The British Museum’s latest exhibition is a showdown between two great stars of the sculpture world. One, is an anonymous group of marble carvers who lived over 2,000 years ago in the towns of Ancient Greece. The other, is a 19thcentury Frenchman who is credited as the first modernist sculptor.
The setting is the British Museum; the London institution which contains one of the finest collective of ancient Greek marbles in the world – including the famous Parthenon sculptures and friezes which were “taken” from Athens’ Acropolis by Lord Elgin (A recently built museum in the Greek capital to house them hasn’t heeded efforts to have them returned). Rodin, who became obsessed with ancient carvings despite rebelling against contemporary Neo-Classical movements, first witnessed Elgin’s marbles in 1881 while visiting London.
The exhibition contains some of the Frenchman’s most famous works (each in part inspired by these ancient carvings) many of which are on loan from the Musée Rodin in Paris. Placed between their ancient peers, which although are now known to have been once brightly painted in monochrome palettes, each work appears stark and there is a frank sense of testosterone felt by Rodin as he dramatically chips and chisels in a bid to recreate the power of ancient feats but in the modern era.
The first room contains three of Rodin’s most famous works; The Kiss, The Age of Bronze and The Thinker, each of which have an enormous sense of power in the British Museum’s Palladian setting. In the centre of this mix are two of the most famous Parthenon stones; two headless, reclining goddesses.
The show cleverly addresses the values of each of the respective sculptural schools. Alongside one another, the surfaces of the stone come alive. They are resplendent in detail, tactile and each incredibly narrative. While the ideas of Greek art appear in Rodin’s works, it feels like the vice versa can also be recognised – if you reverse the arrow of time then could the works of these Greek carvers, have in fact been looking forward towards Rodin’s Modernist tendencies?
Rodin’s other seminal works; the Burghers of Calais and The Walking Man both stride further towards this sense of shattering the past – much like the broken remains of ancient art, where lines and forms are moulded through reduction (historical) versus reduction (artistic).
Not only this a rare opportunity to study a wonderful collection of ancient marbles, the show is a brilliant mini-retrospective of Rodin’s greatest works all under one roof. And, while most of these works can normally be seen for free dotted around London and Paris, the wonderful curation worked by the British Museum staff brings these statues a new historical context. We will let you decide who won the competition however.
Words by Toby Mellors
Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece at the British Museum, London, until 29 July 2018.