All Greek to Me

Pallas (Athena) with the Parthenon

All Greek to Me

Exhibition, Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, The British Museum, 26th April to 29th July 2018; Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, a publication that accompanies the exhibition, reviewed by LESLIE JONES

“…we possess intellectual and moral faculties [for whose] origin we can only find an adequate cause in the unseen universe of Spirit”, Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwinism

In Auguste Rodin’s bizarre marble and plaster bust entitled Pallas (Athena) with the Parthenon (1896), the goddess of wisdom and truth has given birth to the Athenian temple  – from her head. The two figures, one falling, in Lamentation on the Acropolis, sometimes known as The Death of Athens (1902?), also bespeak Rodin’s neo-Hellenism. They have collapsed onto a rock that supposedly represents the Acropolis. For “In Rodin’s day, the Parthenon represented the summit of intellectual and artistic achievement….” (quotation from Rodin and the art of ancient Greece). But not only in his day.

Rodin’s interest in the Parthenon sculptures pre-dated his first visit to the British Museum in 1881. Before 1870, he executed a superb series of sketches from casts and engravings in the Louvre. His study of Youths preparing for the cavalcade, from the North Frieze, is particularly fine. So too are the sketches of horses and men with a chariot (Parthenon North Frieze, before 1870), and of men driving cattle.

Although he never visited Greece, Rodin evidently loved its ancient sculpturs. “They have been and remain my masters…”, he maintained. This exhibition is a compelling demonstration. Thus, the figure The Age of Bronze (1877) is clearly influenced by Polykleitos’ Doryphoros (or The spear-bearer), although Rodin may only have seen a Roman marble copy; likewise, by a figure from the Parthenon North Frieze, Unmounted youth preparing for the cavalcade. The curators have tellingly juxtaposed Rodin’s work with that of his mentor the sculptor Pheidias (or Phidias), who supervised the Parthenon’s construction. In the cavalcade, the horses rear hoofs touch the same base line, conveying the illusion of movement. Rodin himself had an an uncanny ability to depict motion in art, as in The Walking Man (1900),  Iris, Messenger of the Gods (1895) and Illusion; Sister of Icarus (1894-1896).

The Age of Bronze

The Kiss (1888-1898), commissioned by the French state, depicts Paolo Malatesta and Francecsca da Rimini, as featured in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno). Like the two juxtaposed marble figures from the east pediment of the Parthenon (Goddesses in diaphanous drapery) it was cut from one block of stone.

In Athenian grave reliefs and other artwork, the hand supporting the head constitutes a symbol of mourning, as in the marble statue of Demeter mourning for Persephone. The Thinker (1903) may therefore have been a reflection “on the tragic nature of the human condition” (quotation from Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, p 125).

This is the most authoritative and comprehensive exhibition of Rodin’s work since ‘Rodin’ at the Royal Academy (23rd September 2006 to 1st January 2007). The catalogue to the latter exhibition emphasised his debt to more recent artists and sculptors, notably, Michelangelo: Delacroix and Géricault: Rubens and Rembrandt. But it too acknowledged the influence of “…the powerful metopes that still decorate the west pediment of the Parthenon, those entrusted by Phidias to the realist sculptors” (quotation from an 1877 review by Jean Rousseau).

Horsemen from the Parthenon Frieze

Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of QR

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