The 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death has given art museums across the world an opportunity to showcase their holdings and to re-evaluate his achievements. His body of sculptural work epitomised a visceral response to the challenge of rendering the human figure as a crucible of inner forces.
It was once said that a number of his figures look to have been spat out by a volcano. This insight certainly applies to The Walking Man torso (in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection). This brutally modelled torso conveys a sense of flesh and bone being pressed into service as human form, then hacked and extruded to push it to the edge of recognition.
Another work, the ever-mysterious The Inner Voice looks like a figure recovered from the pumice beds of Pompeii. And what a figure – composed of fragments and ghosts of others – the legs of Adam, the belly and torso of Rodin’s assistant, mistress and muse, the sculptor Camille Claudel, and the aquiline profile of a Roman bust. Versus Rodin curator Leigh Robb suggests that the “undulations of flesh… resemble a landscape more than a body seemingly in a moment of metamorphosis, perhaps metamorphosing into Nature herself”. Here is the heartland of Rodin’s creative journey, the subjugation of appearances in search of what he described as the spirit that is held within the envelope of the body. Then again he also said that sculpture “is the art of the hole and the bump”.
Sarah Lucas, Britain, born 1962, Realidad, 2013, cast bronze, bricks, 44.0 x 43.0 x 57.0 cm, Private collection, © Sarah Lucas, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
There are a lot of holes in Versus Rodin. These are the imaginative spaces that Robb has envisaged being filled by the thoughts of viewers as they move through what is a large (around 100 works) exhibition. Into this space add the implied conversations taking place between a cross-media body of individual works. With so many of the contemporary artists in this exhibition favouring modes involving fragmentation, and mashups, Rodin’s legacy appears intact. Russell Kelty, one of the essay contributors to the beautifully designed publication (check out the new generation of Rodin photo details), comments on this aspect. “Rodin’s partial figures … presented a new and expanded field for sculptors in which they, not a narrative or tradition, could define their own aesthetic.”
Priming viewers’ thoughts through the division of the display into themed rooms; ‘The classical body’, ‘The tortured body’ and so on has meant that the Gallery’s Rodins have been dispersed and are hopefully looked at in terms of specifics of form and content. The Gallery’s previous Rodin showcase was the 2007 exhibition Rodin: Genius of Form, curated by Jane Messenger, which was the first time the collection had been displayed in its entirety. It was beyond this elegant exhibition’s remit to unpack the contemporary resonance of individual works.
Cecily Brown, Britain, born 1969, Boy with a Cat, 2015, oil, pastel on linen, 109.2 x 165.1 cm, Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg, Sydney, © Cecily Brown, courtesy Thomas Dane Gallery, London
Versus Rodin has taken Rodin to a new place where, even the seemingly ‘straightforward’, smaller figure studies have something new to say. An example is Iris, study with head. No longer anchored to a plinth or locked in a vitrine, this sculpture launches off a bordello red wall with raunchy exuberance, performing a naughty can-can routine with vulva front and centre. Casts of this bronze, incidentally, were owned by Lucien Freud and Sylvester Stallone. Freud in later years, sited his Iris at the end of the bed to be the first and last thing he would see each day. For a focus of Rodin’s sexualisation of his subjects, Lisa Slade’s essay ‘Fugitive figures and the matter of sex’ will take you there – all 15 shades of bronze. For contemporary resonance (in this exhibition) take your pick of Julia Robinson’s The Golden Spine (invoking fertility rituals) or Louise Bourgeois Janus (two phalluses ‘split’ by a vulvic form). There are others if you know where and how to look. Sex after all, was one of Rodin’s two great subjects. The other was male genius.
As thematic hangs go, everything flows seamlessly. Creative theatrical lighting and colour transitions enhance visual seduction to the point where it seems all too easy to accept that these extremely diverse objects all, somehow, belong together. Wall labels extend the enchantment (an NBN player “in the midst of a very public rapture – a sublime encounter with the divine”), but in the interest of enticing a viewing public into the metaphoric realms of the body, all is forgiven.
Guy Maestri, Australia, born 1974, Xerox no. ll, 2016, painted bronze, concrete, 56.0 x 17.0 x 17.0 cm, © Guy Maestri, courtesy Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane
The audacity of the third gallery in which all works are perched on oversized platforms leaving viewers to look up and shuffle along alleyways between takes this gallery closer to a point where the physical circumstances of viewing may matter more than what individual works have to say. In this context, Rodin’s The Three Shades look diminished but Huma Bhabha’s totemic Privileged Attendant and Ugo Rondinone’s nude (xxxxxxx) looked terrific.
Winners and losers. The gallery featuring Rodin’s Bust of Saint John the Baptist, Gillian Wearing’s identity heist photographs and the welcome return of Mike Parr’s powerhouse self-portrait etching series, plus additional plinth ‘heads’ has great cohesion. Versus Rodin with its large and stellar line-up of local, national and international artists could probably have got the job done in terms of contextualising Rodin’s contemporary credentials with half the number of works. But on the up side, with many outstanding works sourced from private collections, this exhibition demands to be seen. Examples include a number of ‘block figures’ by Antony Gormley, a Kara Walker animation, some monumental William Kentridges, Louise Bourgeois works on paper and a wall-devouring Chris Ofili canvas. Subtexts of brutalism and trauma, explored in Maria Zagala’s essay ‘The torture garden’, act as subversive counterweights to overt or covert classicism which always wants to reclaim the figure. So more power to Ben Leslie’s artfully butchered slabs of timber, Kentridge’s brutish figures, Waker’s grotesqueries and Rondinone’s blocks of stone. Rodin’s studio, after all, with its bits of human figures lying around, must have resembled a charnel house.
Versus Rodin: Bodies across time and space
Art Gallery of South Australia
Until Sunday, July 2
Header image: Auguste Rodin, France, 1840–1917, Pierre de Wissant, monumental nude, c.1886–87 (Coubertin Foundry, cast 1985), Paris, bronze, 215.0 x 100.0 x 60.0 cm, William Bowmore AO OBE Collection. Gift of the South Australian Government, assisted by the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 1996, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide