The French sculptor Auguste Rodin is returning to the British Museum, which in his lifetime he visited so often he said he “haunted” it. His own works, and drawings he made on notepaper filched from his hotel just across the road, will be displayed beside some of the Parthenon marbles, which he regarded as the greatest works of art of all time.
The loans coming from Paris, for the exhibition opening on 26 April, will include Rodin’s own copy of his most famous sculpture, The Kiss, a work seen as shockingly erotic in his day. The plaster cast, kept in his studio for the rest of his life, was made from the original marble, and later versions of the sculpture were copied.
It will be displayed beside the ancient Greek statues that inspired it, the two reclining goddesses, one lying voluptuously back across the lap of her companion, from the east pediment of the Parthenon. Rodin’s figures are naked, and the women clothed – the museum’s curator Ian Jenkins described them as “eroticised by their draperies” – but both groups were carved from single massive blocks of marble. The goddesses lost their heads in antiquity, while the heads of Rodin’s couple are blurring back into their marble.
“The Kiss is the finest and most relevant response in art to the Parthenon sculptures,” Jenkins said.
Another of the Rodin sculptures depicts the goddess Athene wearing the Parthenon on her head as a diadem. Jenkins suggests that Rodin has portrayed her actually giving birth to the temple, as she herself was born from the head of Zeus.
The exhibition will recreate the effect Rodin himself sought in displays in his studio, where he showed his new works side by side with classical sculptures. The loans from Paris – Rodin left the entire contents of his home and studio to the French state on his death in 1917 – will include some of the fragments of antique marble he collected by the crate load, including shattered heads, disembodied arms, hands, eyes, lips, a single sandalled foot, and scores of fingers and toes.
Rodin revered above all the 5th century BC Greek sculptor Phidias, believed to be the genius who designed the Parthenon sculptures, though the actual marble carving would have been carried out – as Rodin’s was – by craftsmen following his clay originals.
Bénédicte Garnier, curator of the Musée Rodin, said the sculptor cherished the belief that some of his fragments were the work of Phidias. “We believe now sadly that this is not true – but it is possible that some of them could perhaps have been part of the Parthenon.”
Creating the exhibition will involve partly emptying one of the British Museum’s most popular and most controversial galleries, built to house the Parthenon marbles stripped from the Acropolis in Athens by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century. Their arrival in the UK was contentious then and has been ever since, with repeated demands from the Greek authorities for their return.
Some of the most superb of the carvings, including figures from the pediment and the frieze, will be moved into the Rodin exhibition: Jenkins said it was the most significant intervention since the present gallery was created.
One panel from the Parthenon frieze, a man turning back and shading his head to call to his companion, will be paired with the sculpture in which Rodin came closest to direct imitation. His Age of Bronze, a standing naked man with one arm raised, was so realistic the artist was accused of casting the bronze from a plaster cast taken from a living man. In other works, he emulated the battered originals by creating figures without heads or arms. “By doing so he created a new genre of contemporary art – the headless, limbless torso,” Jenkins said.
Rodin never actually visited Greece. His knowledge of the Parthenon came from books, and the sculptures in the Louvre and the British Museum. He first visited the Bloomsbury museum in 1881, and returned at least 15 times. In 1902 he said “in my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum”. His last visit was months before his death in 1917.
He usually stayed in the Thackeray, directly opposite the main entrance of the museum. In 1915, it was advertising “electric light throughout, bathrooms on every floor”, and offering bed, breakfast and table d’hôte dinner for 8s 6d – but rather surprisingly for the temporary home of a French artist, it also boasted that it was a temperance hotel.
Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, said that although other artists had been inspired by the Parthenon sculptures, Rodin had responded “with a passion that was to last a lifetime”.