Located just around the corner from The Montague on the Gardens, this spring the British Museum invites visitors to discover how ancient Greek art influenced the iconic French sculptor Auguste Rodin, and changed the course of modern art as we understand it today. Working in tandem with the Musée Rodin, the Museum’s Rodin and the art of ancient Greece exhibition demonstrates how some of the sculptor’s most famous works, such as The Kiss, were inspired by the Parthenon sculptures, which Rodin saw at the British Museum over 100 years ago. Here, Senior Curator Ian Jenkins explains the thinking behind the exhibition and how, when it comes to art, the ancient never gets old.
Can you tell us about the concept behind the exhibition?
“This exhibition, supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, is about ancient Greek sculpture that Rodin saw when he visited the British Museum in 1881. It was then that he saw the Parthenon sculptures for the first time in the original and never looked back. He became mildly obsessed with them and, if you look at the consequences for his own sculpture, it becomes a fascinating story of one man and a passion.”
Why was it important to you to show Rodin’s works alongside the Parthenon originals?
“It refreshes both sets of objects; we’re looking at the Parthenon sculptures through Rodin’s eyes. We began experimenting with the sculptures of the Parthenon in 2015 to review our presentation of them with the Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art exhibition. We’re taking them off their pedestals and putting them in front of the viewer on low bases so that they can better be compared and contrasted with the work of Rodin. As visitors will see, the sculptures had a profound influence on him, and as a consequence, western European art in the 20th century.”
Can you tell us more about Rodin’s own collection of ancient artefacts?
“He had 6,000 individual pieces and they’re mostly at his country home at Meudon outside Paris. Interestingly, Rodin would sit at his mealtimes staring at a piece of white marble sculpture, as we might watch the television or read a book. He had this idea that the fragment was almost as valuable as the whole sculpture would have been if it had survived complete. He would make his own works seem more archaeological – more like the sculptures of the Parthenon - by lopping off the head and limbs to create a raw torso which would become a new work of art in its own right.”
How did the work on display blaze a new trail in modern sculpture?
“Rodin created works that still look fabulously modern and avant-garde today. Think about The Walking Man for example, with no arms, yet he takes this great stride into the 20th century and we follow him, wondering what will happen next. Rodin died in 1917 but he saw the beginnings of the great changes that would follow the First World War and in some ways he anticipates them as in his magnificent monumental portrayal of Balzac. Rodin was like Michelangelo in the fact that he felt we shouldn’t copy nature but recreate our own version of it. He saw nature as an exemplar and he would do his best to rise to its challenge.”
What, in your opinion, are the highlights of the exhibition?
The Kiss and The Thinker are both in the show but we are acutely aware that people may look at them without actually seeing them, so familiar are they from many different kinds of reproduction. The Thinker, for example, was originally designed to be seen high up on a monumental doorway for a decorative arts museum that was actually never built. Like the Parthenon sculptures, The Thinker only became a work of art, as opposed to an architectural ornament, when it was removed from its original context and brought down to earth. In the exhibition we compare The Kiss with two sculptures from the Parthenon which, like Rodin’s lovers, are carved from the same block of stone giving greater emphasis to the erotic charge that both the Parthenon and Rodin’s sculpture transmits.”
Do you believe that artists today can still be inspired by the treasures of the ancient world?
“Clearly, they can; whether or not the ancient world is well treated by them I’m not sure! The western tradition of art has always looked back at previous generations of artists and taken inspiration from it. Gombrich taught us that artists copy artists and the modern age is no exception to that practice. In our show we are spoilt for choice when it comes to the representation of the human body by a modern artist who is acutely aware of his own debt to the sculptors of antiquity, especially Pheidias and paradoxically Rodin makes Pheidias a contemporary of his and adopts him as his mentor. He deals with the great gulf of time that separated himself from the living Pheidias by simply abolishing time and bring the past into the present while projecting the present into the past.”
Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, will run from 26 April to 29 July 2018 at the British Museum.
Discover the British Museum’s extraordinary collection from the comfort of The Montague on the Gardens, located just a short walk away.Image credits: Lead image of British Museum © Trustees of The British Museum. Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) © Musée Rodin. Rising goddess, figure K from the east pediment of the Parthenon © The Trustees of the British Museum. Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade block from the north frieze of the Parthenon © The Trustees of the British Museum.