Sunday, 16 April 2017

Vs Rodin - The Sculptor and his Influences

There I was, standing at a bus stop with my friend waiting for his bus to arrive when a tram trundled past us advertising a Rodin exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Well, if it wasn't for the fact that I had been to Paris and visited the Rodin House I would have never heard of the sculptor, however, ever since that whirlwind cultural tour of Europe that I went on in 2016 Rodin seems to have been appearing everywhere, and this exhibition was no exception. Unfortunately my friend was occupied to was unable to come with me, but as for me I decided to change my plans for Saturday morning and pay a visit to the Art Gallery.

The thing with this particular exhibition was that it was celebrating the centenary of the death of Rodin, a sculptor whom they claimed changed the way we look at the human body. Honestly, I'm not really all that sure if I can agree with them because his works, and the many other sculptures that I have seen, don't seem to be all that different. In fact from what I have encountered, he didn't seem to make all that much of a change from the way sculptures were done up to his time. Mind you, art has changed substantially in the years into the 20th Century, though that seems to have more to do with the development of the camera than anything else.

So, like many exhibitions that I have seen, this one takes us through a number of galleries, each looking at a different aspect of his art. However, what we are also seeing are contemporary artists who have produced similar works, though no doubt having been influenced by the works of Rodin. Yet it is not so much the artist that we are exploring here but how the artist changed our view on how we view the human body - a theme that seems to dominate. As with the other exhibitions that I have written about, I'll explore this exhibition through each of the galleries.

The Classical Body

There isn't all that much that we can't attribute to the artists and sculptures of the ancient world. Okay, while as painters they may have had nowhere near the skill or the complexities of the Great Masters, when it came to sculpture they excelled. In fact it was the sculptures that have been passed down to us that inspired the great sculptors of the Renaissance, and beyond, to learn and to then hone their skills in being able to replicate the complexities of the human body from stone. Rodin was no exception.

When Rodin was learning the art he would practice through using live models, but also create works out of clay. However Rodin went beyond simply mimicking the human body - he would to look and probe its depths. While many artists in the past sought to achieve the greatness of the classical sculptors, and the bring this lost art back from the dead, Rodin sought to transcend it not just to explore the human body as a physical form, or even as a work of art, but as something that went far deeper than that.

Of the other artists we have Anne Ferran, and her work entitled the Death of Nature. Ferran was inspired by the frieze that encircled the top of the acropolis in Athens, which depicted a religious procession that would make its way to the temple as a celebration of one of the Athenian's holiest days. These stones were stolen by the British and are now on display in the British museum. However, what Ferran is doing is that she is reinterpreting these images, and recreating them to bring them into the modern world. In a sense she is reimagining the classical imagery, and creating a much more feminist vision of these ancient Greek festivals.

The Fragmented Body

Rodin then did something that was truly outrageous - he produced a sculpture that was missing one major aspect - the head. The thing was that up until that time it was expected that all sculptures had a head, namely because it was the head that truly defined the subject of the sculpture. In a way without a head the sculpture could be of basically anybody - it was the head that told us who the subject of the sculpture was. In a way it seems as if the head was the most important aspect, to the point that while it was acceptable to only do a head, to simply do a torso was, well, unthinkable.

However, while exploring his workshop when he was producing his Gates of Hell, he discovered an unfinished sculpture of John the Baptist. In fact he discovered what could easily be considered little more than a torso. Thus he began thinking the unthinkable - how about we remove the head from the sculpture because then it forces us to focus not so much upon the person whom the sculpture is supposed to represent, but rather on the body itself. If the human body is supposed to be beautiful, let us remove all of that which distracts us so that we can truly see the body beautiful.

Paul Pfeiffer explores this in his work "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", which is a photograph taken from the olympics, but with all but one of the athletes removed. Even then any identifying marks of the athlete that remains being removed. This has the effect of taking our eyes away from individual athletes and allowing us to focus on athletes as a whole. In a sense it is only the winners that occupy our minds, and these winners have identies. However, instead of focusing on the winners, we focus on all, on those who strive to compete, whether successful or not.

Another exhibit was one by Oppenheimer (not the scientist) called 'Finger Churches', which parodies the concept of the church that children would make with their fingers. It reflects the rather fragmented nature of classical art, not so much that there is no reason behind it, but rather because so much of it is lost that at times we seem to only be able to grab bits and pieces of the work. It is similar to Felini's Satyricon, which reflects the fragmented nature of the work that it is supposed to follow - all we have for the Satyricon are fragments, so instead of guessing as to how to fill in the gaps, Fellini creates a movie that includes the gaps.


The Erotic Body

Well, it is probably quite difficult to separate art from eroticism, though the line between was is art and what is pornographic can be a very hard line to determine. However, I will explore that dichotomy in a later post, and instead will just look at Rodin. Rodin considered that working with clay to have some quite erotic elements about it, and he also explored eroticism in some of his works, including the sculpture of a woman clutching her leg. He also produced a lot of sketches, some of them even appearing in the work of Octave Mirbeau, called Le Jardin des Supplices (or The Torture Garden). Another aspect that he seemed to explore was that of Saphic love.

Another artist that we should take note of is Bourguoise, of whom a collection of her works was also on display in this gallery. One interesting depiction of erotic love comes from her work called 'The Cocoon', which is of a woman wrapped in what appears to be a hand. In a way love can be transformative, much like the cocoon transforms a caterpillar into a butterfly. However it can also be a prison, and also make one vulnerable - the butterfly is at its most vulnerable when it is in the cocoon, and while it is in the cocoon it is in many ways a prisoner. Bourgouise actually uses the spiral in a lot of her works, and it seems to be one of those things that she regularly returns to to explore.

The Body Across Space and Time

This room is actually supposed to reflect Rodin's studio, which is designed to turn creating art into a work of art itself. Also, in the centre of this particular gallery, is a statue known as 'The Three Shades' which was supposed to be the centre piece of his masterpiece - the Gates of Hell (which I understand was never finished). These three shades stand over the gates as a reminder of those who pass through of the torment and suffering that awaits them on the other side. In a way is cries out 'abandon all hope, ye who enter here'.

Around the gallery are other works of art that are said to have been pulled into the the gallery from across space and time. Here we have another representation of Balzac by Rodin, this time he is robed and is not in such as compromising position (as was seen back in the other gallery exploring the erotic body). In a sense the art that we are exploring here comes from different times and different places, whether it be surrealistic, or realistic, from the east, the west, or even the south. However, I will end this section with two sculptures by British artist Anthony Gromley - Small Bind III and Clasp III.

The Emotive Body

It is one thing to capture the image of an individual in stone, but it is another to capture the heart felt emotions of this individual, and this is something that Rodin sought to do - transcend the physical to begin to explore the emotional, and it is something that artists have sought to emulate since. In one sense it is all well and good to capture an image on canvas, or in clay, but it is another to explore the emotions, and to also seek a way to capture these emotions on materials, whether it be an image of one of the statues showing emotion, or whether it is the emotion itself.

This is seen with his sculpture 'Inner Voice' where while we see a feminine figure, this figure is more emotive than it is real. It is also fragmented, which is taking from his previous explorations where we move our minds away from the head, and indeed the face, and move towards the body. However, with Inner Voice, we are now being asked to look into the body and to explore the emotions, something that can be difficult to capture as these are not objects that we can point at and determine that it is something that we can see, taste, or touch, but rather something that we can feel, yet doesn't seem to have any real substance.

However let us consider another sculpture, the Kneeling Man, which was also supposed to be a part of The Gates of Hell. This borrows from the classical past, and is said to be of a Pompeain moments before the city was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius. However the statue has a lot of ambiguity about it, being arched either in passionate pleasure, or in excruciating pain - something that the sculptor is being deliberate about. In a sense pain and pleasure are considered two sides of the same coin, and in some cases pain can lead to pleasure, and in other ways pleasure can lead to pain.

Which brings us to a work by Rosemary Liang, which is a self portrait entitled 'A Dozen Useful Emotions for a Grieving Blonde'. Here we have two photographs of the artist, both appearing to be in one of two poses - is she laughing, or is she crying. Is she in pain emotionally or physically. In a way it does seem to be clear, but in another way it isn't. However, what the artist is trying to do is to capture raw emotion on film - to create substance out of something that has no substance.

The Mind Body

So now we leave behind the emotions and look at getting into the mind, though whether the mind and emotions are two different things can be debatable. However, I would probably suggest that they are, with the mind being that which is ruled by reason and the emotion being that which is not ruled by anything but rather acts on instinct and does what one does based not upon reason, but upon instinct.

One of the things that we see in this room are busts, however while busts are something that have been around for centuries, Rodin once again seeks to move away from the traditional bust to explore something different - the mind. Yet while the emotion is insubstantial, the mind seems to be defined by the face, and in some ways by the person - and while one may be able to hide what one is thinking, in another way the face seems to be able expose that which we try to hide.

This is when Wearing comes in with her photos. Here she is putting on a mask, following what Claude Cahun did ninety years earlier. The mind is one of those things that seems to remain hidden, namely because we hide it behind a multitude of masks. In one sense we present ourselves to people as one thing, yet in reality we are something completely different. This is the nature of the mask, and it is something that we rarely, if ever, take off. This is probably one of the reasons why marriages are so unstable, because we spend our lives putting on masks, and when we remove the mask people suddenly discover that what they see they simply do not like.

I want to finish this section off with a painting by Urs Fischer called Lemming. This, like many works of modern art, really does take some interpretation from the viewer to understand, and in a sense is a little shocking. Yet what it seems to do is to peal off that layer that allows us to keep our inner self hidden, and reveals that horrific interior to the world. Here the face has been removed to show us what is behind it, and in one sense the face is the final mask that we hide behind, and when the face is pealed off then the true horror of our nature is exposed.

The Mortal Body

Thus we come to the end of the exhibition, and also of the one thing that many of us try to avoid: our mortality. In many ways we try to do so much to stave of the inevitable nature of death, or to make sure that our name and our legacy are not lost to the mists of history. Sure, there are many that are only focused on the now, but there are also many, if not all of us, seeking immortality, either physically or memorially. In a way it feels as if we are still remembered, and talked about, then a part of us is still alive, and it is only when people stop talking about us that we truly die.

This is exemplified by Rodin's Pierre de Wissant, a citizen of Calais who offered himself as a sacrifice to the invading Edward III in 1347. This sacrifice in one sense ends his life - it is a part of his immortal nature - but the statue is creating a memory of him thus either keeping him from trying dying, or bringing him back from the dead. This statue comes from a work known as the Burghers of Calais, which represented the six citizens to offered themselves up to Edward.

We also have piece by Chinese artist Xu Zhen, called Eternity. Here we have ancient Greek and Ancient Chinese sculptures and are said to reflect the changing nature of the world and of culture. In a sense these societies are long since dead, and the cultures, and in turn religions are only remember from the ruins, and the texts. Yet despite them being dead, there is something immortal about them in that they are being remembered, and thus are not forgotten.

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Vs Rodin - The Sculptor and his Influences by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


  1. I meant to comment on this earlier, but I read it on my lunch, and ran out of time. I really enjoyed this post. There is a good collection of Rodin at the Norton Simon museum in Pasadena (an easy day trip from where I live) including the iconic The Thinker. I rather enjoy seeing his works in person, because pictures just can't capture the energy and emotion that you can see in 3d. If you ever find yourself in the LA area, it is well worth a visit.

  2. I agree. I find it hard to write about sculptures as you end up losing the three dimensional aspect when you post photos of them. I certainly keep the Museum in mind if I ever make it out to California.