Often larger than life

by
08 November 2006

“Towering achievement”: Rodin’s Eve, 1881, focus of an exhibition at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge

“Towering achievement”: Rodin’s Eve, 1881, focus of an exhibition at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge

IN JULY 1914, the Parisian Auguste Rodin submitted 21 sculptures to an exhibition of contemporary French decorative art which was being held in Park Lane. At the onset of hostilities with Germany, 18 works were left stranded here. Numerous of Rodin’s London friends prevailed on the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum to exhibit them. Moved by the enthusiasm and readiness of British soldiers to come to the support of his native France, Rodin himself donated these works to the British people.

By that simple and unparalleled act of generosity, the 74-year-old artist not only celebrated a friendship with a country that he had first visited in 1881, when his friend Alphonse Legros was Professor at the Slade, but also recognised that British collectors had long valued his work. The egotism of G. B. Shaw is stomach-churning, but admittedly his portrait bust is exceptional.

The current large-scale retrospective at the Royal Academy, the first since the eye-opening show at the Hayward Gallery (1986), and the single-work show in Cambridge offer opportunities to see what all the fuss is about.

Even as a 25-year-old postulant in a religious community, Rodin showed that his real interest lay in sculpture. Ten years later, he spent 1876 in Italy, and was bowled over by Michelangelo’s art. The more immediate result is his first standing male nude, The Age of Bronze. When it was exhibited a year later, critics attacked him for casting the figure from life, so beautifully finished was the lithe form of a naked soldier.

As a riposte, his next figure was deliberately larger than life; but there is no mistaking the reality of the Italian peasant whom Rodin casts as St John the Baptist. César Pignatelli came from the Abruzzi. He is caught as he first entered Rodin’s workshop.

As a riposte, his next figure was deliberately larger than life; but there is no mistaking the reality of the Italian peasant whom Rodin casts as St John the Baptist. César Pignatelli came from the Abruzzi. He is caught as he first entered Rodin’s workshop.

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Unconventionally, this John beckons with his right hand rather than pointing to the Lamb of God. The artist wanted to portray “a man of nature, a visionary, a believer, a precursor come to announce someone greater than himself”.

This messenger strides purposefully into apocalyptic action. Both statues dominate the first room of the exhibition, and, to some degree, the rest of the Piccadilly show. Thereafter it becomes cluttered and inaccessible.

In 1880, the French government commissioned Rodin to produce doors for a new museum of les arts decoratifs, assigning him a studio for his lifetime. Conscious of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise for the Baptistery in Florence and using Dante’s Inferno as a vade mecum, Rodin began a project that was destined to remain unfinished, as funding was never forthcoming for the museum.

Rodin’s plaster models for the great Gates of Hell were never realised. It was a decade after his death (17 November 1917) that they were cast in bronze, first in Paris and then, in 1929, in Philadelphia.

For much of his work, including both The Kiss and The Thinker, Rodin pillaged ideas from these abandoned gates. For the first, the illicit relationship of Paolo and Francesca da Rimini was worked up into a monumental piece (The Tate) for the notorious American Edward Perry Warren of Lewes in 1904.

In the process, it becomes a melodic embrace rather than a monument to jealousy and the violent cost of reckless love. It was the later 3rd Lord Grimthorpe who persuaded Rodin to make a larger-than-life sculpture of The Thinker. His jilted fiancée, Eve Fairfax, appears among Rodin’s most flattering busts of the same period.

In 1881, Rodin himself proposed adding the figures of Adam and Eve to the doorway in much the same way that the Louvre had recently placed two of Michelangelo’s Slaves next to the Porta Stanga. It is the figure of Eve, eventually exhibited in the Salon in 1899, which is the centrepiece of the Cambridge show. Although another cast of the same bronze, from Manchester, is on show in London, it is there lost in an overcrowded gallery, and overshadowed by The Burghers of Calais.

  In Cambridge, we get to see the unfinished work in several states, enhanced by the judicious choice of contemporary workshop photographs and silver- gelatin prints. The sullen fear with which Eve shields herself as if fearing a head attack is palpable. The whitewashed walls of Ket-tle’s Yard unconscious-ly mirror the clinical world in which this pregnant model would all too soon be confined. Unfinished or not, Eve is a towering achievement in Western Art, and in Cambridge breathes real life.

“Rodin” is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 1 January 2007; phone 020 7300 8000.
www.royalacademy.org.uk

“Rodin” is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 1 January 2007; phone 020 7300 8000.
www.royalacademy.org.uk

“Rodin: All about Eve” is at Kettle’s Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge, until 19 November 2006. Phone 01223 352124.
www.kettlesyard.co.uk

“Rodin: All about Eve” is at Kettle’s Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge, until 19 November 2006. Phone 01223 352124.
www.kettlesyard.co.uk

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