BOD­ILY FUNC­TIONS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

and the Third Re­pub­lic. Au­guste Rodin (1840-1917) was deeply am­bi­tious as an artist, and his first great work was a di­rect em­u­la­tion of the great sculp­tures of an­tiq­uity.

The fig­ure that we know as the Do­ryphoros was dis­cov­ered at the end of the 18th cen­tury, per­haps in Pom­peii, and its most fa­mous ver­sion is in the Arche­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum in Naples. It was only in 1863, how­ever, that a con­tem­po­rary scholar, work­ing on match­ing ex­tant sculp­tures and an­cient lit­er­ary ref­er­ences, re­alised that this was the cel­e­brated Canon of Poly­clei­tus, which the fifth-cen­tury master had de­signed as an ex­em­plar of his sys­tem of hu­man pro­por­tions.

In­stantly the pre­vi­ously lit­tle-known sculp­ture be­came one of the most fa­mous in a cor­pus of an­tique work that had been rev­o­lu­tionised since the ar­rival of the El­gin mar­bles in Lon­don a half-cen­tury ear­lier. Modern sculp­tors set them­selves to at­tempt con­tem­po­rary equiv­a­lents. Rodin made The Age of Bronze in 1876, and Adolf von Hilde­brand carved his mar­ble Young Man Stand­ing in 1881-84 — in­ci­den­tally set­ting stan­dards for the two di­rec­tions of sub­se­quent modern sculp­ture: mod­el­ling and cast­ing on the one hand, and di­rect carv­ing on the other.

The Age of Bronze seemed so re­al­is­tic and full of spon­ta­neous life that Rodin was ac­cused of hav­ing taken a cast from a real body; the artist was deeply af­fronted and there­after tended to work on a larger scale than life.

His work, how­ever, could have been even more con­tro­ver­sial had he ex­hib­ited it un­der its orig­i­nal ti­tle Le Vaincu — the con­quered one — which in­evitably would have seemed a ref­er­ence to France’s hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat by the Ger­mans in 1870-71. At any rate, un­like the work pro­duced in the same pe­riod by the im­pres­sion­ists and their suc­ces­sors, which largely seems to ig­nore the tur­bu­lent po­lit­i­cal events of the time, Rodin’s is marked by a com­bi­na­tion of an­guish and en­ergy.

Among the works in the ex­hi­bi­tion, a great torso from The Walk­ing Man (1877-78) and sev­eral works from the Bour­geois of Calais group (1889) — in­clud­ing full-scale ver­sions of in­di­vid­ual fig­ures — tes­tify to Rodin’s at­tempts to cre­ate a new kind of heroic and tragic im­age of man in the modern world. There are two stud­ies as well for the fa­mous Mon­u­ment to Balzac (1892-97), com­mis­sioned by the So­ci­ete des Gens de Let­tres in 1891 but re­jected and erected on the Boule­vard du Mont­par­nasse only in July 1939.

Rodin’s most am­bi­tious project was to re­main un­fin­ished: the Gates of Hell, in­di­vid­ual parts of which are among his most fa­mous works to­day, par­tic­u­larly The Kiss and The Thinker. The scheme was in­spired by Dante’s Di­vine Com­edy, the great­est lit­er­ary work of the Mid­dle Ages, which had been vir­tu­ally un­known out­side Italy be­fore the end of the 18th cen­tury but then had been re­dis­cov­ered by the ro­man­tics and re­mained one of the most im­por­tant in­spi­ra­tions of mod­ernist artists and writ­ers up to TS Eliot and be­yond.

The para­dox, how­ever, was that Dante in­spired artists and writ­ers when the faith that had been un­ques­tion­able for him was in­creas­ingly suc­cumb­ing to doubt. What to the poet had been a mag­nif­i­cent and co­her­ent meta­phys­i­cal and moral ar­chi­tec­ture was re­dis­cov­ered as a wealth of tragic or pa­thetic episodes that seemed to evoke the alien­ation of modern life; in such an en­vi­ron­ment the Gates could never come to- Silted Brow gether as a com­plete project with a co­her­ent pro­gram but al­most in­evitably ended up as a col­lec­tion of bril­liant frag­ments.

In the ex­hi­bi­tion, the gallery’s hold­ings of Rodin works are dis­trib­uted through sev­eral rooms and sur­rounded by other things, but this is where we re­turn to the am­bi­gu­ity of the cu­ri­ous prepo­si­tion ver­sus. The word im­plies ri­valry or op­po­si­tion, but there is no clear sense that the works are set­ting them­selves in any such re­la­tion to the Rodin col­lec­tion. In­deed, there is lit­tle sense that many of the works have been cho­sen with Rodin in mind at all.

It would have been use­ful to put to­gether a tightly fo­cused show of Aus­tralian or even in­ter­na­tional sculp­tors who re­sponded to Rodin’s heroic ex­am­ple by im­i­tat­ing him or by de­lib­er­ately turn­ing in other di­rec­tions, to­wards carv­ing or later con­struc­tion, for ex­am­ple. There would be no short­age of in­ter­est­ing com­par­isons to make, even in Aus­tralia, with in­di­vid­u­als such as Ber­tram Macken­nal (1863-1931), Ge­orge Lam­bert (1873-1930) or Rayner Hoff (1894-1937), re­cently the sub­ject of a fas­ci­nat­ing but un­for­tu­nately brief ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Art School in Syd­ney, co­in­cid­ing with the launch of Deb­o­rah Beck’s fine bi­og­ra­phy of the artist.

(2016) by Ali­son Saar

Ver­sus Rodin: Bod­ies Across Space and Time at the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia

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