Auguste Rodin ‘haunted’ (his word) the British Museum from the first of his many visits to London in 1881. He was aged forty-one, and already a lauded and successful sculptor, highly attuned to the power and beauty of ancient Greek art. This fine book is published to coincide with the exhibition ‘Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece’ at the British Museum, which has brought together Rodin’s sculpture and Greek art in a monumental show of force, clearly demonstrating the purpose of museums to all who may be unsure.
Rodin studied Greek and Roman sculpture in Paris and Brussels in his student days, and for years drew extensively from plaster casts of the Elgin Marbles, now referred to as the Parthenon sculptures. He himself became a collector, picking up bits of broken classical figures where he could and buying reduced versions of parts of the Parthenon frieze from street vendors in Paris. ‘Though they are broken,’ he said, ‘they are not dead; they are vibrant.’ By the time of his last visit to London in 1914, he had grown wealthy from his art, and his collection, displayed in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon in southwest Paris, had grown to include many hundreds of sculpture fragments.
The Parthenon sculptures became his particular obsession. Rodin’s initial visit to London came as a result of a commission from the French government to create a monumental doorway for a proposed museum of decorative arts in Paris. This became what we know as The Gates of Hell, inspired by Dante and Baudelaire. As Bénédicte Garnier puts it, Rodin ‘continued to work on it, intermittently, for the rest of his life, adding to it and abstracting from it, removing each of its numerous fragments, like an archaeologist, and reinventing them.’ As Rodin haunted the British Museum, so The Gates of Hell haunt this book. The Parthenon sculptures were the fundamental source for Rodin’s Gates. The fragmentation and damage they had suffered enthralled him and showed him how the broken and partial human form could evoke humanity with a kind of transfixing emotion that the whole and wholesome body was unable to match.
The book is clear about what the Parthenon was and what it was not. The authors point out that the Parthenon was not built as a shrine to Athena, despite the presence of the colossal statue of the goddess, now lost, but as a treasury and votive offering for the victory won in 450 BC by Athens over Persia. The Athenian victory at Salamis determined the Parthenon’s programme of decoration, masterminded by the sculptor Pheidias. The Parthenon was a signal of Athens’s military strength, social security and religious confidence, and the obvious site for a vivid expression of Greek nationhood, where the gods were celebrated on the pediments, the city’s heroes on the metopes and modern Athenian life on the frieze.
Rodin’s fascination with ancient Greek sculpture is part of a long and distinguished French tradition. In the 17th century the Marquis de Nointel, French ambassador to the Ottoman court, was instructed to acquire Greek artefacts for Louis XIV. He also had the foresight to commission drawings of the Parthenon sculptures before a gunpowder explosion in 1687 caused extensive damage. Long before Lord Elgin turned up, the Parthenon suffered a catalogue of minor but cumulative damages, as the broken condition of the sculptures testify, a result not just of this explosion but also abandonment, its use as a quarry and the French-directed purchase of some fragments. After yet another disaster, an earthquake in 1894, Rodin himself campaigned against the restoration of the Parthenon, citing the mainly botched restorations of French cathedrals. Buildings were like the human body, he believed: they come into being, mature and decay, and this cycle should be allowed to run its course.
The book treads lightly over the matter of Elgin’s involvement with the Parthenon, and perhaps overstates the extent to which French and German archaeologists had already lifted bits of it and taken them home. The section headed ‘A French Elgin’, about Auguste de Choiseul-Gouffier, reads like a case for the defence, asserting that had the Revolution not intervened, the French would have taken the lot. Ironically, some of the French acquisitions were captured in the Mediterranean by Nelson in 1803; these ended up in the British Museum with the Elgin Marbles, the presence of which in London underlay the belief that after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 Britain took on the mantle of Athenian democracy.
Rodin’s study of antique Greek sculpture was greatly aided by the extensive practice of making plaster casts. This was a specialist but lucrative industry from which, even in the early 19th century, the British Museum derived significant income. The museum was instrumental in spreading the Parthenon sculptures across Europe: casts made their way from London to Tuscany, Rome, Naples, Paris, Berlin and even back to Athens, where to this very day the Acropolis Museum exhibits the set of casts presented to the city by the British Museum Trustees in 1846. The book notes that the set in Athens is the first strike from the moulds and is therefore of the highest quality – not that the Greek government is satisfied with that.
Rodin spoke and wrote eloquently about his medium. Marble was a living material for him: ‘I always prefer to use Greek marble. It is warmer. It looks as though blood is running just below the surface … as if it has been warmed by the sun.’ At a banquet in his honour in London in 1902, he said: ‘The most interesting part of London is the number of its antiquities. In my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum. It is a most noble institution. My one regret is that I do not have time to frequent it more.’
He must have been a nightmarish visitor for museum staff to deal with because he had a constant urge to touch sculpture, to internalise the shape of an object by feeling it. At Meudon, an observer noted ‘how his fingers tremble when he touches these old stones.’ London was a haven for Rodin: ‘Your beautiful museums, with their marvellous collections, Greek, Assyrian, and Egyptian, awaked in me a flood of sensations, which, if not new, had at any rate a rejuvenating influence; and those sensations caused me to follow Nature all the more closely in my studies.’
With Pheidias, that mysterious ancient genius, as their spirit guide, Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece and the accompanying exhibition have eroded the barriers between museum and art gallery. Actions speak loud. By including in the exhibition eleven of the Parthenon sculptures, each one fundamental to the understanding of Rodin’s artistic life, the British Museum has sought to explain how far their influence has travelled over two hundred years, and why. For the purposes of the exhibition, the marbles were moved perhaps one hundred metres, from the Duveen Gallery to the Sainsbury Wing. In giving them this short journey, the British Museum has shown that it has no intention of tiptoeing around the matter of the Elgin Marbles. It is doing what every great museum should: using its collection to illuminate the continuity of human creativity, enabling one part to shine light on another.