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