The British Museum’s astonishing, ravishing, sublime new exhibition – I could add a lot more superlatives and still be understating it – brings you face to face with the most revolutionary sculptures ever created. It also has some fine works by Auguste Rodin.
The wonder hits you as soon as you enter and find yourself confronted by Rodin’s The Kiss sharing a pedestal with two goddesses carved two and a half millennia ago. The Kiss is, well, it’s The Kiss – one of the most sensual and captivating masterpieces of modern times, a provocatively erotic blast of free love that shook Paris in 1882. It is one of the best-known, best-loved sculptures in the world. And those old Greek goddesses blow it away.
Partly, it is a matter of sheer heft. The version of The Kiss exhibited here is a delicate white plastercast loaned, like most of the Rodins here, by the Musée Rodin in Paris. The goddesses were carved from a huge block of marble by the Greek artist Phidias and his team. They had the inspired idea of letting two figures flow into one, with the front goddess reclining against her companion’s lap as their bodies interfold under rivers of exquisitely carved drapery.
If Rodin’s Kiss is sensual, so is this, but in a more mysterious way. These beings are superhuman yet human, ethereal and carnal, soft and strong. They make The Kiss appear slight and easy, like a piece of soft porn exhibited beside, well, beside the Parthenon marbles.
For this pair of nameless and – due to a gunpowder explosion when Athens was under Turkish control – headless divinities are part of the stupendous array of carvings Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon at the start of the 19th century and shipped to London. The debate about the ethics of what Elgin did has been raging for more than 200 years and this exhibition won’t change that. Its title is perhaps an attempt to deflect the argument, though, for this show is not about Greek art in general but rather about Rodin’s obsession with the Parthenon marbles – and how modern, how alive, how strange and dreamlike they look when we see them through his eyes.
There was a time not so long ago when the classics needed no defenders. Classical, from the Latin for “the highest class”, means best. In Athens in the 5th century BC, a style of art was invented – at once acutely real, viscerally carnal and otherworldly – that so impressed later generations, it became “the classical”, the best, the definition of great art.
Today, we have an arsenal of words to dismiss it: formal, rigid, cold, deathly, even Eurocentric. That’s why a lot more people rage about ownership of the Parthenon marbles than actually take much time to look at them. Artistic taste in the 21st century is so far from revering the ancient that, to get some proper aesthetic attention for these supreme masterpieces, the British Museum has to bring in a famous modernist. If Rodin saw something in these old stones, maybe we can too – that seems to be the logic.
And it works brilliantly, because Rodin really did love the Parthenon sculptures. From an 1896 bust of his friend Mariana Russell posing as Pallas (Athena) with the Parthenon sprouting from her head, to sketches of the Parthenon marbles he made while staying in a hotel across the road from the British Museum (to be near them), there’s abundant evidence of his passion.
This flows through what amounts to a complete retrospective of his dizzying career. Two full-size versions of The Thinker, an array of swarming images in plaster, marble or bronze from his masterpiece The Gates of Hell, and even The Burghers of Calais, brought from its usual home by the Houses of Parliament, reveal the boundless imagination and boldness of Rodin.
We find it hard to describe innovation except in terms of generational war: the new must crush the old. So it is all too tempting to think an artist like Rodin, who invented modern sculpture singlehandedly, must have despised the past. This exhibition provides ample evidence of how erroneous that is. It includes Rodin’s own collection of ancient Greek and Roman art. Some coins? A piece of amphora? No, he bought full-sized classical statues including a torso of Aphrodite and a youthful Hercules. He loved what time has done to them: their broken bodies inspired his own incomplete images of human forms tortured by pain and longing.
Rodin understood that one of the most powerful ideas in ancient art is pathos. Greek art is addicted to the body but that doesn’t make it simply sexual. The body can express pain in tautened muscles, harrowed poses. That is why The Burghers of Calais, with its anguished figures expressing tragedy to their fingertips (literally – those twisted fingers say it all), is the most truly Greek of Rodin’s masterpieces even though it has a medieval theme.
Interwoven with his works are some of the greatest sculptures from the Parthenon, brought across the museum from their usual home in the dreary, outdated Duveen Galleries and shown here much more intimately that ever before – low down, close up, with perfect lighting, and even delicately cleaned. My god, what art. A centaur is throttling a human of the Lapith tribe. Its thumb presses against the vulnerable neck with terrifying naturalism. What I’ve never noticed before is the totally convincing thumbnail that digs into the skin. All carved in marble.
Cold? Rigid? Rodin didn’t think ancient Greek art was either of those things and nor will you after seeing the mad, marvellous exhibition that the British Museum’s sensitive Hellenophile curator Ian Jenkins has created with the Musée Rodin.
Maybe what Rodin really has in common with the creators of the Parthenon is an insatiable appetite for life. Karl Marx called ancient Greece the happy childhood of humanity. That captures the joy and optimism we can still feel in the Greek vision. Of course, there is pain aplenty in the Parthenon sculptures. Yet it is part of an epic sense of the complex marvel of existence that bursts out of this exhibition like Athena from the head of Zeus. Rodin was right. The Parthenon marbles are the greatest works of art on earth, wherever they are housed.