At the Royal Academy

Peter Campbell

Rodin’s major work is, in one form or another, on show at the Royal Academy (until 1 January). The exhibition begins in the Burlington House courtyard with The Gates of Hell. Most of the main gallery is filled with The Burghers of Calais and studies for it. Many are more than life-size; they take you by the scruff and hold your eye. Accompanying The Burghers is a small bronze of the final version of Balzac as well as the striding nude study for it in plaster (shown here). Elsewhere there is a plaster of The Kiss at the original size, as well as the enlarged marble version from the Tate. The Thinker is there, small and large, in early and late versions. There are many portrait busts in bronze, plaster and marble, a room of drawings and many contemporary photographs of the sculpture. The life is documented in photographs as well as letters. The abundance of small pieces, those from the Musée Rodin in particular, make it possible to follow the journeys that figures and groups of figures made from early appearances in The Gates of Hell to late ones, singly or in new combinations. The range is very great: from the conventionally decorative terracotta head of Spring (c.1875) to the battered, gouged, turnip-shaped Head, Over Life-Size done some time before 1911. In the catalogue Catherine Lampert says of the Head that ‘it is volumetric, but not in the manner of the “Boisgeloup” heads by Picasso or the formidable “Henriette” studies by Matisse still to come.[*] The context for seeing those busts with their impassive features requires the interim achievements of artists who studied with Rodin and wished to reject meaning and touch – Aristide Maillol, Jacques Lipchitz and Charles Despiau, for example.’

It is easy now to understand why meaning and touch came to be rejected. To appreciate Rodin you must learn to feel a need of the former and take pleasure in the latter. His sculpture represents grand and beautiful bodies. It can evoke pity and fear. In this its aims are not different from those of much of the general run of academic sculpture of the late 19th century. It stands at the end of a tradition. You call to mind what there was in that tradition to reject. You see too that, even as it disintegrated, Rodin – combining some part of its rhetoric with a vision refreshed by modelling from life – gave it a magnificent coda as well as producing work of utter originality.

Meaning requires names and most of Rodin’s figures have a classical, symbolic or biblical title. But the labels are not always firmly attached and you may be hard pressed to know just what a work represents: one group of two figures becomes The Earth and the Moon, another The Clouds, yet another The Death of Athens. A mother and child is Love that Passes. Working on The Gates of Hell, Rodin invented an astonishing series of poses: twisting, turning, reaching, clasping figures which are identified as Despair, Avarice and Luxury, Fugit Amor and so on. A woman, lying on her back, pulling one of her splayed legs to the side is mounted upright and becomes Iris, Messenger of the Gods. In that case, the title (which could be seen as a distraction) was the cue or excuse for transforming the lying, passive figure into a curious, bounding, headless spirit. The belief that sculpture is most powerful when it communicates ideas about something other than itself is vindicated in the Burghers and Balzac, but the overwhelming rhetoric of those pieces also aggrandises the maker. They haven’t the humility which marks, for example, the Gothic sculpture Rodin admired. His work is at the service of his genius, not of the story.

Touch is manifested by marks fingers made in the clay as they modelled a cheek, a mouth, the curve of a back, and so on. The sculpture was caressed in its making as though it was a surrogate for the human model it imitated. Working from life, Rodin brought a modern gawkiness and angularity to sculpture. Degas escaped the life-room poses which themselves imitated old art by showing models bathing, ironing or tying a shoe. Although some of his late small sculptures of dancers are not so far from those of Degas, Rodin wanted to do more than infuse sculpture with a wider understanding of the reality of bodies and the way they move and rest. It is that disjunction – between Rodin’s increasing distance from the academic norms of representational sculpture and a residual wish to hang on to a traditional attitude to non-sculptural meaning – that makes him hard to pin down historically.

Sculpture is an art which has, more than most, lived off its past. Antique figures tend to lose bits. In doing so they prove that a limbless body, a hand, a torso or a shoulder, can suggest the whole. Rodin, a collector of classical sculpture, was sensitive to the way the veil cast by damage stimulates the imagination. Incompleteness – a woman’s head emerging from a block of marble, a headless walking man – was one way to concentrate attention. Rodin was not the only artist working in the late 19th century who controlled response by masking and blurring. In Medardo Rosso’s wax sculptures features are softened, as they are in Rodin’s marble portraits. In paintings by Eugène Carrière figures emerge from a sepia mist just they emerge from the uncarved portion of a block of marble or plaster in some Rodin sculptures.

The figures emerging from the fog are mostly marble, and thus Rodin-directed rather than Rodin-made. The first stage of a work was nearly always modelled in clay; it would then go on to be carved in marble (by assistants) or cast in plaster or bronze. Sometimes pieces were enlarged substantially. Incompleteness, variation and changes in size and material are the reasons Rodin’s work comes to the mind’s eye not as individual pieces but as constellations. Very little that he did leaves a single fixed image, or settles into a single impression when you are face to face with it. The individual burghers of Calais fall into new groupings as you walk around them; you go from the bronze portrait of Eve Fairfax to a marble version, looking for a common denominator.

Photographers, responding to this conditional, unfixed quality, have treated the sculptures as if they were landscapes or people in the street. Two young Englishmen, Stephen Haweis and Henry Coles, who photographed many of them in the early 1900s, preferred to take their pictures at sunset. Some of the images they made, in which detail is buried in deep shadow, are as soft and dark as heavily inked etchings. Rodin himself approved of these explorations of light, angles and detail. Self-expression in the photography of sculpture can be intrusive. In Rodin’s case it is a collaboration, as tricky but sometimes as successful as the setting of words to music. Edward Steichen got in early with his photograph of Rodin and The Thinker, both in profile. Jennifer Gough-Cooper’s recent photographs taken in the Musée Rodin with a hand-held 35mm camera – the traditional equipment of the reporter or street photographer – are displayed in the exhibition. They are also published as a book, Apropos Rodin, with an essay by Geoff Dyer.[†] Few of them are straightforward records. Some are close-up details in which the ridges where sections of the mould meet slow the eye as it reads the form. In others the view through a case is interrupted by a reflection. In pictures of marbles the texture revealed by soft, diffused light records both the grain of the stone, and that of the film. All are a reminder of how far the look of things is a function of time and place.

[*] Royal Academy, 319 pp., £24.95, September, 1 903973 67 8.

[†] Thames and Hudson, 128 pp., £16.95, September, 0 500 54319 4.