Rodin once wrote: “Man too has his part in creation, an ephemeral part, but like Israel strove with the angel, he grapples with the works of God to express his thoughts in stone.”
In the British Museum’s exhibition ‘Rodin and the art of ancient Greece’, we are invited to witness Rodin mid-grapple. Rodin’s efforts are exhibited next to the Classical sculptures that inspired them and we follow his encounter – in real time – with the complex legacy of Antiquity.
He never travelled to Greece himself but became obsessed with an imaginative picture of antiquity, a personal vision of infinite, luminous harmony and clarity of form. He filled his garden with relics of antiquity: “I surround myself with the only appropriate works of man, these beautiful Greek fragments. This torso seems to have a soul and perfect harmony within it.”
At night, he would invite friends to see his workshop, turn off the light, and hand round candles. He would move closer to the relics and illuminate the marble: “All this comes to life,” he told them, “with a single flame of a candle.”
For all Rodin’s veneration of the Ancients, this exhibition also dramatises the way in which he totally transformed the Classical vocabulary of the body, with its clear lines (and perfect torsos), into something much, much richer. Rainer Maria Rilke, a life-long admirer of Rodin, articulates its peculiar, unique majesty: “There was no longer any pose, group, or composition. Now there was only an endless variety of living planes, there was only life and the means of expression he would find to take him to its source.”
Motion, tranquillity, the light absorbed, the light reflected – all becomes still and in flux under the skin/stone of Rodin’s bodies. In his hands, contorted limbs become still and perfected; and the most perfect body can seem just on the verge of obscenity. He gets into the heart of things into that “endless variety of living planes” that makes up the real human body, in its ugliness, its gleaming divinity, and its profound moral ambivalence.
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That’s why ‘The Thinker’ gives me such a curious feeling. Is he about to stand up? To slip forward onto the ground? Does he look up or down? I want to impose myself on it – to wrench his face up to the sky. So too with ‘The Age of Bronze’, the man moves up on to his toes. He is declarative, yes, but submissive too. His arm is stretched up, his whole body taut to its limit, posed. His hand is clutched inwards, gesturing towards some inner turmoil that we cannot know or see.
The sculpted image creates a strange sense of doubt – stillness, movement, stone clad, skin clad – a doubt that penetrates through the senses. If photography unsettles the world by stopping it in film, Rodin’s sculpture-work traps you in its arms. That strange intimacy led Rilke to write, on seeing Rodin’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’: “There is no angle from which it cannot see you. You have to change your life.”
Go and see this exhibition. It’s not on for much longer. Change your life.