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Rodin - Royal Academy

Feature by James Haddrell

IN 1877, at the age of 37, Auguste Rodin unveiled the sculpture which was to give him his first taste of both fame and notoriety, and which, in many ways, set out the artistic terms which were to define the rest of his career.

Originally known as The Vanquished (Rodin’s own title) and known today as The Age Of Bronze, the full length male nude is the opening work in the *Royal Academy*’s fabulous retrospective of the sculptor’s work.

The figure is clearly modelled on Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, which Rodin had seen during his recent travels to Italy, but the work has changed significantly from the sculptor’s initial intentions.

Early plans depicted a classically-inspired soldier struggling to remain upright, resting his weight on a spear held in his raised left hand. The final version, which lacks the spear, turns the figure into an everyman, the embodiment of the notion of defeat in any arena.

Just as importantly, however, he has also become a man in motion. Without the support which Rodin’s model clearly used to pose, the figure could not remain upright in its unsupported position and must therefore be either rising up or falling forwards.

The lack of the traditional prop, in both senses of the word, and the rough surface of the sculpture for which Rodin is now so celebrated led one contemporary critic to suggest that ‘the work of M. Rodin is a study, rather than a statue’.

Attacked from one side for being unfinished, the sculpture found itself at the heart of a contradicting criticism – that it was simply too life-like and must, therefore, have been cast from a living model. Outraged at the claim, Rodin produced the model on which the work was based – a Belgian soldier – and had him pose to highlight the differences between the man and the sculpture.

“The cast only reproduces the exterior,” he said. “I reproduce, besides that, the spirit… I accentuate the lines which best express the spiritual state…”

Ironically, it is this ‘spiritual state’, found by moving beyond the simple imitation of living models, which brings his sculpture to life, so as a result the least satisfying works in the current retrospective are those society portraits produced after he had found fame, the works which seek to imitate a specific individual.

Compared to the elongated, personified scream of the Prodigal Son or the contorted, animalistic Crouching Woman, the busts of the Edwardian society hostess Mary Hunter seem strangely dead – an odd criticism to make of a static sculpture, but an inevitable one when placed next to Rodin’s other mercurial figures.

However, this seems a churlish criticism of one small strand in an otherwise incredible body of work and putting the few portrait works aside, there are simply too many unmissable works in the exhibition to mention.

The Thinker, The Kiss and the highly publicised Gates of Hell (erected in the courtyard outside the gallery – probably as close to their intended location on the front of an unrealised Parisian museum as they are likely to get) are the sort of works which over exposure threatens to disarm but in this case the never-ending series of derivative merchandise cannot lessen the impact of the original works.

Among the lesser known works The Danaid and Illusions Fallen To Earth both show figures apparently emerging from solid ground, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s unfinished works, but their fragile life is no less vital despite the fact that the sculptor has left every sign of their artificial creation.

Nothing in the exhibition, however, can come close to the statuesque, tormented Burghers Of Calais.

Commissioned by the French government to commemorate six heroes of French history, Rodin’s sculpture went against monumental tradition and returned to the original story and the ordinary people at its heart.

According to the 14th Century Chronicles of Jean Froissart, in 1347 Edward III had crippled the town of Calais with an 11- month siege.

The English King offered to spare the town if six of its civic leaders sacrificed themselves, presenting him with the keys to the town and accepting their presumed execution in exchange for the lives of the townspeople.

By the 19th Century, the six burghers had come to embody ultimate notions of idealised French heroism but Rodin’s sculpture depicts them as six ordinary men, dressed in the plain robes and the nooses demanded by Edward and wrestling with their selfless, suicidal decision to save their town.

Reacting variously with fear, despair and staunch resolution, Rodin’s figures redefine the notion of heroic memorial sculpture, making a virtue not of idealised bravery but of sheer desperate humanity, prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice but struggling not to collapse under the debilitating emotion of that decision.

If there is any work of art which can embody the sheer bloody desperation of humanity in its most tortured state it’s not Francis Bacon’s violently distorted portraits, Edvard Munch’s Scream or Van Gogh’s manic depressive landscapes. It’s Rodin’s quietly heartbreaking Burghers of Calais.

Picture Caption: Auguste Rodin, The Gates of Hell, c. 1890

Rodin
Until Monday, January 1, 2007
Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
020 7300 8000; www.royalacademy.org.uk
Open daily 10am-6pm; Friday 10am-10pm
Admission: £10.00; various concessions