The first time I saw Rodin’s The Gates of Hell was in 2006 in front of the Royal Academy, and I was completely blown away. Too monumental to go inside Burlington House, it suddenly appeared in the Annenberg courtyard at the opening of the Rodin exhibition. It was a sensation. The Burghers of Calais had also been liberated from its usual position outside the Palace of Westminster about a mile down the road. Rodin never saw the Gates of Hell completed in his lifetime, it having only been assembled and cast ten years after his death in 1917. The great sculptor rarely, if ever, took a hammer and chisel to a lump of marble, employing assistants to work from his plaster or clay models. Yet another Rodin exhibition, this time at the British Museum in 2019, was Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece, which showed how influenced the Frenchman was by the ancient world, in terms of representational beauty. This all seemed to come to an end with his The Age of Bronze, whose detractors accused him of casting straight from the model. He, of course, vehemently denied this ‘act of deception’, and his sculpture from that moment on became more focused on movement, fragmentation, disparate scales and repetition, heralding a new movement in Modernist sculpture. He was an avid collector of ancient artefacts from Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Far East, amassing some 6,000 works, some of which he utilised by placing a plaster figure in a vase or cup, so that a female nude would, rather bizarrely, be placed in an Etruscan vessel. These figures were described by his friend the poet Rainer Maria Rilke as ‘small floral souls.’
There is a ghostly feel to the exhibition, as most of the exhibits are in white plaster, with dozens devoted to the swirling figure of Honoré de Balzac in what looks like a dressing gown. It was rejected by its commissioners, the Société des Gens de Lettres, being a little avant-garde, whatever that is in French, and, once again, was only cast in bronze years after his death. Kenneth Clark described the statue of Balzac as ‘the greatest piece of sculpture of the nineteenth century — indeed since Michelangelo.’ The plaster figures of the Burghers are like phantoms, compared to the heroic, bedraggled, vulnerable and shattered bronze-cast ensemble in Victoria Gardens, but it is interesting to see their development. There are maybe too many of the same kinds of objects on display, the dozens of ‘masks’ of the celebrated Japanese actor and dancer Ohta Hisa, performing under the name Hanako, is a case in point. There is a room devoted to a collection of tiny modelled heads, arms, hands and legs, named abattis by Rodin, which translates as ‘giblets’.
In his drawings, he employed a graphite line of a figure, then softened it with gouache, as though underwater. With some of his plaster sculptures, he used to dip the bust in a plaster slip, or lait plâtre, which softened the edges and gave the face or figure a marbleised, out-of-focus finish, like a second skin. One of his sexiest pieces, not in the show, is his crouching water nymph Danaïd, in marble, and he produced literally thousands of erotic drawings, many later in life. As he said himself, ‘It’s very simple. The drawings are the key to my work.’ Without a doubt, he was ahead of his time, and produced some of the best-loved and most recognisable pieces of sculpture in the world, including The Kiss, a marble version of which made its way downriver from Tate Britain to Tate Modern, and The Thinker, in coated plaster. Both these sculptures originated from the planned Gates of Hell, as did many other figures, like Ugolino and his Children.
His output was astonishing, and he never ceased experimenting with limbs, hands, heads and torsos, in purposeful fragmentation and amputation, using multiple casts. He dismantled and reassembled existing sculptures, and each fragment could exist both individually and as part of a greater whole. He received many honours, not just in France, but in Belgium, Scotland, Germany and England, where he succeeded James McNeill Whistler as President of London’s International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in 1904. Seven years later, the British government purchased a bronze cast of the Burghers of Calais, to which he attended the inauguration in 1915, and it remains one of the most powerful pieces of public sculpture in the country.
Until 21 November 2021