin adapted the lesson of harmoniously combining two figures and also of giving them life, even in stillness. The Age of Bronze, a standing, naked youth with his arm raised to his head, is paired with a block from the north frieze in which Pheidias showed a near-identical figure in bas relief. “No artist will ever surpass Pheidias,” said Rodin, but that didn’t stop him getting close to trying.

Rodin’s earliest inspiration had been the Italian Renaissance but the 1881 visit showed him that an even earlier style could point the way forward for modern sculpture. It also spurred him to collect some 6,000 antiquities which eventually necessitated their own museum. He did not view his collection as inert but would display pieces to visitors by lamplight to demonstrate the way the modelling reacted to different light. What he was about was making such things modern: if Pheidias was, in his eyes, the sculptor of “the entire human dream” of his time, Rodin wanted his own work to have a similar potency. And as a man with an uneasy relationship with the 19th-century art world he was unembarrassed to express his devotion to the fountainhead: “I love the sculptures of ancient Greece,” he said. “They have been and remain my masters.”

Underlying this enlightening exhibition too is a subtle propagandist message. In the face of Greek demands to return the Elgin Marbles the British Museum is demonstrating not just its stated position “that the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries” but that the specific pairing of the museum and the statues has itself added significantly to that shared heritage.

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