Rodin and the politics of sculpture

I didn’t start deeply caring about sculpture until I saw Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.[1] Prior to that visit, I had a vague admiration for Barbara Hepworth, but found more enjoyment in her abstract painting Winter Solstice:

BARBMy dad had also instilled in me an appreciation for Anish Kapoor, whose Sky Mirror is pride of place outside the Nottingham Playhouse theatre, and who created a rusty horn bursting out of the immaculate gardens of Versailles in 2015:

 

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On a very basic level, I just didn’t understand sculpture. A childhood filled with questionable pottery lessons chiselled down my interest in the form, even though I have long thought of all art as important. Just because I did not feel able to understand sculpture did not mean that there was nothing to it. For a long time, sculpture did not have the appeal to me that painting, film and other art forms have.

However, it was seeing two figures entwined and necking that really captured my imagination and re-framed what I thought sculpture was all about. I am sure there are many wonderful sculptors that I am overlooking in this capacity, that Rodin is an unimaginative choice to fawn over and that I am probably incapable of conveying academically why I think Rodin’s work is so brilliant, and yet here I am. A critic of art and art history I am not, but I am an enormous fan and advocate for both, and I am inspired enough to write a little something about some works that I have really connected with, starting with The Kiss.

Whilst in Paris earlier this month, we visited the Rodin museum on the Left Bank and it was perhaps the best museum we went to all holiday. The sculpture garden is endlessly dreamy and the chateau, Rodin’s home for a time, was charming and delightfully  littered with Rodin’s sketches, plaster casts, practice sculptures and works he’d collected himself, including pots and fragments from antiquity, as well as a couple of Monet , Munch and Van Gough paintings dotted about. The Kiss was here too:

The Kiss

We can see, as with many of Rodin’s marble sculptures, that he was influenced by Classical figures from Ancient Greece. And yet, in his portraiture of people through sculpture, Rodin does not merely recreate or appropriate Classical styles. He uses Classicism as a base note, but goes on to mold his ideas through the language of limbs, faces, the fluidity of bodies in a way that is nothing other than modern. It is hard to comprehend just how challenging the blatant sexuality and passion of this sculpture would have been to receive at the turn of the century when it was produced. Additionally, the sculpture seems to have been carved with a nod to what Charles Baudelaire described as ‘the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’ that defines modernity:  as with many of his sculptures, Rodin employs here the technique of juxtaposing the smooth carvings with marble left rough and rugged, not just at the base, but rising up and between the intricately rippling bodies. It appears the exquisite smoothness of the marble is reflected in the unbridled intimacy of the figures kissing, a flicker of bright, divine and transcending light bursting out of the obscurity of what is rough and earthly. And yet, the figures could so easily return to rubble. By maintaining the rough marble and bringing it into the structure of the figures kissing, Rodin has created a piece of work that recognises the transitory moment of modernity: the Classical-style bodies occupying the eternal and the marble left rough indicating the flighty present, nigh-on impossible to pin down.

This is an idea that is seen everywhere in his sculptures: in the marble with what is jagged and uneven left propping up or invading the figures represented, or in bronze where forms rise out of the molten into something vaguely less fluid. What I loved about Rodin’s bronze work was how these majestic figures rise from the oneness of liquid bronze embodying the impulse and awkwardness of individuation and self-determination. To show this, Rodin ensured that he injected quirks and oddities in his work to create a sense of visual discomfort. In one sculpture, the head- the centre of Cartesian rational thought and the Jungian ego-mind- is heavy, too heavy, as though burdened with the constant, revolving noise of the mind, dangling awkwardly to the side and creating one long awkward line from the neck across to the shoulder.

Awkward Rodin

Elsewhere, a sculpture leans over slightly too far; it looks uncomfortable, like the sculpture is in danger of falling: the arms are flung out as though for balance; emergent from what is whole and one, bursting forth but still reliant on the whole to provide it with strength and structure. In these sculptures in particular, I would argue that Rodin could be making a criticism of the modern world, defined as it is by commodity capitalism, where the drive and inevitable fallout of being an individual, separated and alienated from the collective, is mired in suffering, contortion and pain.

Leaning Rodin

The final sculptures that really stood out for me were a series of bronze sculptures called The Monument to the Burghers of Calais, made in 1887. These six sculptures commemorate six dignitaries who surrendered themselves and the key to the city of Calais to the King of England during the One Hundred Years War. I was neither familiar with these works nor the story surrounding them until our visit to the Rodin museum. On display were the six grouped together, as well as the six individual sculptures dotted around elsewhere.

Burghers Six.jpg

There are lots of ideas and emotions conveyed in these sculptures, the predominant being incredulity, despair, sadness, dignity and acceptance. Some of the sculptures are fully clothed, regal in their gait; others are naked and exposed. The Burgher that stood out to me the most was naked, arms outstretched, enquiring and admonishing, barely believing the cruelty of his own fate and asking on-lookers, at the time and of tourists traipsing around the Rodin sculpture garden whether we are going to settle for the injustice that attempts to quell and control us.

Burgher naked

They felt pertinent to me at the time for a number of different reasons: because I have such a limited knowledge of the One Hundreds Year War; that they are a reminder of the suffering that has occurred throughout history that I feel barely able to comprehend or quantify; and of the vulnerability of being a human being, tossed around and seemingly inconsequential in the rough seas of man-made war, devastation and chaos. Here, again, we can see why art is so important. The attempt to capture these seemingly obscure men from a time long since past is both an act of remembrance and an act of resistance. What fools we are if we believe that the turmoil we face today has not been passed down, like a chain of trauma, throughout the generations. Art offers us the insight and the ability to cut through the churned up homogenous events that we might call ‘history’; to give us the mirror and the platform to reflect and re-think our assumptions and orthodoxies. It is and always will be vital; no wonder the Tories don’t want people studying it.

On a day like today, where the British government, helmed by Boris Johnson, has decided to prorogue Parliament, I think about the Burgher of Calais sculptures: I think about the Burgher standing with his arms outstretched imploring his viewers to think about who they are and what they are doing; I think about the frosty-faced Burgher, handing of the keys to the city, a metaphor for freedom, both personal and societal, a moment where freedom is now longer a gift or a right, but something that has been forfeited. Maybe it is no coincidence that I am more attracted to sculpture at this present cultural moment. We are living in a time where our freedoms feel so much more restricted, that large societal forces, whether it’s Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, the Government, fossil fuel companies and others, are hell-bent on controlling us, harvesting our data, relentlessly trying to sell us things and destroy our planet. In sculpture, we see space being claimed and occupied. Much like Rei Kawakubo’s iconic fashion house Comme des Garcons, whose pieces verge on the sculptural in every single collection, there is power in sculpture’s ability to take up space, be large, voluminous, making it impossible to ignore. Maybe the Kapoor sculpture at Versailles was my biggest clue before my full on awakening with Rodin. Kapoor’s disruption of the sanctity, historical and otherwise, at the clipped and coiffed Palace of Versailles, appealed to me and began to broaden my understanding of what sculpture does. Our ability, as tourists, to take photographs of the pristine lawns and fountains was disrupted by this rusty looking horn, which had erupted out of the ground, churning up the grass. The stronghold of France’s ancien regime and absolutist monarchy was ripped up, long after the first flickers of revolution in the 18th century. I enjoyed the frustration.

The radicalism of sculpture lies in its ability to take up space and to morph and manipulate visual reality. What I love specifically about Rodin’s work is that it revolves around people and their bodies, making his work deeply vulnerable, personal as well as political. I was greatly impressed by his work, highly recommend the museum in Paris, that is completely self-funded, and relish future opportunities to explore and learn about sculpture. In these times where the world becomes scarier and where democracy and freedom do not feel or look like absolute givens, sculpture is an art form that offers challenge and defiance.

Le Penseur

[1] Two sisters, Margaret and Gwendoline Davies, together amassed an enormous collection of Impressionist and 20th century art, 260 works in total, which they then bequeathed to the public. The collection is on display and free to access in the Welsh capital. I can’t recommend it enough.

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