Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Lord Byron’s mourning of the Parthenon Marbles is unlikely to have been read by Auguste Rodin. He was not much of a reader and never visited Greece; instead he enjoyed touring museums and building a collection of antiquities pre-looted by others. The British Museum has made a major exhibition out of this celebrated visitor who preferred marbles to cat mummies.
The publicity for “Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece” assures us that “ancient Greek sculpture inspired Rodin to set a radical new direction for modern art”. This is undoubtedly true as he had been viewing and collecting such items before he made his first trip to London, in 1881. Although he didn’t return for 20 years, he later developed such a liking for the British Museum he described himself as “haunting” the place. He also spoke favourably of the beer at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Rodin’s access to the marbles is a testimonial to the British Museum’s success in guarding Byron’s “relics”. With Brexit-related questions of community in the air, the world’s fourth-most-visited museum is restating its best claim to the marbles. Many more people can admire them in their custom-designed, climate-controlled, free-entry London home than they could in Athens.
The triumph of this exhibition is that the Parthenon Marbles can be seen alongside Rodin’s interpretations of them, without any cultural heritage having to leave the country. Rodin has returned to Bloomsbury, courtesy of the Musée Rodin. It will be a marvel to see the best of the ancient world complemented by the best sculptor of the early modern era. Is it the whole story though? Two decades ago, there was an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum that presented an equally convincing look at Rodin and Michelangelo. Many still subscribe more readily to that relationship than the one between Rodin and the semi-mythical Phidias of the 5th century BC.
There can be no doubt that Rodin was inspired by antiquity. It would be hard for any sculptor not to be. But Rodin’s first visit to Italy, in 1875, seems to have been more of an eye-opener than London six years later. He had religious beliefs, which are not often discussed, and spent part of his young adulthood in a Catholic monastery. When he went to the Sistine Chapel he did not hold his nose at the papal associations.
Rodin was overwhelmed by the art of Florence and Rome, most of which was in Christian contexts. Some he didn’t even have to leave Paris to see. Michelangelo’s Dying Slave had been intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II but ended up in Rodin’s favourite museum, the Louvre. It is widely considered to be the model for The Age of Bronze, sculpted several years before his trip to London, which set Rodin on the road to celebrity. The new exhibition makes an innovative statement by suggesting this work was inspired by the Parthenon Marbles.
One of Rodin’s few unquestionably religious subjects was St John the Baptist, a version of which was shown at the Royal Academy a year before his visit to London. It reemerged from his studio in 1907, minus head and arms, as The Walking Man. The new exhibition proposes that the damaged “Figure K of a goddess” from the east pediment of the Parthenon was the light that led Rodin to lop off sundry parts of his finished sculptures. There is certainly a sense of movement in both.
Michelangelo was also quite an enthusiast of what he called the non-finito (unfinished). Rodin had not forgotten this when interviewed in 1910: “Michelangelo’s finest works are precisely those which are called ‘unfinished’.” It may have brought back memories of 1865, when he had barely coped with the official rejection of an intentionally incomplete tribute to Michelangelo, Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose.
Michelangelo was a flawed and broken-nosed believer in the equally flawed Church of his time. The Parthenon was a temple dedicated to deities more comprehensible to ancient Greeks than to 19th-century Frenchmen. Rodin was a spiritually inclined artist fascinated by the energy and tension of Michelangelo, which usually prevailed over the harmonious equilibrium of the ancient Greeks. Despite his secular reputation, he created a Crucifixion scene dominated by Mary Magdalene.
What was Rodin’s inspiration? In the last year of his life, the worst indignity he suffered was at the hands of the French government. Having given the state his sculptures along with his collection of antiquities, he was outraged when the removals men took away a large gothic Crucifix. Unlike the antiquities spread about his museum-like home, this item was kept in his bedroom.
Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece is at the British Museum from April 26 to July 29