Dismembered but not disembodied:
The impact of Rodin one hundred years on
by Becca Freezer
Auguste Rodin was a passionate observer of the human form who challenged the conventions of his time to discover an impressive number of ways to interpret the body and pave the way for modern sculpture. On the occasion of the centenary of his death, the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA, Adelaide) presents Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time.
Curator Leigh Robb combines Rodin's art with over 200 pieces by some 65 local, national and international artists. It is the exhibition’s permeable division into seven themed galleries: The classical body; The fragmented body; The erotic body; and so on, that not only encourage the viewer to reinterpret the complexity of Rodin’s artistic evolution but also mediate the cacophony of “duets and duels” between modern and contemporary representations of the human form—and its explorations of the underlying conditions of human existence.
The twenty Rodin bronzes on display are entirely from the Gallery’s significant archive, acquired from patron and enthusiast, William Bowmore in 1996, and it stands as the largest collection of its kind in the southern hemisphere. In a precarious arts-funding landscape, Versus Rodin allows AGSA to play to its strengths. Although Rodin’s most stratospherically famous works are noticeably absent from the exhibition, the decision seems intentional rather than circumstantial. The Thinker, 1880, appears briefly in Edward Steichen’s photograph, Rodin – Le penseur, 1903, as you enter and exit the downstairs exhibition space and, of course, in miniature reproductions available for purchase at the gift shop. Yet inclusions of these works, as Leo Steinberg can attest, would have somewhat obscured the complexities of the artist’s life and legacy. The radical elements of Rodin’s art that inspired generations of sculptors are not necessarily what defined the prominence of the French master’s crowd-pleasers. Instead it was Rodin’s ability to use bronze to represent living flesh and his interest in expressing extreme psychological states that were highly influential upon modern and contemporary artists alike.
“His tragic sense of man victimised is expressed through a formal intuition of energies other than anatomical,” Steinberg writes. “It is here,” he continues, “that Rodin links up contemporary vision.” While Rodin utilises the legacy of classical antiquity, he simultaneously transcends the limits of its representations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his powerful study for The Burghers of Calais, 1884-95, titled, Pierre de Wissant, monumental nude, 1886-87. As the focal point of the exhibition’s first gallery, The classical body, Pierre’s tormented vulnerability is juxtaposed against the perfect physiques of Greco-Roman antiquities. The reinterpretation of the classical, idealised body, is further realised by the work’s surrounding artists. Male vitality, heroism and athleticism are explored in Paul Pfeiffer’s Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, No.18, 2004; Wolfgang Tillman’s Dan, 2008; and After Jean Bernard Restout’s Sleep, 2009, by Kehinde Wiley. Such works, like Rodin’s, impart a sense of humanity with an acute and subversive historical self-consciousness.
Also included here is Bill Henson’s Untitled, 1994-95, photograph of a full-frontal nude, young male. A startling and appropriate introduction to the exhibition, it hangs seemingly without furore, less than a decade since the 2008 Roslyn Oxley9 fracas and three years after Henson’s involuntary exit from the 2014 Adelaide Biennial. The impact space and time can make to the way we look at and think about the human body and its relationship to art becomes increasingly apparent.
Situated amongst his contemporary counterparts it is easy to lose sight of how innovative and revolutionary Rodin’s work was in its own time. Yet The fragmented body, reinforces Rodin’s continuing influence on successive art movements. It was Rodin’s attraction to the beauty and integrity of Greek archaeological fragments that allowed him to consider partial figures, denuded of narrative, as finished works in themselves. This would become his most lasting influence, continued over a century later, as seen most explicitly in Finger churches, 1994 by Dennis Oppenheim; Four Hands, 2001, by Bill Viola; and Urs Fischer’s Foot, 2016.
The fragmentation of the body in turn inspires the notion of the fragmentation of self-construction in Australian Dance Theatre’s Gary Stewart led performance piece, Doppelgänger, 2017. In a work that will recommence in The emotive body gallery next month— five identically dressed dancers wear custom-made masks that are printed with the face of lead performer Matt Roffe. There are connotations of multiple personalities and a fluidity of gender (one incarnation of Roffe is categorically female). The replicated bodies shadow and interact with one another as an almost continuous flow of connected movements and energies, evocative of Rodin’s practice. Rodin turned to dance and the expression of movement in his sculpture and drawings in the latter part of his life. The dissevered body of Flying Figure, 1890-91, displayed within the rouged walls of The erotic body, was inspired by the nouveau style of a dancer from Montmartre.
The iron blockworks of Antony Gormley’s Clutch, 2007, positioned in their abstract and modernist forms contrast beautifully with the figurative works within the gallery. By Gormley’s own admission, his realisations of the body are not about representation but, like Rodin, an attempt to “engage the total sensorium of consciousness.”
Gormley’s figures appear at the mid-point of the exhibition, which gives rise to its physical, conceptual and experiential apex. Gallery four is the exhibition’s title track, The body across space and time. Here the sculptures are raised to eye level, tilting the viewer’s gaze to a multiplicity of figures. Not only is this an homage to Rodin’s Meudon studio, so too is modern and contemporary sculpture elevated to the phenomenological power of its classical predecessors. Robb implies the Versus of the exhibition title by putting Rodin’s contemporary successors on the same platform, the same level playing-field, as the master sculptor. The sculptures are effectively saying to one another, “I challenge thee to a duel.”
Versus Rodin is supported by a comprehensive publication, in which Robb asks, “what is at stake today in the representation of the body?” In an image-saturated era, obsessed with the display of the body, what becomes crucially relevant in Versus Rodin, is the embrace of a diversity of bodies outside of white heteronormative. It is “imperative to celebrate bodies that have been ‘othered’; or marginalised throughout history,” asserts Robb. Versus Rodin, in turn, encourages a visibility and multiplicity of voices in a “space where sexual and gender fluidity become visible and where queer and transitioning bodies are better respected, acknowledged and celebrated.”