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September 27, 2006

Emotional states crafted into three-dimensial form: Lilian Pizzichini on Rodin at the Royal Academy

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Rodin
Royal Academy, London
23rd September 2006 - 1st January 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

One thing stands out in the Royal Academy's exhibition of Auguste Rodin's work and it is hinted at in something he told his biographer, Judith Cladel:

The body is a case on which passions are imprinted.
Rodin's desire to portray emotional states in three-dimensional form was a lifelong preoccupation. Every statue he crafted conveys the intensity of this desire. But overwrought blocks of marble and bronze can be overwhelming. Unlike Michelangelo, who liberated his material, Rodin imprisoned human action within it. It is easier, when confronted by such a monumental body of work, just to wander through the rooms and not take in too much technical information. It's an exercise in perception that removes the intellectual from the sensual. Statues were made to be felt, even if we can't manhandle them literally, our eyes can.

The chronological presentation that the Royal Academy has chosen displays his growing artistic vision. An early sculpture entitled Crouching Woman (c. 1881-2) shows the human anatomy scrunched up into a tight ball. The knees, shoulder and neck strain in order to push open the thighs and, at the same time, protect the genitals. It is uninhibited and yet at the same time fraught. In one statue we have Rodin's necessarily complex relationship with sexuality. Later, we will find the libidinous Balzac, the lost, the damned, and the ecstatic. Sometimes, all in one statue.

The exhibition is also designed to emphasize Rodin's relationship with Britain: his initial visit in 1881; his coterie of British admirers: writers, artists and collectors; his brief relationship with the Royal Academy in the 1880s (it was in its stodgy phase); and the public acclaim he received after 1900, culminating in the installation of The Burghers of Calais outside the Palace of Westminster. Finally, Rodin donated 18 work to the British nation in 1914. The story of this relationship is conveyed in notices on the walls of each gallery. Personally, I'm not really interested in this relationship. It tells me nothing about the artist. The emphasis on it seems jingoistic. What is more telling is the detail of his work.

The hands of The Burghers of Calais are disproportionately large and, at first, this undermines the naturalism of his work. But the effect is to convey a complicated mix of heroism and pathos. It is not often that one is so forcibly reminded that the effort towards heroism, even if it fails, is heroic in itself. This exhibition makes clear how deeply Rodin identified, and lived with, his work.

In 1879, an Italian peasant knocked at the door of his studio. Rodin wrote:

I was full of admiration I immediately thought of John the Baptist, that is to say, a man of nature, a visionary, a believer, a precursor come to announce someone greater than himself.
He clearly thought about work a lot. Every human being presented an artistic challenge to him; what particular emotion were they expressing? The peasant from Abruzzi spontaneously took up the pose of a man striding forward and with arm outstretched, providing the inspiration for St John the Baptist. He is the archetypal lone voice on a city pavement, as naked as a hermit in the desert, with beaten-down shoulders and stringy arms. It is the psychological condition of the forsaken loner, the nutter you rush to avoid.

Rainer Maria Rilke (briefly Rodin's secretary - and how interesting it would be to see an exhibition that concentrates on this relationship) appreciated Rodin's grasp of the loneliness of being. He noted how that emotional quality was reproduced in every aspect of his work:

That which was expressed in the face, that pain of a heavy awakening and at the same time the longing for that awakening, was written on the smallest part of this body. Every part was a mouth that spoke a language of its own.
Perhaps it is this intensity of felt experience that the earlier Royal Academicians found so hard to take. It can certainly be found in The Kiss. Its presentaion here is to mount it so high that it seems even more melodramatic than usual. But maybe that judgement is more expressive of my own discomfort in the face of strangled, overbearing passion. The lovers sit on their rock, clamped to each other, and soldered together by the heavy execution of muscle. There is no escape. There is no end to their love. It is a love and a static representation of love that can be oppressive.

The Gates of Hell sit in the forecourt of the Royal Academy. We find again the crouching woman, the fallen man, those famously transgressive lovers, Paolo and Francesca. The Thinker is here, too, brooding over the whole hellish scenario.

As Dante said in Inferno:

Through me you go into the city of weeping;
Through me you go into eternal pain;
Through me you go among the lost people.
But with what grace Rodin executes this pain. The decomposition and re-composition of movement give rise to such flowing lines and bodily shifts that they bewilder the viewer - and so Hell should. These figures are struggling to escape their fate. And when you finally see The Thinker in his own gallery, what really impresses is his back. The breadth and knotty spine are pitiful in their hugeness. It is remarkable how Rodin does that: makes the monumental seem so heartbreakingly vulnerable.

It is surprising to find at the tail end of all this high drama a gallery dedicated to Rodin's late drawings (1890s-1917). These are the polar opposite of his three-dimensional work. He seems to forget his preoccupations. He is light, easy and playful - gently erotic, even. At this stage in his life he was such a financial success that his studio was full of models. He encouraged them to wander around in various states of undress, striking poses, or just scratching themselves. There is one series of drawings in graphite and watercolour on cream-coloured paper that is particularly relaxed. It features a woman nearly wearing pyjamas - she is like a cat awakening from her slumbers. For once, one feels, that Rodin is feeling some joy in life.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.


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