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Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, c.1910. Photo: Albert Harlingue, © Musée Rodin

For much of his life, Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917, suffered from an undiagnosed complaint: an ailment the Germans call Ruinenlust — ruin lust. He was hardly the first: Shelley cast it in poetic form in “Ozymandias” while in 1767 the philosophe Denis Diderot succinctly defined its morphology: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures.”

For the early part of his career, Rodin’s Ruinenlust had lain dormant but in 1881, aged 41, he came to London for the first time and visited the British Museum where he saw the Elgin Marbles. Their mixture of the perfect and the weathered, the whole and the fragmentary, had a profound effect on his art. It was far from his first encounter with the sculptures: he knew them from books and casts and from the stately Parthenon fragments in the Louvre, but nevertheless, in the British Museum, their sheer amplitude and variety took him by surprise.

What struck him most forcibly was what might be termed “the poetry of imperfection”. Unlike the Neoclassicists who preceded him, Rodin was not interested in flawlessness or Winckelmann’s idea of an ideal body as indicative of an ideal society; rather, it was the sculptures’ very fragmentariness that was so evocative. One of the reasons Rodin never carved his works (despite often posing for photographs chisel in hand) but modelled them for later casting was because it gave him greater scope for expressiveness. The knocked-about surfaces of the Parthenon statues showed him how to take this further.

Rising goddess, figure K from the west pediment of the Parthenon, c.438–432 BC, © The Trustees of the British Museum

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